TVE Asia Pacific Director/CEO Nalaka Gunawardene looks back at one of his organisation’s most ambitious and challenging projects: Children of Tsunami, which tracked the recovery of eight families affected by the Asian Tsunami in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
For many weeks, Jantakarn Thep-Chuay -- nicknamed Beam – did not understand why her father was not coming home. The eight-year-old girl, in Takuapa in Thailand’s southern district of Phang Nga, had last seen him go to work on 26 December 2004.
“On that Sunday, the day there was a wave, my dad wore his tennis shoes,” she recalls as she gets into his pair of sandals. “My dad didn’t have to do much work -- he just walked around looking after workers.”
Beam’s father Sukaroak – a construction supervisor at a new beach resort in Khao Lak – was one of hundreds of Thais and foreign tourists killed when the Asian Tsunami hit without warning. His body was never identified.
For months, Beam would draw pictures of her family. These and photos of happier times have helped her to slowly come to terms with what happened.
The first year has been long hard for the family he left behind: Beam, her two-year-old brother Boom, and mother Sumontha, 28. The determined young widow has struggled to keep home fires burning – and to keep her troublesome in-laws at bay. As if that were not enough, she has had to engage assorted bureaucracies: even obtaining an official death certificate for her late husband entailed much effort.
Only a few weeks after the disaster, the local authorities approached Sumontha suggesting that she gives away one or both her children for adoption. Apparently a foreigner was interested. She said a firm No.
“Her dad wanted Beam to become an architect. He was hoping for a day when he could build something she draws,” says Sumontha. “If I am still alive, I want to raise my own children. I am their mother. For better or worse, I want to raise them myself.”
The Tsunami destroyed beam’s school, but she continued to attend a temporary school set up with local and foreign help. Before the year ended, she moved to a brand new ‘Tsunami School’ that the King of Thailand built to guarantee education for all children affected by the disaster.
Sumontha, Beam and Boom are three ordinary Asians who have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and resourcefulness as they coped with multiple challenges of rebuilding their lives after the Tsunami. Theirs is one of eight families that we have followed throughout 2005, as part of an empathetic communications initiative called Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future.
It is a multi-country, multi-media project that sought to track and document how ordinary Asians rebuild their lives, livelihoods and futures after one of the biggest disasters in memory.
The aftermath of the Asian Tsunami was covered exhaustively by the national and international media. But that saturation coverage lasted only for a few days. Soon, they moved on to other stories.
In reality, the story was far from over for millions of Asians who survived. We at TVE Asia Pacific – a regionally operating non-profit organisation that uses television and video to communicate development -- were frustrated by the mainstream media’s coverage. It focused too much on death and destruction, as well as on survivors’ misery and suffering. While the affected countries were preoccupied with three R’s -- relief, recovery and reconstruction -- sections of the media appeared to be only concerned with their own two R’s -- ratings and revenue.
We wanted to instead document the gradual recovery process – and stay on with many evolving stories long after TV news cameras had left the scene.
We realised that the Asian tsunami could be a ‘test’ for how information and communications technologies (ICTs) can support humanitarian assistance and human development. (The broader definition of ICTs includes television and radio.)
We were further inspired by the words of Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite. Writing a few days after the disaster, he said: “Media need to move beyond body counts and aid appeals to find lasting, meaningful ways of supporting Asia’s recovery. The real stories of survival and heroism are only just beginning. Let network TV move on to the next big story. I am confident that the cyber activists and committed local journalists will keep us informed.”
Sir Arthur Clarke urged journalists and development workers to return to Asia’s battered coasts, armed with video and digital cameras, to record the next big waves -- of human spirit and perseverance – that would be coming up shortly.
Click here for full statement by Arthur C Clarke
It was precisely this challenge that we took up in early 2005, when we conceived Children of Tsunami. We decided to work in the four countries that were hardest hit: India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In each country, we found and commissioned a locally based but internationally experienced film-maker team who could capture the stories with empathy and authenticity. With their help, we then identified eight typical families – two in each country – who were affected in one way or another.
After obtaining the families’ informed consent, our filming started in February 2005. We invited a child in each affected family to guide us through the year, as our film crews returned to them month after month. We felt that working with children – even though logistically much harder – would enable us to tell this complex story in a way that appeals not only to minds but also hearts.
Meet the Children of Tsunami
They have never met each other. Yet they were united first in grief, then in survival. Five girls and three boys, between 8 to 16 years of age, living in eight coastal locations in four countries. Their families were impacted by the Asian Tsunami in different ways. Some lost one or both parents – or other family members. Some had their homes or schools destroyed. Others found their parents thrown out of a job. During the year, these families faced many hardships and challenges in rebuilding their futures.
How to order Films
VHS/DVD copies available from TVE Asia Pacific e-shop.
