Child survivors of tsunami slowly conquering the sting of memories

Saturday, June 25, 2005

STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Karl Nilsson, 7, was found dazed, battered and alone in a Buddhist temple after the tsunami swept his parents and two brothers away six months ago.

Dr. Marie Guldstrand's family brought him back to Sweden.

Today he lives iwth his grandparents in Boden.

"He has realized the full extent of what has happened, even though he, like many others, held out hope for a long time that his family would be found,"Guldstrand said.

But he also has times when he can play like an ordinary child.

Asians accounted for most of the approximately 180,000 known dead in the catastrophe, but Swedish vacationers suffered some of the heaviest losses among Westerners.

Marie Guldstrand, a Swedish doctor whose family brought Kalle back to Sweden, said he once asked that since Jesus was raised from the dead, "wouldn't it be possible to do that with my parents?"

"He had those existential questions that are completely impossible to answer," said Guldstrand.

Today, Kalle lives with his grandparents in Boden, about 600 miles north of Stockholm, and Guldstrand regularly keeps in touch.

Cold reality has started to sink in for the boy, she said.

"He has realized the full extent of what has happened, even though he, like many others, held out hope for a long time that his family would be found," Guldstrand said.

But he also has times when he can forget the pain and play like an ordinary child.

After a memorial service this month for the boy's lost family -- parents Thomas and Asa, and brothers Olof, 5, and Vilgot, 3 -- Kalle played soccer with other children in the summer sun.

"I have high hopes for Kalle," Guldstrand said. "I think there's high hope when it comes to the children. I think it's harder for adults to handle their grief. They have so many memories ... while children live much more in the present."

Kalle was pictured in newspapers around the world in the days after the Dec. 26 tsunami, holding a sign in English asking about the whereabouts of his family.

When the Guldstrand family found him in the temple -- temporarily converted into a shelter -- he was wearing only underwear and had a broken collar bone, bruises and cuts. He screamed as a medical worker stitched his torn feet without anesthetic.

The following day, he told his story.

He'd been in a hotel room Sunday morning with his brothers and his parents were outside. Suddenly water gushed into the room. When the waves subsided he thought he had been transported to another city.

Wandering alone, he was eventually helped by some Thai people and a Swedish couple who took him to the temple.

So far, 461 Swedes have been confirmed dead, and 82 more are listed as missing and presumed dead. Like Kalle's family, most were in Thailand, a popular destination for Scandinavians escaping the darkness and cold of the winter back home.

While mourning has slowly retracted into the private homes of Swedes who lost family members and friends, the disaster still hangs over the country.

There is lingering resentment toward the government, which many Swedes feel was too slow in providing medical help. As in other Nordic countries, the government has been criticized for waiting several days before sending air ambulances to bring victims home.

For Michael Bergman and his two toddler sons, the horrific memories are starting to subside.

"It was really tough the first three or four months, with nightmares," said Bergman, whose wife, Cecilia, died in the waves. "I couldn't sleep at all -- they were waking up all the time. Now they're starting to relax."

Hannes, whose second birthday will be in July, has started nursery school. His brother, Nils, is 3.

The Bergmans are slowly getting on with their lives in Stockholm after six months of reliving the tragedy.

"There have been a lot of funerals," said Bergman, who also lost seven friends to the tsunami. "I'm sick of funerals."

Bergman said he often thinks of Thai Princess Ubolratana, who lost her own son to the surging waters, but managed to save Hannes by getting a helicopter to take him to a hospital.

"That was a fantastic miracle," Bergman said. "If Hannes hadn't been given a helicopter ride, I don't think he would've been alive today."

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