TIME Cambodia

Cambodian Orphans Yearn for Answers 40 Years After Fleeing the Khmer Rouge

Young Cambodian child at a hospital in Phnom Penh, in March 1975.
Francoise Demulder—AFP/Getty Images Young Cambodian child at a hospital in Phnom Penh, in March 1975.

A daring orphan lift spared scores from the savage communist clique, but left children with no ties home

Here are the things Miika Thoeun Gove knows about her Cambodian origins: a woman claiming to be her grandmother said she couldn’t take care of her. An orphanage took her in. The U.S. embassy arranged for an airlift to California.

By the time the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, Miika had been safely shuttled out, but her identity remained trapped inside. In Cambodia, Pol Pot’s brutal regime set about systematically dismantling all existing systems — killing an estimated 1.7 million people in pursuit of a harebrained “year zero” agrarian utopia. In the process families, institutions and records were obliterated amid one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. In the U.S., doctors estimated Miika’s age by looking at her teeth; new parents assigned a birth date, they gave her a name.

“I don’t know how it worked, there’s virtually no details other than [me] arriving,” she tells TIME. “I don’t even know if that’s the true story.”

Forty years ago this and last month, a series of planes flew into Phnom Penh’s besieged Pochentong airport on a special sortie. The Fighting Tigers at the controls dove down into the tarmac to avoid Khmer Rouge gunfire and — barely cutting the engines — pulled up alongside cargo trucks. With little ceremony, those in the truck began to load the plane with box after box of babies.

“As this telegram is being dispatched,” read a U.S. embassy cable sent just hours after a March 17 airlift, “the orphans are not the only ones heaving a king size sigh of relief.”

At the time of the evacuations, the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic had all but crumbled under the weight of incompetence and corruption, while large-scale American bombing of the countryside sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Phnom Penh for safety. Desperate parents — starving and fearing for their lives — overwhelmed the state-run orphanage; the babies would not stop coming.

Canadian sisters Eloise and Anna Charet arrived in the country just months before the fall to open a private orphanage, called Canada House. Eloise recalled taking babies and toddlers from a room in the state orphanage, “where the children were just left on mats and were left to die. The ants were crawling on them, the flies all around their eyes and mouth … the only thing you could see was the flickering of their eyes once in a while and this room was just packed with children left to die, they didn’t know what to do.”

On March 17, the sisters successfully evacuated all 43 of their charges — an unlikely feat that allowed for scores more to be pulled out in the following weeks by various private agencies and individuals. Most of the Cambodian children were initially sent to war-torn Saigon where they were thrown in with more than 3,000 Vietnamese children to be airlifted out to the U.S., Europe and Australia in the audacious and controversial “Operation Babylift.”

As the situation in Cambodia deteriorated, its envoys in Washington, D.C., begged the U.S. for assistance and arranged for a final group of 220 orphans to be pulled out and adopted. In Phnom Penh, the Minister for Refugees scrambled to process the children. On April 9, 28 flew out. They were to be the last.

“I messaged [Refugee Minister] Kong Orn … about the orphans’ situation. I also messaged other officials. But there was no answer from anyone. Clearly the subject of orphans was not on anyone’s mind at the time,” says Gaffar Peang-Meth, a diplomat based at the Cambodian embassy.

The chaos surrounding those final flights ensured that many orphans arrived with only the scantest of documentation. In a July 1975 internal report, the U.S. Agency for International Development recorded that half of the 108 orphans airlifted out of Phnom Penh “are experiencing legal problems regarding their adoptability and/or placements.”

CAMBODIA-US-WAR-KHMER ROUGE
Sjoberg / AFP / Getty ImagesThe young Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975

“The placement of the orphans … in adoptive homes has been held up because of questions raised regarding their adoptability and/or prospective placement. Due to the emergency situation which existed at the time, the sponsoring agencies and the government did not obtain the proper releases or process other required documentation,” the report continued.

