A mother who refused food day after day at the Killai relief camp, just off the MGR Thittu island, about 40 kms from Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. A toddler, probably an orphan, who recognized none of the relatives who came to claim him. A fisherman who would not return to the sea. A child who woke up crying at night, describing a blood red wall of water. A boat on top of a coconut tree. Bloated animal carcasses. Funerals at sea.
The humans behind the devastatingly tragic stories of the Boxing Day tsunami have moved on in the 10 years it took to rebuild infrastructure and piece together lives torn apart by tidal waves that swept across the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, after a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia's western coast.
I was a cub reporter at that time, ill-prepared to deal with something this huge in terms of both immediate impact and long-term effect. Night was setting in when I landed in the sleepy coastal district of Cuddalore, barely days after the tsunami had swept away entire villages in the state’s coastline. The beach lay dark and desolate. But as the night progressed, one by one flickering lamps started piercing the inky darkness of the coast.
I asked a local what those intermittent lights meant. ‘People are performing the last rites of their dead,’ he said. But where is the cremation happening? Where are the funeral pyres? ‘They don’t have the bodies,’ he said.
Over the next few days I travelled from village to village, and everywhere the story was the same. Fishermen who were born, grown up, married and lived by the sea were suffering from a deep sense of betrayal. Children looked for books in the debris of their homes. A woman held on to my dupatta, crying in anguish as she clutched a washed out but laminated piece of paper in her hand. A local translated: ‘She’s lost her husband, son, and daughter-in-law’. ‘Is that what she’s saying? What is that paper in her hand?’ ‘She’s crying because she has no means of identifying herself. She’s lost her ration card and all documents. She says she can’t claim relief.’
In Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Pondicherry the world’s media had descended, and they brought with them car full of people from the cities embarking on what was clearly disaster tourism.
It was horrible, really. "They click pictures of uprooted trees, fishing nets tangled in bushes and villagers who have lost a family member. And once the job is done, they leave,” local government official Niramala Ramanathan said. Some were filmmakers looking to document the aftermath for potential material while others were simply out-of-towners looking for a 'good' story in exchange for a packet of cigarettes or a can of beer.
Understandably, the locals were upset.
In the village of Devanampattinam actor Vivek Oberoi tossed a ball on the beach with semi naked children of fishermen who had lost their livelihoods. Oberoi’s family had adopted the village and was helping set up temporary shelters for survivors. Young monks of the Bharat Sevashram waded through the slush that the massive waves left behind to help people reconstruct their lives.
At a relief camp, I was told that I must go to the ghost island of MGR Thittu to witness the tragedy first hand. I wasn’t prepared for the next few hours. We started on a boat from the mainland. There was a translator and a local colleague with me, besides the boatman. For as far I could see, we were in what looked like shallow waters, but in the middle of the sea. And right there, in the middle of the sea, halfway between the main shore and the island, the boatman calmly asked us to get down. We had to wade through waist high water for the rest of the way to the island.
This was barely days after the tsunami had struck. The boatman admitted that the sea was uneasy. I was at least 25 minutes away from solid ground, hoisting up my camera and notebook over my head, wading through clear water, when he thought it was the appropriate moment to add: ‘there’s quicksand around here. Follow my footsteps and you’ll be safe.’
But when we walked up to the island finally, the death and devastation was almost unbearable to watch. Boats were flung from the ground and were lodged awkwardly on tree tops, bloated animal carcasses buzzed with flies. Houses were unrecognizable. The most disconcerting thing about the place was the complete, solid silence that engulfed it. There was no one. The few that survived the ravages of the tsunami were evacuated to a camp on the mainland from MGR Thittu. The stench was terrible.
The wade back was somehow faster.
The relief camps were buzzing with activity but the sense of lethargy among the survivors was unmistakable. Fishermen desolately inspected their torn nets. The orphanages were worse with children waiting to hear from their parents lost at sea. The managers of a local orphanage had the older children take care of the younger ones – though complete strangers. The youngest were just months old – forever separated from their mother and father.
‘We are swamped with people claiming to be their relatives ever since the government announced ex gratia to the next of kin. Now everyone wants to take home an orphan to claim the money. They’ll end up right here, if not worse,” orphanage officials said.
Scuffles broke out everyday at the camps over distribution of the relief material. Pongal was a silent, morose affair at the local temple also serving as relief camp where Hindu and Muslim families shared food from the community kitchen.
The administration was only just realizing the scope of the disaster. There were no early-warning signals at the time to warn locals of an impending disaster. The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services was set up only in 2007 with the sole mandate of tracking tsunamigenic activities. We have a world class early warning system now.
As I was returning to Chennai after half a month of stay in the coastal belt, children, who've lost every worldly possession in the aftermath, followed my autorickshaw giggling. Though 2004 was overwhelming, the capacity of human endurance in times of extreme duress is remarkable.
It teaches you to pick up the pieces even when you've lost a child, to dissociate emotionally even when you're horrified and filled with pity and to never underestimate the enormous power of nature.