Six coffins, each draped in the blue and yellow Swedish flag, sat on the tarmac at Phuket airport waiting to be loaded into the Hercules transport plane which would bring them home. The plane’s crew formed a makeshift guard of honour while curate Lennart Lindgren led a short ceremony.
Then, one by one, the coffins were carried into the plane as a small band of relatives, government officials and aid workers watched on. It is an image which will live long in the memories of Swedes, but one which will become familiar over the coming weeks.
“These Swedish victims are the first in a horribly long line,” said former commander-in-chief Johan Hederstedt, who is now working with the foreign office in Thailand.
“We are going to hold similar ceremonies for all Swedes who are taken home from Thailand,” he told Expressen. “This is going to be a long and painful process which will continue for several months.”
These first bodies to be brought home since last week’s tsunami swept through holiday resorts in southern Thailand are expected to arrive at Arlanda late on Tuesday.
At a press conference on Monday afternoon the government announced that 827 Swedes are confirmed missing while the fate of another 1,495 is still unclear.
Of those 827, 697 were known to be in Thailand at the time the tsunami struck, while 23 were in Sri Lanka, 11 in India, 7 in Indonesia, 2 in Malaysia and 1 in each of Burma and Borneo.
“Here at home we have just seen the beginning of a road of pain and sorrow,” said Göran Persson. “We don’t dare to think how many of those confirmed missing are dead.”
The prime minister told reporters that the responsibility for working through the lists of missing people would be handed over to the police on Tuesday afternoon.
One of their first decisions will be whether or not to make public the names of people unaccounted for. The government has chosen not to do so, partly to avoid causing relatives unnecessary grief by publishing inaccurate information, but also because there is a fear that the houses of missing families will be burgled.
However, after the Norwegian and Danish governments published lists of their own citizens who were missing there was a significant response. In Norway the number missing was cut from 275 to 150 in less than a day.
“If the police want to give out the names publicly, then that’s their responsibility,” said Göran Persson.
“In which case the police will also have to make sure they protect the property of the people who are on the lists. There are people in our country who wouldn’t hesitate to break into homes if they knew the owners had disappeared.”
The prime minister also announced that on Wednesday there will be three minutes silence throughout the whole EU in memory of the dead and on Saturday churches in every diocese in Sweden will hold memorial services.