In California and elsewhere, lawsuits proliferated over whether the children were in fact orphans. Miika and scores of other children spent upwards of a year in foster homes while officials debated their status. Four decades later, some have yet to be naturalized.

“The children’s arrival was not all smooth and happy,” recalls Gaffar Peang-Meth, who became the point man for verifying many of their legal status. Some news media reports suggested that the children were not all orphans and openly questioned why they had been brought to the U.S. Gaffar Peang-Meth responded that there was no authority in Phnom Penh to answer such allegations.

Amid the mounting concern, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ordered a temporary halt to the babylifts on April 16, just one day before the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. Then deputy commissioner of the INS, James Green, told the Washington Post that the agency would “launch a full investigation to determine what these children’s backgrounds are and how they got into the United States.”

By then, of course, the lines of communication had already been severed. With it went any hope of tracking down family ties.

Adoptees grew up oblivious to their roots, yet haunted by them.

“No matter how you grow up childhood always challenging, but not really having a mental foundation of how it started, that’s really challenging,” says Miika Thoeun Gove. “I can’t even reach out to anyone in the group that I flew out with, I have no information.”

A handful of the orphans have returned to Cambodia in search of more information, though such quests tend to be fruitless.

Kim Routhier-Filion, one of the Canada House babies, traveled to Cambodia in 2012 accompanied by Eloise and Anna Charet, and a film crew from the French-Canadian news station RDI. While there, the filmmakers captured Routhier-Filion looking through records and speaking with archivists, but he confessed scant faith in reconciliation.

“For me, my adoptive parents are my real parents,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectations of finding my biological parents in Cambodia. I assume they got killed. I don’t even know my biological mom’s name. I didn’t have any hope or expectations of that.”

Gove, whose documents carry neither the name of her parents nor birthplace, has similarly little anticipation of closure. It is something, however, she has come to accept.

“Imagine the children who didn’t get out of there,” she points out calmly. “I figure I’m doing O.K.”

TIME Cambodia

Cambodian Guards Drank Wine With Human Gallbladders, Says Genocide Survivor

Skulls are stacked on top of each other at a "Killing Fields" memorial in Batey district in Kampong Cham province
Chor Sokunthea—Reuters Skulls are stacked on top of each other at a Killing Fields memorial in Batey district in Kampong Cham province, 125 km (78 miles) east of Phnom Penh on March 28, 2009

Horrific testimony made at atrocity trial

In the 1970s, Khmer Rouge guards would drink wine infused with human gallbladders, according to a survivor of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields.

Former detainee Meas Sokha told the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia Khmer Rouge (ECCC) — a special tribunal created to investigate the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime — that guards at a prison in Takeo province would dry out the gallbladders of inmates and steep them in wine, reports the Cambodia Daily.

“Whenever there were killings, the guards would drink wine with a gallbladder. I could see gallbladders drying in the sun and I knew these were from human beings,” said Meas Sokha, who was imprisoned for three years in 1976. “There were so many [gallbladders] dried by the fence, it was put in wine for drinking and to make people brave.”

Sokha also told the U.N.-backed ECCC that he witnessed between 20 and 100 killings in a single day.

In some East Asian medical traditions, the use of animal bile in drinks — usually snake or bear bile — is thought to promote virility.

From 1975 until 1979, Cambodia experienced one of the most savage genocides of the 20th century, during which around 1.7 million people — a quarter of the national population — perished as the Khmer Rouge, the nation’s communist party led by the French-educated Pol Pot, pursued its agrarian utopia.

The court is currently investigating genocide charges against Khieu Samphan, 83, the regime’s head of state, and Nuon Chea, 88. Both were sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity in August.

TIME Philippines

Pope Francis and the Mystery of Manila’s Vanishing Street Children

A homeless child in the streets of Manila in 2014.
Noel Celis—AFP/Getty Images A homeless child in the streets of Manila in 2014.

Was the Philippine capital really purged of unsightly urchins for the Pope's recent visit, as media reports allege?

