Sunday, January 02, 2005

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Faith in the Path of the Tsunami

Report From Phuket - Thailand

By Nechemia Wilhelm

As one of the Chabad emissaries living in Southeast Asia, I was dispatched that very night to the hardest hit areas. My mission: to aid with the search and rescue efforts, particularly in regards to the thousands of missing Israelis and other Jewish travelers. Yakov Dvir, the Israeli Consul in Thailand, conveyed an urgent request in the name of Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, director of Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Thailand, that Chabad step in to help. All of us -- the six permanent Chabad rabbis and our families and the twelve rabbinical students now living and working in Thailand -- immediately moved into 24-hour mode, fielding calls, compiling lists, and offering aid and comfort to the survivors.

When I arrived in Phuket the bloated bodies still lined the streets. We had hundreds of names on our lists, with new ones being added every hour. For three days now I have been making my rounds of the morgues, hospitals and makeshift shelters, trying to match faces and fates to the names in my lists. ...

On Monday we found Mattan. We searched for him for two days. The 11-month-old boy was torn from his mother's arms as they played on the beach. Both she and her husband survived the tsunami, but Mattan was nowhere to be seen. On Tuesday morning, Steve and Sylvia Nesima found their son. He was in the makeshift morgue along with the hundreds of other children who had no chance against the monstrous waves. Mattan was flown to Bangkok where Chabad emissaries took turns sitting with him, around the clock, until they put his small body on the El Al plane to Israel, the Holy Land, the only appropriate place where such purity and innocence can be buried...

The Thai government has been incredibly helpful and organized. Now that people have been able to travel here to help, we have been joined by dozens of volunteers who've flown in from Israel. We're all working together, around the clock. No one has yet digested the magnitude of what happened. Right now, there's too much to do to even pause for a moment to contemplate it.

The unity among all the workers is incredible. I was moved to tears when I saw the news reporters join us to help locate and identify the injured and dead. They were no longer looking at the situation through the camera, but through their tear-filled eyes, as they worked alongside the rabbis, government officials and volunteers.

On a larger scale, this disaster has brought people of every race, creed and religion together. There are no divisions in suffering. There are no barriers. Rich, poor, young, old, male, female, were all the same in the eyes of the waves. And now, once again are all the same when it comes to offering aid, support and love.

What keeps us going are the miracles that are sprinkled throughout the horror. Today a 20-day-old baby was found alive, floating upon a mattress in the water. A one-year-old who was torn from his mother’s arms was miraculously recovered by his nanny, seconds before he was submerged in water. A Jewish family of six were scheduled to fly to Ko Phi Phi, the hardest hit of the islands; we feared the worst for them, until we learned that they had missed their flight and were sitting on the runway bemoaning their ruined vacation when the news broke.

Today, when I visited the hospital, an Israeli woman called me over and started crying when she told me her story. She had been traveling by boat with another 41 Israelis. They had just docked at Ko Phi Phi when the waves began to hit. The group ran as fast as they could, but could not outrun the rushing water. They were immediately swept in its path along with debris, trees and cars. This woman was sure her life was over and without time to think, suddenly found herself screaming to others to join her in saying the "Shema" out loud. With the last ounce of strength in her body she cried out the words of the most foundational prayer of the Jewish people, our acknowledgement of the Creator of the World and His oneness. And as she finished the verse, she suddenly felt a log come up from under her feet, keeping her head above water so that she could breathe. Then, as she floated along, she looked upward and saw a rope come down from the sky. The rope had been thrown from her boat, where other survivors had gathered. They pulled her aboard and managed to save 40 of the group. Unfortunately, there are two still unaccounted for...


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