weeks after the tsunami
by Preeti Verma Lal
That's the kind of tomorrow that kindles
hope in a pair of jaded eyes. Yes, there has been infinite devastation but when
you see a purple lotus growing valiantly in development commissioner Anshu Prakash's
colonial bungalow, a bubbly Faiza prancing in her flouncy yellow frock, Father
Barla stacking bread for tomorrow, London-based Andy Ashrafi returning to the
island with a wheelchair-bound Jennifer, tourists dipping their feet in the limpid
waters, a hymn shattering the evening's darkness and the almighty heave of the
ships at the jetty you know nothing can annihilate life. Nothing. Not even an
incensed sea. Believe me, even sorrow comes with a sprig of sunshine.
Blair. Seven weeks after the tsunami. It is afternoon and the sun is perched precariously
in the cobalt sky. Under the black tarpaulins at the Nirmala School relief camp
a miscellany of moods thrive. There's succour in the likes of Sr. Mary Kutty who
is busy dispensing medicine and Father Albinus Barla of Caritas who is putting
asterisks against the needs of the roughly 900 evacuees who have taken shelter
in the camp. There's stoicism in the eyes of Yusuf Ahmed, an affluent trader who
has lost property worth crores and whose tomorrow is completely bleary. There's
innocence in Faiza, who barely 5, is brimming with bliss over the blue eye shadow
that her eyes are rimmed with. There's gay abandon in the uproar of the boys who
play hide and seek on the rice sacks and turn a burly cabbage into their football
of the day. There is elation at the arrival of new life, a boy born in the camp
on January 26 and christened Johnson Bharat. In one corner metals drone intermittently,
in another the hum of a dirge fades in the scorching heat and yet another there's
raucous silence. So many emotions, so many yesterdays, so many tomorrows, all
jostling for a propitious moment under the cobalt sky.
Port Blair, dotted with relief camps after the livid waves brought untold destruction.
Nearly 13,000 people had to be evacuated, relief camps had to be pitched, corpses
had to be rested with dignity, any fear of an epidemic had to be stalled and in
the midst of all the loss of lives and property there was trauma to be dealt with.
But beyond annihilation there's always sympathy and beyond sympathy hope. NGOs
trooped in large numbers and the government pulled its socks up for an unprecedented
Oxfam's regional director, Dr Shaheen Nilofer was one
of the first ones to fly into Port Blair. Having handled crises in Bosnia and
Afghanistan, Nilofer knows where to put the balm first. "Oxfam's first priority
is saving lives," she says. "And beyond that we ensure that everything
is done with dignity. You don't give people what you want to, you give them what
they need." And to adhere to this, Nilofer spent hours picking up floral
chintzs for the Nicobarese. She knows they love bright colours and synthetic fabric.
Nilofer procured thousands and thousands of metres of such fabric and complemented
it with sewing machines. "It is nice to hear these machines whirr in relief
camps," she says with content writ large in her eyes. For everyday needs
they have provided mosquito nets and hygiene kits; for their livelihood, Oxfam
has procured tools for masons, plumbers, and blacksmiths.
hours of crises, everyday, ordinary necessities seem like luxuries. Like toilets
and sanitation. And it gets worse for women who often tend to skip dinner because
they do not want to go through the embarrassment of defecating in the open. In
relief camps like ITF Grounds and Nirmala School, toilets are not an issue but
where tents and tarpaulin shelters have been pitched toilets is priority, especially
because the Islands is a malaria-endemic zone. Oxfam has already built toilets
in camps in Badmash Pahar and Loknath Pahar and UNICEF is chipping in to put the
toilets in place before the onset of monsoon in the third week of April. "We
have provided for trench latrines and would get more pre-fab and concrete toilets
constructed soon," says Tejinder Sandhu, Project officer, UNICEF. To buttress
their hygiene and health schemes, UNICEF has provided 5,000 mosquito nets, hopes
to distribute 10,000 more very soon; they have immunized 29,000 children and with
their health and child development specialists are bringing back a semblance of
normalcy for children, the most vulnerable lot in any disaster area.
can put brick on brick, build a house, provide basic amenities but what do you
do with a heart that races at the sight of the sea and sees a demon rising out
of the waves? There's the 12-year old Uzza at Nirmala School with whom conversation
doesn't stretch beyond monosyllables and that only when you wait patiently for
that faint 'yes', that tiny smile. There's Sofia Chengko at a makeshift school
who held my hand and cried for what looked liked eternity. Trauma is intangible
but it corrodes the mind stealthily. And it is for this that Dr Tapas K Ray of
SEVAC has come from Kolkatta with a team of two psychiatrists, two psychologists
and two social workers. "Most of them cannot erase the images of the waves
destroying their family or property. It is a nightmare that keeps haunting them."
Some scream in the middle of the day, others have found escape in avoidance -
they ignore the sea, they ignore the known faces, they ignore staring into life
again. "A lot of children have completely withdrawn into their shell,"
adds Priyanka Basak, a clinical psychologist. They know trauma management is a
long-drawn process; anti-depressants for adults and play therapy for children
are just the first step. But they are helping victims in their two permanent clinics
in Port Blair.
With 53 NGOs lending a helping hand, 85
relief camps in Car Nicobar, several thousand tonnes of relief supplies stocked
in warehouses, it would not be long before the tsunami-affected people pick up
the threads of their lives. You know it is possible because everyone is doing
their bit - that one day in Port Blair Anshu Prakash, the development commissioner,
was frantically figuring out rates for loading and offloading at the jetty, Thomas
Phillip, the First Captain of Mus Village talked of approach roads and electricity
in Car Nicobar, Pritam Kumari Nanda, Chairperson, Social welfare Board, gives
details about the tailoring and shorthand institute that she wants to set up for
women, Subodh Bijapura, an engineer, was working out modalities for constructing
. They and several more are all weaving the tomorrows of thousands
And at the Raj Niwas, these tomorrows were
being sorted out more diligently.
Says Lt. Governor Ram Kapashe, "In
Car Nicobar, people have to be compensated for the coconut trees because it was
their livelihood. Ex-gratia payment would also be made to the next of the kin
of those dead or missing, but more importantly we would revamp the entire system."
Technical and vocation training would be given priority, telemedicine facility
would be provided for in each of the 38 inhabited islands and when permanent housing
is completed each village would be a model village complete with school, playground,
maternity centers, crèches, mortuary and a graveyard.
the kind of tomorrow that kindles hope in a pair of jaded eyes. Yes, there has
been infinite devastation but when you see a purple lotus growing valiantly in
development commissioner Anshu Prakash's colonial bungalow, a bubbly Faiza prancing
in her flouncy yellow frock, Father Barla stacking bread for tomorrow, London-based
Andy Ashrafi returning to the island with a wheelchair-bound Jennifer, tourists
dipping their feet in the limpid waters, a hymn shattering the evening's darkness
and the almighty heave of the ships at the jetty you know nothing can annihilate
life. Nothing. Not even an incensed sea. Believe me, even sorrow comes with a
sprig of sunshine.
in Swagat magazine, March 2005