Pope Francis took the helm of the Catholic Church last year, vowing to refashion the institution “for the poor.” Yet during his recent five-day visit to the Philippines, where he presided over Mass for more than six million rapturous worshippers, it appeared many of the nation’s most impoverished were cruelly banished from view.

As the Pontiff touched down in Asia’s most Catholic nation, reports emerged that street children had been rounded up and caged in order to sanitize Manila’s streets. Local authorities vehemently denied this was a case, pointing out that the accompanying photographs of an emaciated toddler and young girl handcuffed to a metal pole had in fact been taken months earlier.

However, rumors continued to swirl as more anecdotal evidence arrived. So was the Philippine capital purged of unsightly urchins? In a word, yes, although only a small fraction of this was anything new.

According to local activists, street children are constantly being rounded up across this sprawling metropolis of 12 million. This is generally for vagrancy and petty crime — they are often scapegoats for the deeds committed by organized gangs — and, although numbers are hard to pin down, the Pope’s visit seemed to herald a slight uptick.

“There’s definitely been a ramp up,” Catherine Scerri, deputy director of the Bahay Tuluyan NGO that helps street children, tells TIME. “They were definitely told not to be visible, and many of them felt that if they didn’t move they would be taken forcibly.”

Those detained end up a various municipal detention centers sprinkled all over Metro Manila, says Father Shay Cullen, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated founder of the Preda Foundation NGO. These local adult jails each adjoin euphemistically named “children’s homes,” which, like the adult facility, has bars on the windows.

Children are summarily kept for anything up to three months without charge, with little ones sharing cells with young adults. Many fall prey to serious sexual and physical abuse: Kids just eight-years-old are often tormented into performing sex acts on the older detainees, says Cullen. (Amnesty International documented such abuses in a December report.)

“They are locked up in a dungeon,” says Cullen, explaining that some 20,000 children see the inside of a jail cell annually across the Philippines. “We keep asking why they put these little kids in with the older guys.”

Nevertheless, Philippines Welfare Secretary Corazon Juliano-Soliman explicitly denies that homeless children were rounded up for the Papal visit, highlighting that they were, in fact, central to the 78-year-old Pontiff’s reception. Some 400 homeless kids — albeit in bright, new threads — sang at a special event (and posed awkward theological questions.)

Any children detained, explains Juliano-Soliman, were “abandoned, physically or mentally challenged or found to be vagrant or in trouble with the law, and we are taking care of them.” Father Cullen’s allegations, Juliano-Soliman suggests, are a sympathy ploy to win donations “One can’t help but think it’s a good fundraising action,” she says wryly.

However, Juliano-Soliman did confirm that 100 homeless families — comprising 490 parents and children — were taken off the street of Roxas Boulevard, the palm-fringed thoroughfare arcing Manila Bay along which Pope Francis traveled several times, and taken about an hour and a half’s drive away to the plush Chateau Royal Batangas resort. Room rates there range from $90 to $500 per night.

This sojourn lasted from Jan. 14, the day before Pope Francis’s visit, until Jan. 19, the day he left. It was organized by the Department of Social Welfare’s Modified Conditional Cash Transfer program, which provides grants to aid “families with special needs.”

Juliano-Soliman says this was done so that families would “not be vulnerable to the influx of people coming to witness the Pope.” Pressed to clarify, she expressed fears that the destitute “could be seen as not having a positive influence in the crowd” and could be “used by people who do not have good intentions.”

For Scerri, though, this reasoning doesn’t cut it: “It’s very difficult to believe that children and families who have lived on the streets for most of their lives need to be protected from what was a very joyous, very happy, very peaceful celebration.”

In fact, families involved were only told two days prior that they were to make the trip to Chateau Royal Batangas. “Many felt that if they didn’t participate that they would be rounded up,” says Scerri, adding that those who returned to their usual digs by Malate Catholic Church found large signs had been painted in the interim that prohibited sleeping rough.

Ultimately, whether jailed or stashed in a resort, “there’s nothing new,” says Father Cullen. “Every time dignitaries come it’s a common phenomenon for more children to be locked up.”