These remarkable children are our personal heroes for 2005:
• Selvam, 13, Muzhukkuthurai, Tamil Nadu state, India
• Mala, 11, Kottaikkadu, Tamil Nadu state, India
• Putri, 8, Lampaya, Aceh province, Indonesia
• Yenni, 15, Meulaboh, Aceh province, Indonesia
• Heshani, 13, Suduwella, southern Sri Lanka
• Theeban, 14, Karaitivu, eastern Sri Lanka
• Bao, 16, Kuraburi, Phang Nga district, Thailand
• Beam, 8, Takuapa, Phang Nga district, Thailand
Click here for longer profiles of all eight children
With their trust and cooperation, we captured their unfolding realities unscripted and unprompted. Based on our filming, we produced a 5-minute video report on each child every month. These video reports were uploaded on to a dedicated, free website and also offered to broadcasters across Asia. A longer documentary, Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues (48 mins) looks back at the year for cumulative impressions. Other media products, including a book and CD-ROM, are being planned.
Although we stayed focused on the eight children, we also covered their families and communities. The year saw some major relief and rebuilding efforts carried out by governments, aid workers and NGOs. Trying to personalise the multitude of statistics, aid pledges and recovery plans, we asked how all this was impacting our eight children, their families and communities. In doing so, we adopted a principle that Mahatma Gandhi had invoked decades ago: look at how a given development effort reaches and touches the last man, woman and child.
Tsunami Plus One: A mixed scorecard
One year later, as we made our first anniversary documentary, some very interesting insights and powerful personal testimonies had emerged. Taken together, our eight case studies offered an indication of the uneven progress made on the road to recovery – one paved with missed opportunities, broken promises, false starts, donor arrogance, government indifference and political bickering.
More encouragingly, we also found, at individual levels, inspiring real life stories of survival, resilience, courage and triumph.
With prior informed consent
The eight families participated in Children of Tsunami project with prior informed consent, and with no financial or material benefits for themselves. (We were careful not to distort the reality we were filming, so we worked within a non-intervention mode: yet, as human beings, our film-maker teams sometimes had to find a meal for a starving family, or a simple new toy for a distraught child, before any filming could commence.) This was a media project and not an effort to raise money or donations for any specific individuals or families. Any and all offers of donations received as a result of media exposure for these families, will be passed on to local groups and NGOs working in their communities.
Click here for highlights of what we found.
In doing Children of Tsunami, we didn’t set out on a fact finding mission or investigative journalism. We just wanted to document the recovery process over the first year, while amplifying voices of eight families and their communities. In that process, we discovered how little the affected people were consulted by governments and charities.
Most agencies engaged in recovery support spoke or wrote passionately about ‘Tsunami victims’ – a phrase we diligently avoided. In practice, few bothered to talk to, or listen to, the very people they were trying to help. Just as the poor are the last to be consulted on numerous strategies for poverty reduction, the Tsunami affected were, in many cases, simply told how they should pick up their shattered lives.
It is this gaping communications vacuum that we tried to fill. Our efforts resonated with many community-based groups and local NGOs, who themselves had been sidelined in what I personally called the ‘Great Tsunami Aid Rush’. Not surprisingly, high-flying agencies that typically study grassroots problems from 30,000 feet above the ground couldn’t understand why our process was important. One even asked us how many houses might have been built using the (modest and tight!) funds we were spending on filming.
We made no claims of opinion surveying, but our small, random sample is a prism through which Asia’s social and economic disparities can be viewed.
Our journey with the eight families ends with the first anniversary. We know their own journeys to recovery are far from finished.
We can only wish them well.
Step-Children of Tsunami?
When the Tsunami triggered massive aid donations, all affected countries pledged to distribute it in a fair, equitable and transparent manner. These well-meaning words didn’t always translate into action. As the aid trickled down layers of government and charities, various biases and distortions crept in.
This disparity was evident when we compared the progress of our two Sri Lankan families. While it wasn’t easy, Heshani’s family in southern Sri Lanka moved into a (donated) new house before the year ended. In contrast, Theeban’s family in the East was still living in a camp, uncertain of their future. While the East was the hardest hit, more relief and recovery support went to the South.
But the most striking example of disparity came from India. We have been following the recovery of Mala and her family in Kottaikadu village, Tamil Nadu. Even months after the disaster, they had received absolutely no relief or recovery assistance. We wondered why.
Officially, it was because no one was killed in her village. But the villagers knew the real reason: in the Indian social hierarchy, they occupy the lowest level, known as ‘Dalits’. That factor figured in aid distribution by both government agencies and various charities.
This was clear when we compared Kottaikadu with its adjoining village of Alambara. They both suffered similar damage: people lost their boats and nets, but no one died. Yet the people of Alambara – who belong to a supposedly higher caste of fishermen -- received boats, food items and fishing nets.
The beneficiaries in Alambara are feeling quite sorry for their neighbouring village. “On the day of the tsunami we ran over 15 kilometers,” said Kuppuraj, a resident ofAlambara. “Kottaikadu villagers, who live just 600 meters away…ran with us -- but nobody has helped them to recover.” – Nalaka Gunawardene
About the author
Originator of Children of Tsunami concept, Nalaka Gunawardene is Director and CEO of TVE Asia Pacific. Trained as a science writer and journalist, Nalaka has worked with print and broadcast media, and later with the United Nations and conservation groups.
Read our May 2005 story on Children of Tsunami project
Read Nalaka Gunawardene's article on Asian Tsunami's powerful lessons in GreenCross International's The Optimist magazine, Winter 2005 issue
Read Sir Arthur C Clarke's post-Tsunami Letter from Sri Lanka in Wired Online