Grieving relatives gathered in southern Thailand on Sunday, ahead of memorial services on the first anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 220,000 locals and tourists.
Memorial services for the victims have started in South Asia
Christian Bischof still doesn't know exactly how his son died in the tsunami, only that he and his girlfriend were both killed in Khao Lak when the deadly waves swept ashore on Dec. 26, 2004. So he decided to skip Christmas at home in Munich and to make the journey to Thailand along with his other son, Rolf, in the hopes of making peace with the tragedy that until now had seemed impossibly vague and distant.
"This is important for my own understanding, looking at the sites, to understand what happened," Rolf Bischof said.
"We didn't know what to expect," said his father. "But now we have the feeling, especially after visiting the temple yesterday, that the circle is complete."
The remains of his son, also named Christian, were identified in mid-February. His partner's body was identified a few weeks later, and the two were buried together on April 28. The remains were cremated at Wat Phratong before being repatriated. The elder Bischof said he had feared that the crematorium was an impersonal company.
A Japanese man offers prayers as Buddhist monks chant during a memorial service at Kamala Beach, in Phuket on Sunday
"But the temple is a place full of dignity," he said.
The two men were among hundreds of European tsunami victims who left behind snow and Christmas trees for a sometimes painful trip to see the Thai beaches where their loved died one year ago.
The Bischofs came with about 70 people on a trip organized by the German Red Cross, through a project called "Never-ending Hope," which brought families as well as specialists to provide psychological support during the trip. Funded through donations, many from individual Germans, the group organized a private Christmas Eve service as well as a German-language memorial for about 150 Germans, Austrians and Swiss on the beach in Khao Lak on Dec. 26.
Kusol Wetchakul offers prayers for the soul of his sister, who was swept out to sea near Khao Lak, Thailand
Germany and Sweden suffered the most casualties of any country outside of Asia during the tsunami, with 467 Germans confirmed dead, and 492 Swedes.
"A lot of people asked why they didn't run faster" when the tsunami came, Christian Bischof said. "Now we are very sure that there was no possibility of escaping from the waves. All the families wanted to come to search for their relatives, but now we know that it would have been impossible to look for the missing on our own."
Klaus Gatzke, from the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, lost his 22-year-old son Florian in the tsunami. Florian and his girlfriend were separated when the waves crashed onto land, but she survived, Gatzke said. Florian's body wasn't identified until March 26, and the funeral was only held on April 22, dragging out the grieving process, he said.
"This was the best way we could do it, going with a group of other relatives and with a group of specialists to help us with the mourning," Gatzke said.