So where did Manila’s street children go? The truth is that most people didn’t really care, just as long as they did.

Read next: Pope Calls Out Philippines on Corruption and ‘Scandalous’ Inequality

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Philippines

Pope Francis Praises Typhoon Haiyan Survivors and Filipino Migrant Workers

Pope Francis, Benigno Aquino III
Bullit Marquez—AP Pope Francis, right, is welcomed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as he arrives for the welcoming ceremony on Jan. 16, 2015, at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila

Tribute paid to the "heroic strength, faith and resilience" of Filipinos

Pope Francis marked his second day in Asia’s most Catholic nation by praising the contribution made to society by Filipino migrant workers as well as paying tribute to victims and survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed over 6,000 people when it tore through the archipelago nation in November 2013.

Speaking at the Malacanang presidential palace on Friday, the Pontiff told tens of thousands of rapturous Filipinos, as well as President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, that his “visit is meant to express my closeness to our brothers and sisters who endured the suffering, loss and devastation” caused by Haiyan.

“Together with many people throughout the world, I have admired the heroic strength, faith and resilience demonstrated by so many Filipinos in the face of this natural disaster, and so many others,” he said.

Pope Francis is the first leader of the Holy See in two decades to visit the Philippines, where the 100 million population is 80% Catholic. He arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Thursday from Sri Lanka, where he called for reconciliation after the island state’s brutal civil war.

Speaking in Manila on Friday, the 78-year-old Argentine also singled out the country’s many migrant workers for praise, citing the “oft-neglected yet real contribution of Filipinos of the diaspora to the life and welfare of the societies in which they live.”

Read the full transcript of his speech here.

TIME Thailand

Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

THAILAND-LABOUR-RIGHTS-MIGRATION-FISHING
Christophe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images This picture taken on Sept. 20, 2013, shows fish in crates after they were unloaded from a trawler at a port in Pattani, southern Thailand

The Thai government wants to send chain gangs to sea

Dozens of labor and human-rights groups have condemned a plan by the Thai junta to use prison labor on fishing boats, which are already notorious for violence, human trafficking and slavelike conditions.

The coalition of 45 international organizations has penned an open letter to Thai army chief Prayut Chan-ocha, who has run the Southeast Asian nation since staging a coup d’état on May 22, urging him to end a pilot project that sends prisoners out to sea. Much of the fish, shrimp and shellfish caught ends up on dinner tables in the U.S. and Europe.

“Thailand cannot run from the trafficking problem in its fishing fleet,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, one of the signatories. “And sending prisoners to sea will not address the systematic, pervasive labor problems in Thailand’s fishing industry.”

Currently, migrant workers from Burma (officially known as Myanmar) and Cambodia comprise the bulk of workers on Thai fishing vessels. Systemic abuses have been widely documented with many workers receiving little or no pay, getting traded from boat to boat so they never see land for years, and, in the very worst cases, simply tossed into the sea when they inevitably fall ill.

“Thailand has repeatedly said that it’s committed to end forced labor and human trafficking, but this pilot project heads in precisely the opposite direction and will make things worse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who also said the initiative “should be immediately scrapped.”

TIME Aviation

Row Over Budget Airlines Erupts in Indonesia After AirAsia Disaster

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29 : AirAsia aircrafts on the strip at Soekarno Hatta International Airport near Jakarta, on December 29, 2014. Malaysia, Singapore and Australia  have deployed planes and ships to assist in the Indonesian search for the missing AirAsia flight near Borneo while flying from Surabaya to Singapore with 162 passengers on board.   (Photo by Agoes Rudianto/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Anadolu Agency—2014 Anadolu Agency AirAsia aircraft on the strip at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport near Jakarta on Dec. 29, 2014

Proposed restrictions on ultra-low fares have enraged Indonesian travelers

A political row between Indonesia’s Transport Ministry, low-cost air carriers and the flying public is threatening to overshadow the ongoing salvage operation for AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, which crashed on Dec. 28 soon after leaving the Indonesian city of Surabaya for Singapore.

