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Tsunami 2004: After 18 years

Sarpreet Kaur revisits the past with the hope of a better future

A vivid memory

A smile escaped my lips looking at the familiar newspaper, still just four pages of content. I can remember all those birthday listings, retirement announcements and situation vacant columns that formed part of this paper — coloured from the front-back and the time-tested black and white print in the inside. A balcony, a cosy chair, a newspaper and a cup of tea– what could be more perfect!

Suddenly a gloom overshadowed the day– it was 26 December 2022. The paper was filled with a long list of ‘Remembrances’ by families for their loved ones who lost their lives on that dreadful day. I could see a glint of sun here and a wrinkled grey of clouds somewhere on the canvas of azure water but my mind was not contemplating the beauty of this sea, it has already flown 18 years back — the cries of women, the heart-wrenching silence of kids, hopeful eyes in search of families, those shrieks to get as less as a glass of water, the echoing wails…

That day I discovered how fickle human life was, how harsh nature was, how devious some humans are and how godly some of our human mates were, all this was demonstrated in mere few hours. Who did this?

This very sea. This very sea did it. I am sure the sea must have had valid reasons. I can still feel the same shiver running down my spine. On that fateful day of 26th December 2004, this sea was furious, not serene as now. It was fuming with anger, ferociously.

Now, the houses on Andaman and Nicobar Islands are all decked up with big stars and shimmering lights, the faraway humming of carols have started accompanying the sea breeze. The winds are not humid anymore. It’s a calm breeze, the thunderous clouds have said goodbye and given way to the clear starry nights. There is an air of general merriment all around but still, there is something– no actually, that one thing which will always bring in the dark shadows no matter how many bright stars are hung over the doors.

That fateful night of the day after Christmas was followed by a heart-wrenching Tsunami. It drilled a big hole in every home on these islands. Someone lost a mother, someone a father, many lost everything and for a few their whole generations got wiped out by the sea. This year on the 18th dreadful anniversary of the Tsunami which we wish had never occurred, we will rewind the horrors. Now one might wonder at the need to do so. Why are we doing it? What’s done is done. However, we must recall because remembering our past is the only way to learn to have a better future.

Revisiting what happened

The first tremors were felt early in the morning. My whole family leapt out of the bed and went straight to the road and then the nearby playground. I could see dozens of people coming out of their houses, all with blank expressions about what was happening. Then after a few minutes of heart-tightening tremors, they stopped and we all smiled our relief to each other.  Then the news started pouring in. How a newly constructed house on a pillar gave up and crumbled like a house of cards. Another one said how the old building in Haddo wharf collapsed to the ground and one could hear the wails of people stuck inside it.

The ships were being sent to the sea to avoid damage. The ropes from the bollards were being ferociously untied. One merchant vessel, in all the clamour and chaos, cast off with one of its ropes still tied to the bollard. This bollard via the rope pulled it back and under the fast swell of the sea it rotated 180 degrees to one side, everyone shouted from the jetty as it was about to crush the smaller wooden ship with people on it. But God does exist because, by the miracle of God, the miracle of brakes or wind or something unknown, the ship stopped and drifted forward just a few inches away from the tumbling boat. The sheer force of the water had moved a Maruti 800 upright with one side towards the trunk; some people hastily tied it to the trunk itself with a rope to stop it from going into the sea. Dinghy boats were floating in the middle of the roads, a few others were already upside down and you could only make out the flat surface. One could see remorseful faces all around. They were not sad; they were looking terrified. Some were curious about what was happening. The Islands had never seen or felt such a thing ever. The Chatham bridge was underwater, the ships were floating to the level of a jetty, and the cars, autos, scooters everything one could see was floating. There was only chaos and chaos around.

Every second everyone was inching closer to the grave and it was said that when we witness something as crude as a Tsunami, humans tend to come together and show their humanity. But the Tsunami proved that it was not true. We, humans, are the worst kind of animals because on that fateful day, just when the Tsunami hit the Islands, a few shopkeepers doubled the rates of paan, tea etc. Some of the elected local representatives went into their burrows and the people who chose them were left off to fend for their own. The next few days saw no electricity, no water and no food.

People cried over the shortages.

