Tsunami Swedes reflect one year on

As the wounds of Swedes, traumatized by the Asian tsunami which cost them more lives than any other Western nation, slowly heal, many feel they will have special links with Thailand for the rest of their lives.

Some 20,000 Swedes were holidaying in Thailand, a favourite destination for the citizens of the Scandinavian country, when disaster struck on December 26, 2004, taking 543 Swedish lives.

Maria Svärd was on Krabi beach in southern Thailand with 10 members of her family when she saw the sea withdraw, only to return moments later like a white wall of raging water.

Pictures of her sister Karin, who ran towards the wave to warn her children, have been shown around the world as an example of a mother’s courage in the face of overwhelming danger. All family members survived.

“The memory of the enormous power of the water” haunts Maria regularly, she told AFP.

At first she concentrated on helping her children to heal, but then, eight months later, she suddenly felt the heavy strain herself. That’s when she decided she would go back some day.

“I think it may be a good way to make progress,” she said. “To confront such a beach again, to swim, to fight my fears.”

Despite the shock and the grief, some Swedes opted to extend their stay in Thailand after the quake to help, and many plan to go back to the Thai beaches to exorcise the ghosts that have haunted them for a year.

Hundreds of survivors and relatives of the victims are expected to travel to Thailand for the first anniversary of the disaster and many of them have said they will continue to make pilgrimages there for the rest of their lives.

“Now we are all going to return to Thailand. I think that will be good, because we’ll see that there is something positive, that it has changed a lot, that they are getting by and so maybe I can also get by,” said Johanna, a 15-year-old tsunami survivor.

Johanna’s thoughts are included in a Stockholm tsunami exhibition featuring reports from Swedish and Asian children, which is to open on December 26.

Many adults and children who survived the wave or lost loved ones also feel a great need to gather at home, in Sweden, with other people who have gone through the same experience.

Every other week, Lotta Polfeldt, a social worker at the Swedish branch of aid charity Save the Children, along with a psychologist, meets young people who lost either one or several siblings in the tsunami.

“In a way, I am feeling worse now (than right after the tsunami), because in the beginning I was in a state of shock. But now I have realized that I will feel like this for the rest of my life,” Polfeldt remembers a girl in the group telling her recently.

Despite their suffering, Swedes do not appear to harbour any fears about Thailand, and tourist travel to the Asian destination seems even to be on the rise.

“Travel has not diminished, the west coast is being visited as much as before, even more,” Katarina Arenhage, Thai travel authority spokeswoman for the Nordic region, told AFP.

Swedish tourism in Thailand dropped off in the months after the catastrophe, but in June 2005 the number of people travelling to Bangkok was up 19 percent compared with the level a year earlier, and up by more than six percent in October.

Many Swedes are grateful for the generosity and solidarity shown by Thai people “and want to support them”, said Marina Lefvert, who runs a travel agency specializing in trips to Thailand.

At a political level, the tsunami aftermath has been catastrophic for Sweden’s government, which has been blasted for a slow and inept response to the crisis that involved so many of its nationals.

A recent official report has supported many of the accusations levelled at Prime Minister Göran Persson’s government, especially Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds.

Opposition parties are discussing bringing a motion of no confidence against Freivalds, who spent the evening of December 26 at the theatre, and is accused of failing to mobilize her staff to deal with the crisis.

But amid calls for the resignation of Freivalds, who even freely admitted to not knowing where Phuket was, some believe that it would not make much difference.

“When you’re angry you often need somebody to direct your anger against, or somebody to be found guilty. But it really makes no sense. The dead will not come back again,” said Per Jonsson, who lost his girlfriend in the tsunami.