Indonesian news portal Detik reported Wednesday that bargain tickets offered by low-cost carriers — some of which go for as little as $4 — were to be banned.

“This is so that the airline has enough financial room to raise the safety standard,” said Transport Ministry official Hadi M. Djuraid. “We have no problem if they lower the service standard … but lowering the safety standard isn’t allowed.”

AirAsia didn’t immediately respond for TIME’s request for comment on the policy shift. However, Indonesian social-media users were scornful because the nation’s 250 million people increasingly rely on air travel to hop around the world’s largest archipelago, as well as travel abroad for leisure and work.

Some 700,000 Indonesian migrant workers are dispersed around Asia, chiefly in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, with remittances sent to family back home reaching $6.6 billion in 2009.

Any restrictions would also not be good for airlines such as AirAsia, already reeling from allegations by Indonesian officials that Flight QZ 8501 was only cleared to operate a few days each week, but crucially not on the Sunday when it crashed. AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes vehemently denied this was the case in a statement on Wednesday, describing the mix-up as “purely an administrative error.”

“We have the right to fly Surabaya-Singapore. We had flown that schedule and had rights for seven days a week,” he stated, according to the Straits Times. “We have secured both slots as well as approval from both Indonesia and Singapore.”

Nevertheless, Indonesian authorities have suspended five more key AirAsia domestic flight routes from Surabaya pending an investigation. The Surabaya-Singapore route had already been halted.

Indonesian authorities also criticized AirAsia Captain Iriyanto, who piloted QZ 8501, for apparently not picking up the air-traffic control’s weather-briefing document before his flight, as they claimed regulations require.

However, Fernandes defended his staff in a statement issued to CNN Wednesday, saying that the same meteorological data is disseminated electronically to all flight crew by AirAsia, whose practices mirror those of many other airlines.

Commercial airline pilots also rallied to Iriyanto’s defense. “Don’t make things up and say pilots are at fault if they don’t undergo briefing. It is not part of the required procedures [before taking off],” senior pilot Sardjono Jhony Tjitrokusumo said in a written statement, the Jakarta Globe reported. “Don’t suddenly become an aviation expert, as if you know everything about the industry. Please be wise.”

TIME Aviation

Indonesia Says the AirAsia Tailpiece Has Been Found

Search and rescue teams and flight crew prepare their gear on board an Indonesian Air Force Super Puma helicopter before a search mission for debris and bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501at Iskandar Air Force Base, in Pangkalan Bun
Veri Sanovri—Reuters Search-and-rescue workers and flight crew prepare their gear on board an Indonesian air force's Super Puma helicopter at Iskandar air-force base in Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia, before a search mission for debris and bodies from AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 on Jan. 6, 2015

That raises hopes for the recovery of the black-box recorders, which are located in the tail section

The tailpiece of AirAsia Flight 8501 has been found at the bottom of the Java Sea, Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency Basarnas confirmed Wednesday, raising hopes that investigators may soon learn what made the Airbus A320-200 crash.

Speaking at a press conference in Jakarta, the head of Basarnas, F.H. Bambang Soelistyo, said, “We have a picture of the part and we can confirm that it’s the tail.”

The tailpiece is where the aircraft’s “black box” flight-data recorders are located, with the information stored on them offering the best hope of explaining why the aircraft disappeared 42 minutes after leaving Indonesia’s second city Surabaya for Singapore early Dec. 28.

Bad weather is still thought to be a key contributor, as the pilot asked to change course and climb from 32,000 ft. to 38,000 ft. to avoid a storm system, but no distress call was received.

The find also raises hopes of recovering more bodies. Only 40 of the 155 passengers and seven crew have so far been recovered, and investigators suspect most bodies may still be strapped into their seats in the stricken plane’s fuselage, which could be located somewhere near the tail.