Wards were filled with casualties, and the parking lot of GB Pant hospital had turned into a waiting room. These were the condition of the people around Port Blair. We have not yet touched on the other islands. What was happening in Katchal, Nancowry, Champin, Great Nicobar, Campbell Bay and many other small islands in the south was something no one could ever imagine. Whole villages were being swept away, the bodies were being gulped down. The terror of the sea had been unleashed.

In Nicobar, the devastation was unimaginable. Half of the trees had been uprooted. Trinket island was torn in half; Champin island was lost beyond communication and Kamorta was thirsty and hungry. The view was filled with battered houses, hanging roofs, crying infants, stranded grounds, tumbled life and floating bodies. No words or adjectives could ever do justice to what the people of the islands witnessed and suffered because of Tsunami.

We witnessed the humaneness of humankind too. The crew members of MV Sentinel were saviours who brought hope to the people of Nicobar that yet there were some who cared for them. The crew worked tirelessly saving precious lives, dinghy after dinghy was unloaded by the crew, the children and women were the first to come, they boarded and were fed on the ship.

Amidst this full chaos when the administration locked horns with humanism, these very people of MV Sentinel without worrying about their jobs and their own families, negated their orders and continued helping their people. On these islands, many influential people fled first on the crafts of money. However, some leaders outright rejected the ghastly idea of leaving the people behind to go on safer grounds. Till the end, they stayed.

Air force helicopters, coast guards, naval ships, army troops in conjunction with the administration worked together in those trying hours carrying out relief, search and rescue operations to their maximum capacity.  However it must be remembered that this was the first time the local people, administration and the armed forces were witnessing a disaster of such proportions. Many accusations were made on the duties of many in the position of power at that time without understanding the due pressure under which each and every one was. That made it much more pertinent to remember those days so that due precautions and arrangements could be made to revert future tragedies.

Without getting into too much of technical wordplay, we need to look at the reality of Tsunami which was all about behind the scenes. It is a well-known fact that the TV showed only selected pictures, trimmed numbers and blurred ideas to people out there. The tragedy of the Tsunami is imprinted on the heart of that lady who was shouting from the dinghy down below — “Mujhe mera bacha vapis de do. Return my child to me, when her child was taken away by the rescue ship onboard but suddenly the Captain refused to board any more passengers. The real horror is known by that bunch of humans who were waiting in the dinghy in the middle of the sea waiting for their turn. Real heroism was portrayed when the crew members of MV Sentinel said they would ot leave without leaving a single person behind. How slowly time went by when that girl waiting in GB Pant hospital for her parents to arrive. The real shock was sensed by the people on a stranded island listening to the radio: “Rescue teams have reached and all our people have been fed” while those mentioned were in a stranded island peeling the last coconut they had in their tattered bag.

At that time in that place and in that condition, people were looking out towards the shore with keen eyes, not for food, not for clothes, not for water — they were looking for hope, some sign of hope that yes someone was looking out for them, hoping that their existence mattered. Hope was all that they wanted.

Many years later, one could wonder how the sea which is a treasure for the fisherman, a mate for the sailor and home to the maximum of our living organisms could be so cruel. Then the other picture slides over showing the battered down forests, deforestation over acres, those oil spills, poachers, floating garbage, plastic entangled dugongs and almost extinct species. We leave no stone unturned and give plenty of reasons to the sea to be angry with us and once in a while nature understandably loses its cool.

We sure have come a long way since the first Tsunami, we have all the sensors, ships, rules and a detailed mechanism to handle such a situation and everything, but still, ARE WE READY TO BEAR THE NEXT HIT? Have we prepared enough to take head on the sea as the opponent? NO! no matter how technologically advanced we get we will never be ready to take on nature. The only thing that we can do is be respectful towards it. Yes! Development has to go side by side and change is the only constant law of nature but our greed could lead us to dig our own graves. Let the development be sustainable in its true measure not just on paper. This earth is not ours, we are mere tenants. Let us mend our ways before the owner loses his cool again.

(Special thanks to Denis Giles)

Sarpreet Kaur is a teacher, a Ruskin Bond fan and an aspiring writer. Her articles and stories have previously appeared in The Hindu, New Delhi Times, Cafe Dissensus, Muse India and many other magazines. This adapted from an earlier version in Andaman Chronicle.

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