THE BLOG

My Toughest Day As An Aid Worker? The Boxing Day Tsunami

18/08/2017 14:52 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 14:58 BST
Red Cross

I was at home on Boxing Day when I saw the news about the tsunami. My immediate reaction was: 'I'm free, I need to go help.' Within hours I was on my way to Thailand with the British Red Cross.

I've been working with the Red Cross in various medical guises for more than 35 years. My first mission was as a medical officer to Cambodia in 1980, the time of Pol Pot's notorious killing fields. I came close to death while working in Somalia in 1990. I've known conflict in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sudan, and South Sudan. I've stared death in the face on multiple occasions. My toughest day? There have been too many to choose one.

tsunami

But one experience was unique, and that was my involvement in the Boxing Day tsunami response. I was part of a Red Cross psychosocial support team working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our role was to provide practical and emotional support to Britons caught up in the disaster.

We arrived in Phuket having spent some time in the Bangkok hospitals helping the injured and bereaved who had been moved there. Phuket was in ruins. I'd never seen anything like it. Horrifying. There was total destruction. Houses completely ripped apart. Large ships washed inland.

When you're in a war-zone you expect trouble. You're mentally prepared. But for those who were caught up in the tsunami they had no warning. They had seconds to react to this great wall of water coming their way. They'd gone on holiday and instead found themselves caught up in a nightmare.

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People were asking us all sorts of questions: "Have you found our father, we can't find him." "I'm missing my sister, can you find her?" "Why is this happening to us? Who's going to help us?" "Where are the bodies kept, can you take us to the morgue?"

The simple side of our job was the practical support - helping people without passports, repatriation, sorting insurance, putting them in touch with family back in the UK, that sort of thing. The much harder side of our job was the emotional support, helping people come to terms with what they had been through.

Your training just kicks in. You let them know that you are there for them, you listen to them, listen to their stories. People were in a state of complete and utter shock. A holiday turned to tragedy. This wasn't a third-world war-torn country. No one was prepared for the tsunami.

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I've learnt to deal with the trauma and emotions of war. In the heat of the moment you just do your job. You focus on saving lives and helping people as best you can. It's when you get home that it hits you. In the quiet moments you begin to reflect on the people you met and those who lost loved ones. That's when it becomes tough.

One year after the tsunami I returned to Phuket for a memorial service on one of the worst-affected beaches. People who lost loved one brought lanterns to the beach with the names of the deceased written on the side. They let them off into the night sky, dozens and dozens of them. It was a serene and beautiful moment, one that offered some semblance of closure to people who had lost so much.