The black boxes are fitted with locator beacons, but they only have around 20 days of their 30-day battery life left to run. Divers have been trying to approach the wreckage but have been hampered by large waves and strong currents caused by Southeast Asia’s fearsome monsoon.

TIME Aviation

This Is Why It’s Proving So Hard to Find the Missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501

Crewmembers of an Indonesian Air Force NAS 332 Super Puma helicopter look out of the windows during a search operation for the victims and wreckage of AirAsia flight QZ 8501 over the Java Sea
Tatan Syuflana—Pool/Reuters Crewmembers of an Indonesian Air Force NAS 332 Super Puma helicopter search for the victims and wreckage of AirAsia flight QZ 8501 over the Java Sea, Indonesia, Jan. 5, 2015.

At this time of year, the Java Sea is a churning soup of sediment and debris

Divers plunged into the Java Sea soon after daybreak on Tuesday, desperate to use every possible second of a break in the weather to hunt for AirAsia Flight QZ 8501.

On the face of it, recovery operations for the ill-fated aircraft should be straightforward. The Java Sea is shallow, flat-bottomed and a well-traveled maritime thoroughfare, ringed by land on all sides.

So far, however, teams have only managed to recover 37 bodies. The remains of the other 162 passengers and crew, who are presumed dead, are thought be trapped inside the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200, which vanished 42 minutes after departing Indonesia’s sprawling port city of Surabaya for Singapore early Dec. 28.

But, 10 days into the search, nobody knows for certain where the fuselage is, nor have the flight-data recorders been found. (Although if the tail section has actually been spotted, as some believe it has, then there is a good chance of finding the black boxes, as this is where they are kept.)

So why has the search for the AirAsia jet proven so formidable in waters just 130 ft. (40 m) deep?

The answer is the weather, specifically the ferocious Asian winter monsoon, which turns the Java Sea into a tempestuous, murky soup. In fact, had the crash happened during a summer month, like August, it’s very likely that the wreck could have been spotted by simply looking down through the water on a bright, calm day.

“The plane really couldn’t have gone down at a worse time of year,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells TIME.

The Java Sea is so shallow it isn’t really ocean at all, from a geological perspective, but merely part of the continental landmass. During the last Ice Age, the whole area was above sea level and forested. “It’s tantalizing to think that just 20,000 years ago monkeys were roaming around there, and now it’s sea,” says van Sebille.

This means that rather than a rocky bottom, there is a thick layer of organic material that billows up with strong currents. This is exacerbated by monsoon rains lashing the surrounding islands, sending water into rivers that eventually torrents into the sea, depositing a thick layer of sludge and sediment.

Little wonder divers were forced to abandon efforts on Sunday because of near-zero visibility. Nor is it surprising that four large objects spied on sonar, which could be parts of the twin-engine plane, still have not been identified. (One earlier suspected object turned out to simply be a coral reef.)

The shallow water also affects wave patterns. While the Java Sea does not experience the enormous rollers of the open ocean, the area is characterized by extremely quick and precipitous waves that thrash around frenziedly, and are thus tricky to judge and work among. Combined with poor visibility, these choppy conditions mean divers risk being buffeted into debris — including the twisted pieces of jagged metal fuselage they are hunting for.

“It’s a very dangerous situation,” says van Sebille.

Such currents also explain why the search area expanded Tuesday from a 18,000-sq.-mi. (45,000-sq-km) primary search zone to include another 100,000 sq. mi. (260,00 sq km) farther east, in the direction where debris may have drifted. But the sheer mass of flotsam and refuse is another complicating factor. As well as assorted waste from all the surrounding populous islands of Java, Borneo and Sumatra, the Java Sea is thick with shipping traffic, and many vessels dump debris into the water.

There are also an untold number of wrecks from both ships and also other aircraft from as far back as World War II. All this debris tends to get churned around ceaselessly as “there’s not really a current flushing things out,” says van Sebille.

