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One man's journey from tourist to aid worker

Martin Kräuchi now helps victims of the tsunami

(swissinfo.ch)

A Christmas holiday in the Thai resort of Phuket turned into a life-changing drama for retired watchmaker Martin Kräuchi from Grenchen, northern Switzerland.

Since he ran for his life from the tsunami one year ago, Kräuchi has helped more than 200 victims of the disaster get back on their feet through his charity work.

Kräuchi and his wife first starting going to Thailand on holiday 11 years ago, returning every year to Phuket and making many friends on the island.

Last December the couple were joined by two friends for a holiday in Kamala. They were staying in a house about 800 metres from the beach and woke up on December 26 to chaos outside.

"In the morning I got up to get breakfast ready. I had felt the earthquake earlier in bed but didn't think anything of it. Then I looked out the window and saw lots of people running and lots of cars," Kräuchi recalls.

Imminent danger

Thinking there might have been an explosion, Kräuchi went out to investigate. He started walking against the flow towards the beach. At one point he heard people crying "the water is coming" but still he kept on going, not understanding that danger was imminent.

"I didn't think of water coming from the sea, I thought maybe a pipe was broken. Then about 100 metres before I reached the main road, which is itself about 400 metres from the sea, I suddenly saw the wave, two to three metres high and moving inland."

Although he was in shock, Kräuchi turned and ran back the way he had come. "I saw people who were frozen to the spot watching the wave approaching but my instinct was to run."

The water came as far as the house the friends were staying in but didn't damage it. They decided to stay in Phuket for another two weeks as planned.

"We waited a couple of hours not sure what to do and then we went back to see what we could do to help. And we saw the devastation."

"It is unimaginable if you haven't seen it yourself. Everything was wrecked, everything. There was panic and great loss of life."

Practical help

In the early days, Kräuchi and his friends helped in small practical ways, bringing drinks and food to people they knew.

The idea of setting up an aid organisation came later when we he returned to Switzerland. From that point things moved very quickly.

Within a month of arriving home, inspired and supported by friends and acquaintances from Grenchen, Kräuchi and others had set up a charity to help Tsunami victims – Soforthilfe Tsunami or Immediate Aid Tsunami.

The community they chose to help was Bang Tao, a typical Thai fishing village, south of the resorts of Surin and Kamala. It has a population of 3,500 and lost 50 people in the tsunami.

By the end of February, Kräuchi was on his way back to Phuket with money to pay for practical help. He went on to spend eight months working on the ground in Bang Tao.

"The money we raised has been used to replace lost livelihoods and homes. We've provided materials and labour to have 16 boats repaired, we've replaced fishing nets, fixed motors and built a house for a family of nine children."

Responsibility

Immediate Aid Tsunami works with two organisations at the moment – a local Thai charity called Hands on Thailand and Swiss Solidarity, the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Organisation, swissinfo's parent company.

Kräuchi feels compelled to be present in Phuket to do what he can to contribute. "I have a responsibility now. First towards the donors who have given us money and secondly towards the people who need help in Phuket."

The charity has spent SFr16,000 ($12,200) so far and the commitment is to work for two years in total. "If there were other development projects I could work on after that, I would do it."

Earlier this month, Kräuchi set off for Thailand again, this time to spend five months there.

Surviving the tsunami and witnessing its aftermath has brought out a completely new side to Kräuchi, turning the retired watchmaker into a dedicated aid worker.

"Before I was much more attached to material things but my friends all say I'm different now. I can tell the story over and over but when you haven't seen it yourself, it is unimaginable what these people went through."

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea

Key facts

The tourist destination of Phuket, off the west coast of Thailand, is the country's largest, most populous and most visited island.
More than 5,400 people were killed by the December 26, 2004 tsunami in Thailand and 2,800 are listed as missing.
Donations to Soforthilfe Tsunami Opfer Phuket Bang Tao, UBS 272-373902.01D

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