Thu, Jan 06, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Foreign volunteers respond to televised images of disaster


Hot, sweaty, pink-skinned and carrying a large green holdall, you can tell that Ian Archer has just stepped off the plane when he arrives at the volunteer center in Phuket town hall.

And as soon as he opens his mouth, you cannot help but be impressed by the good intentions of a man on a mission to help people he has never met in a land he is visiting for the first time.

"I've only been here an hour. I have flown in direct so that I can muck in," said the builder from Swanley in Kent. "I've never done anything like this before in my life."

Archer, a father of four, is a sudden convert to direct action, inspired by the contrast between the TV images of suffering he saw in south Asia and the comfort of his British home.

"We were sitting watching TV on Boxing Day when we saw what happened here. We'd had such a lovely christmas -- presents and turkey and all the rest -- that it just broke our hearts. So we decided we should do something."

That something was to collect donations and buy a ?650 ticket (US$1200) into the disaster zone.

"I don't have any work on for the next three or four weeks so I thought that, as I'm a builder, I might as well come over here and offer to help with the reconstruction work," he said.

He has no accommodation or connections in Phuket, cannot speak the language and has few possessions.

The big green bag he lugs around is full of bandages and clothes that his children gave him to donate to children affected by the tsunami.

In some respects people like Archer are a consulate's nightmare. Even though many European countries have flown their citizens home and advised others not to enter the area, such volunteers feel compelled to make a contribution.

Although few have gone to the same lengths as Archer, the volunteer center in Phuket is filled with people who have gone out of their way to offer assistance. There have also been reports of volunteer "tourists" pitching up in the worst-hit areas of Sri Lanka, including the devastated town of Galle on the south coast.

In Thailand, many of the volunteers have played a vital role -- moving more quickly than the authorities. But their duties are not always what they expect. Some arrive with intentions to work as counsellors and find themselves acting as morgue porters, carrying hundreds of stinking corpses from place to place.

Others have been asked to take photographs of bloated corpses so that families can identify the victims. Still more help to update the missing persons Web site and collect DNA samples from relatives.

Some create their own role. Derek Edwards, a golf professional from Edinburgh, put up an offer to help concerned relatives on a news Web site.

More than 200 families contacted him and he spends every day travelling around hospitals, morgues and the town hall trying to track down the loved ones they have lost.

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