Even though practically every navy in the world has experience and equipment to allow operating at the depths posed by the Java Sea, the search for QZ 8501 has started to take on the same frustration as that experienced during the initial hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370, which is presumed to have gone down in the seemingly bottomless Indian Ocean, and from which not a scrap of debris has been found.

As with MH 370, there is the desperate race to find the black boxes before their batteries run out.

Although locator ships have been deployed, no trace of the devices have yet been found. “We are racing against time, as their battery [will be used] up within 30 days,” Nurcahyo, an investigator with the Indonesian National Transportation Agency, told Xinhua. “Now we have 21 more days left.”

After another disappoint and fruitless day on the Java Sea, make that 20 — or even fewer, if bad weather persists.

Read next: For the AirAsia Bereaved, the New Year Brings Nothing but Grief

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TIME Aviation

Divers Struggle to Find Bodies and Black Boxes From AirAsia Crash

The body of an AirAsia QZ8501 passenger is carried to an ambulance after being transported from a ship by a U.S. Navy helicopter from the USS Sampson at the airbase in Pangkalan Bun
Darren Whiteside—Reuters The body of an AirAsia QZ 8501 passenger is carried to an ambulance after being transported from a ship by a U.S. Navy helicopter from the U.S.S. Sampson at the air base in Pangkalan Bun, in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan, on Jan. 4, 2015

Only 37 bodies have been found and investigators believe most of the dead are still underwater strapped into their seats

The AirAsia salvage operation shifted Monday to focus on recovering the aircraft’s flight-data recorders, otherwise known as black boxes, but blustery weather continues to undermine search efforts in the Java Sea.

Only 37 bodies have so far been recovered from the 155 passengers and seven crew aboard Flight QZ 8501, which vanished from radar 42 minutes after departing Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya bound for Singapore early Dec. 28.

According to Suryadi B. Supriyadi, director of operations at Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (known by its Bahasa Indonesia acronym Basarnas), at least five ships with black-box pinger locators have been dispatched to where four large objects, believed to be wreckage from the plane, were spotted by sonar.

Once triangulation of black-box signals has been achieved, and conditions sufficiently improve, a team of more than 80 deep-sea divers will be deployed to get visual confirmation. On Sunday, divers had to abandon their forays after being confronted with near-zero visibility in the murky depths.

“If it cannot be done by divers, we will use sophisticated equipment with capabilities of tracking underwater objects and then will lift them up,” Supriyadi told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

Locating the black boxes is crucial to determining what made the twin-engine Airbus A320-200 crash, though severe weather is still presumed to be key factor.

“The most probable weather phenomenon was icing, which can cause engine damage due to a cooling process,” said a preliminary report on the website of Indonesia’s meteorological agency.

However, Mike Daniel, a Singapore-based aviation expert with more than three decades experience with the U.S. Federation Aviation Administration, thinks this is only one of “two different and distinct scenarios.”

“If they find the flight data recorders, it would show if icing is a factor,” he tells TIME. “But my sense is that with the strong storm cell updrafts reported by the meteorological folks that there may be more focus on high-altitude flight upset, as opposed to unreliable airspeed indications due to icing.”

The last cockpit contact between Captain Iriyanto and Indonesian Air Traffic Control occurred when the highly experienced former Indonesian air-force pilot requested permission to change direction and climb from a cruising altitude of 32,000 ft. to 38,000 ft. in order to avoid severe weather. The first request was granted, but the aircraft was only permitted to ascend to 34,000 ft. as there was traffic above.

On Sunday, Basarnas recovered four more bodies as well as more debris believed to be from the aircraft, including the emergency-exit window, some luggage, passenger seats and survival kits, AirAsia said in a statement.

AirAsia has still not responded to claims by Indonesian officials that Flight QZ 8501 did not have permission to fly on the Surabaya to Singapore route on the Sunday it crashed.

“The regulator requires further evaluation on the route, and AirAsia will be fully cooperative throughout the process,” AirAsia spokeswoman Malinda Yasmin said via email.

