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Swedes Feel Loss Without Closure

Tsunami Leaves 1,000 Still Missing; Government's Secrecy Fuels Anger

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A22

NACKA, Sweden -- During a memorial service at a church in this quiet bedroom community outside Stockholm, candles in a circular holder took the place of a coffin. At the schools, chairs have been left empty, sometimes with a photograph, to mark the students and at least one teacher who have not returned. And at the town hall, an office is left vacant in wait for a missing employee who colleagues fear will never return.

This is how Nacka and indeed much of Sweden are mourning their victims from last month's tsunami in southern Asia -- with a strange kind of bereavement that lacks the closure that those being mourned are actually dead.

Carl Dahlback, a pastor of the Church of Sweden in Nacka, is helping people deal with grief. "Everybody wants to hope there can be a miracle," he says. (Keith B. Richburg -- The Washington Post)

Sweden officially lists nine of its citizens as confirmed dead, meaning their bodies have been recovered and returned home for burial. But about 1,000 other Swedes are listed as missing -- either "confirmed missing" or simply "unaccounted for" -- and that number changes almost daily, adding to the confusion and angst.

About 250 people from this relatively affluent community of about 76,000 went to Thailand during the Christmas holidays. Most of them came back, some were injured and traumatized. But about 22 people did not return and are listed as missing, including five people younger than 20, according to town officials.

The Swedish government initially listed more than 3,500 of its citizens as missing, but that number was whittled down as some returned home uninjured and as authorities began merging missing-persons reports into a master list, discovering numerous duplications of names.

Still, if the number remains about 1,000, the tsunami would rank as Sweden's worst peacetime tragedy. It would surpass even the sinking of the Baltic Sea ferry Estonia in September 1994, which took the lives of more than 850 people, 551 of them residents of Sweden.

Without the bodies, without concrete evidence that the missing are indeed dead, it is impossible to say for sure.

"The problem here is you don't have a coffin, you don't have a body," said Hans-Ivar Sward, city hall's security coordinator. "In the meantime, the rest of the family has to live with the uncertainty."

"We have no final end to it yet," said Agneta Jorbeck, who oversees Nacka's 38 public schools. "I hope it doesn't come too late."

The Swedish government has strict procedures on how and when a missing person can be officially declared dead. In normal times, that process can take two years. After the tsunami, parliament voted to streamline the procedures, allowing the legal process to begin in April, but officials said the issuance of formal certificates of death might still take many months.

In Phuket, Thailand, where the vast majority of the Swedes disappeared, the bodies of unidentified victims, both foreigners and Thais, are taken to makeshift morgues in Buddhist temples. DNA samples are taken, and then the bodies are tagged, numbered and temporarily buried in mass graves so they can be easily retrieved if there is a DNA match.

The DNA samples will be put into a master registry, with assistance from experts from China. Officials in Phuket said the process of collecting the samples and finding matches could take months.

Further complicating the picture in Sweden -- and angering many relatives -- has been the government's decision to keep the list of names of the missing a closely guarded secret.

Other Scandinavian countries published the names and, in the process, reduced the numbers as some of the missing reappeared or called in after hearing they were on the list. But Swedish authorities contend that making the names public would invite unwanted media intrusion for the relatives and might also allow thieves to target the homes of missing families, officials say.

At Nacka's Church of Sweden house of worship, built on a hillside in 1891, pastor Carl Dahlback said the facility had become a refuge for people seeking solace. The church at first opened its doors for anyone to come and sit, talk or pray, and is now organizing small support groups to help survivors or people who are missing relatives.

Modern Sweden is an increasingly secular society, Dahlback said, and people coming to the church are generally interested not so much in theology as in the comfort of a familiar place.

"The rituals help us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves," he said, adding that visitors to the church "come in, light a candle and sit down. It shows people need the church as a source of spirituality and hope. It's a symbol of hope."

The church has held several memorial services, keeping them short of full-scale funerals because there is no confirmation of death. The services have consisted of reminiscences about the missing and prayers for their family members, without the explicit statement that the people are dead.

For a pastor, it becomes a delicate balance.

"It's clear that the person is dead, and you have this need to say goodbye. But they have to find the body," Dahlback said. "Everybody wants to hope there can be a miracle. You can't give people an illusion that their people are coming back. But at the same time, you can't take away a person's last hope."

Swedes have compared this tragedy to the ferry sinking, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the September 2003 slaying of the country's popular foreign minister, Anna Lindh. "Those were all traumas," said Jorbeck, the public school official. "It seems like we have to learn something every time it happens."

The Estonia ferry sinking might offer the closest parallel. In that case, the Swedish government made a decision, controversial with many family members, that it would not try to recover the remains of the dead, but would let them rest at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

One lesson learned, they said, was that those affected might need help for months or years. "With Estonia, we left it too fast," Jorbeck said, referring to efforts to console the bereaved. But two or three months later, she said, the shock was still palpable in the classrooms.

Dahlback, the pastor, said that with the Estonia tragedy, people knew immediately that their friends and relatives had died, even if the bodies remained at the bottom of the sea. "This time, there will always be that small, small hope that perhaps he left Thailand before it happened, perhaps he's lying in a hospital somewhere."

"We have to come back to normal life," he said. "It doesn't mean we forget what happened. . . . It will be a lot of work in the coming years."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company