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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Dead Silence

Kameshwaram is a village south of Velankanni, the house of famous Shrine Basilica. The residents were two-fold: farmers and fishermen. The fishing hamlet comprised of 200 families before the tsunami and now, it has close to 100 or a number near that. It has atleast a hundred coconut trees and each one survived. A bulldozer was clearing the top of a hut when I arrived with other volunteers. The face masks, I don't know to what extent they were helpful in preventing air-borne germs from entering my nostrils, but they certainly didn't help with the foul smell of rotting flesh. A young girl's body was dug out, 7 days after her death. She was carried in a bedspread and buried a little far from the hamlet. Someone said "It's Moorthy's daughter".

We had some material resources, but more importantly were asked to provide emotional support(?), offer them hope and promise a better future. In a manner of speaking, I'm quite efficient in using my words with strangers. I started with a middle-aged man. He's short and a little stout and maybe around 50. His arms were like wooden logs. I enquired about food and other basic amenities. "It's been 7 days since I had food. There are many people like you who come here and offer help. We're grateful. But, I can't eat" he said. He said his stomach is petrified and the sight of food doesn't provoke anything. He was at sea on the fateful day with his sons. He could feel the unusual strength of waves, but didn't even imagine the scale of disaster.

Every fishing family had atleast 5 different fishing nets (for various seasons and fishes) and the entire cost of the nets ran upto Rs.50,000. All the nets were tangled unimaginably and were rendered useless. The hamlet in the shape of a rectangle of 1 X 0.5 km, packed with huts and a few brick houses, is devastated. Only a couple of brick houses withstood the waves with little damage. Boats were toppled, and many were in two pieces. The entire hamlet was strewn with fishing nets. We had to walk with care so as to avoid getting struck in the nets and falling down.

As I walked around, this woman who was staring at the group clamoring for buckets and mugs started talking to me without looking at me: "I lost my husband and two kids." She then turned toward a ruined hut, which I assume to be her residence. When I started to mumble "We're all here to help you. God will..." she said "I lost six goats." She hadn't listened to me. I don't even know if she acknowledged my presence. Another woman was weeping: "I want to see my daughter's face. That's all I want". I decided it was better not to waste my words of hope and future. Because no one's listening.

Women are emotionally fragile. They're inconsolable. But the men are emotionally strong. I was amazed at their courage. Jayapal has lost six members from his family. He is Moorthy's brother and it was his brother's daughter who was found that morning. The corpse was washed atleast fifty metres from their home and gotten struck in another hut. Jayapal who was on the shore that morning started running as soon as he saw the tsunami. Water receded in five minutes, he said. When he ran back, his house (brick) was flattened. He found his mother dead near his house. His brother and sister-in-law were washed far away. His father was hurt and he took him to the nearest hospital and battling death for 6 days, his father relented. While he had taken his father to the hospital, the farmers, who were deep in the village had come and looted Rs.50,000 and gold laces from their iron shelf, which had remained intact.

Jayapal, who is shattered at the loss of his family is least worried about the material loss. He showed the cardboard case of a new LG engine which he had bought for his boat at Rs.40,000. He said the engine could be lying beneath the debris. I asked him: "Would you go back to the sea". He thought for a while and said: "We've had bad days at sea. But nothing like this. I now fear the sea. But I don't have many alternatives. I could open a shop here, or go to the city and find a job..... I've been a fisherman all my life. I guess I'll go to the sea again."

I moved. Volunteers were talking to this guy, and I didn't get his name. "I started climbing the tree (coconut) as fast as I can. I could hear my neighbors crying for help. But, I was helpless." Tsunami which was high enough to drench the 40 metre trees left him without his shirt and lungi. "I could see bodies all over the place from the tree top." There are many survival stories and many death stories. They all sounded the same and somehow, each one is different, as if every single death and every single survival had it's personal tsunami.

The government officials!! How could I not write about them. These are people following orders. An order issued by the local chief officer, who was instructed by the district collector, who received an order from the state chief minister. On the night of new year's eve, we were transporting clothing materials from Nagapattinam to Velankanni, when this police officer (who is celebrating the new year) who should have drunk to his neck started harassing the truck driver with bullshit questions. The driver, who should've seen many such police officers in his career, deftly handled him. Even in Kameshwaram, a couple of police constables who were supposed to route the relief supply vehicles to the fishing hamlet segment of the village, simply rerouted the government supplies to the local farmers. Later, we were told that the police have a connection with the farmers who bribe them for a variety of reasons (illegal arrack, etc) and the police were only expressing their gratitude.

What we volunteers did, you ask!! Thanks for asking. The answer is bare minimal. We distributed water packets, cleaned houses that seemed usable, went door to door educating people about epidemics and requesting them to get inoculated, transport clothes and rice sacks and a few more trivial acts. For most of the time, we were listening to them speak. And that was the most difficult thing.

Still with me? Great! I appreciate your patience. Have a wonderful 2005!!

--Originally written for LJ on 04-01-2005

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