Indonesian aviation authorities have postponed all Surabaya-to-Singapore AirAsia flights in the meantime, although their Singaporean peers told Agence France-Presse on Sunday that the route was approved at the Singapore end.

Thirteen of the 37 bodies recovered to date have been identified. The remains of flight attendant Wismoyo Ari Prambudi, 24; passengers Jie Stevie Gunawan, 10; and Juanita Limantara, 30, were returned to their families Sunday.

Read next: For the AirAsia Bereaved, the New Year Brings Nothing but Grief

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TIME Aviation

Bad Weather Is Hampering the Recovery of AirAsia Bodies

Indonesia Mourns AirAsia Crash As Recovery Operation Continues
Ulet Ifansasti—Getty Images Members of an Indonesian search and rescue team carry the body of a victim of the AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash from a USS navy helicopter at Iskandar Airbase on January 02, 2015 in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The longer they're in the water, the more difficult identification becomes

The first identified victim of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 has been laid to rest, but the agony continues for most families as officials say it may take another week for the wreckage to be found, with tempestuous conditions hampering the recovery of remains.

Hayati Lutfiah Hamid, 49, was buried on New Year’s Day, surrounded by friends and family in the village of Sawotratap, a few kilometers outside Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya, from where the doomed Airbus A320-200 departed early Sunday bound for Singapore.

But three members of her family who were with her on the plane still have not been identified.

“Their house has been in a panic since Sunday,” a neighbor named Umaroyah told Reuters. “Everyone in the neighborhood knows someone who was on that plane.”

On Friday, three more of the 22 bodies so far recovered were identified. They were Kevin Alexander Soetjipto, an alum of St. Albertus Catholic high school in Malang; Grayson Herbert Linaksita, a resident of Surabaya; and flight attendant Khairunnisa Haidar, 22. All four identified to date are Indonesian nationals.

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes tweeted Friday that he would accompany his crew member’s remains to join their families. Palembang is Khairunnisa’s hometown.

F.H. Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), told a press conference Friday in Jakarta that the priorities today are to find the body of the plane and the black box in addition to the search and recovery of the bodies.

However, waves of up to 4 m (13 ft.) on Friday meant that the 47 divers charged with finding more of the 162 passengers and crew were struggling to work.

Some 29 ships and 17 aircraft are busy scouring the busy Karimata Strait for wreckage. Reports on Wednesday that the plane had been found on the seabed seem to have been premature, but the search area Friday was whittled down to around 1,575 square nautical miles.

This is was significantly reduced from Thursday’s search zone of some 13,500 sq km — roughly the size of Connecticut.

According to David Newbery, a Hong Kong flight captain and accredited aircraft-accident investigator, “The spot where the plane vanished from radar simply represents when there was a power interruption to the electronics. An airplane without any engines could glide for over 100 miles from 32,000 ft.”

Basarnas says it will speed up sending recovered bodies from Pangkalan Bun, in Central Kalimantan province, to Surabaya, in East Java, to minimize further deterioration. “As soon as the bodies arrive in Pangkalan Bun, we will evacuate them to Surabaya because we are worried the [local] hospital isn’t sterile,” the Basarnas operational director S.B. Supriyadi told reporters Friday in the Central Kalimantan town.

He later added that eight bodies had now been sent Surabaya, 10 were in the hospital at Pangkalan Bun and four were aboard a search vessel.

Forensic attempts to identify one of those recovered have already proved problematic, because fingerprints are inconclusive after bodies have been exposed to seawater for so long. Other identification methods, such as dental records and DNA, take much longer to process, meaning there’s a race against time for families to gain much needed closure and perform funeral rites.

On Thursday, French agency BEA, which investigates all fatal accidents involving Airbus planes, said its investigators were helping with underwater searches for the aircraft’s two data recorders.

Finding the data recorders, colloquially known as black boxes, is crucial to determining what made the single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner crash. Latest analysis of radar signals indicate the plane may have made an extremely steep climb and descent, possibly because of severe weather.

With reporting by Yenni Kwok

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