Monday, January 03, 2005


Nagapattinam -

"How is Appa? Is he still alive? Is he coming?"

We are at the center of tsunami destruction - the small
seaside city of Nagapattinam, 12 kilometers from my 
mother's office. Thousands dead - last estimate is 
over 4,000, but honestly, no one really knows; and the 
survivors are asking after Jagannathan.

They know that five years back, he fasted for 58 days
by the side of the fish market. The pollution caused 
by the prawn farms, and destruction of the mangrove 
forests, had decimated the fish breeding areas, 
resulting in catches being reduced by as much as 80%. 
The local fishing communities were suffering greatly, 
but none of the political parties was interested in 
hearing of their plight. Now, with thousands of their 
own dead and injured, with houses, access to food, 
and their source of employment all but gone, they are 
asking after Appa. Virtually everyone seems to know 
this old woman as she shuffles down the street.

It is almost impossible to describe the staggering
concatentation of sight and smell that one meets by 
the seaside. Boats have floated over the tops of houses 
and crashed into other houses three blocks from the 
shore. The port itself is a giant tangle of broken 
boats, debris, and fishing tackle. Goats gambol over 
what had been houses. Entire streets are tangles of 
electric wires, chests of draws, and cast-off clothing 
and water packets. The smell is a mix of rotting 
seafood and rotting bodies. In one place, fishermen 
are arguing with folks directing excavation equipment - 
it seems there are bodies buried under several tons of 
fishing nets, and while some hope to get at the bodies, 
others believe there is some chance to save the nets 
(I frankly don't see it), and don't want to see the 
last representation of their livelihoods disappear.

Krishnammal takes us to the home of the head of the
fishing community. His house overlooks the fishing 
market, which was filled with 20,000 people when the 
tsunami hit. His house was filled with water nine feet 
high, and everything he owned has been destroyed. We 
are standing on his roof. He immediately recognizes 
Aliyah and me - we have met him twice previously, and 
Laura Coppo had interviewed him for "The Color of 
Freedom". He is somewhere between rage and grief, but 
he knows that he is the sole representative of his 
community, and is prepared to meet all comers, though 
the tangle of aid organizations is almost as great as 
that of the fishing nets. He is man of great dignity, 
and of powerful demeanor. He hugs Krishnammal.

There are all kinds of aid organizations here, but
they are extremely unorganized. One group decided to 
cremate bodies in the middle of a settlement, without 
checking on the state of the local gas main. Forty more 
houses were burned to the ground, their charred remains 
standing in the middle of other houses from which 
people are shoveling out mud. In one location, World 
Vision (which does good work), is handing out tokens 
for water, rice, and clothing, but the people are 
complaining that even when they walk to the place 
where these are being handed out, they have no place 
to put them, and no cooking utensils. In other places 
where groups have set up outdoor emergency shelters, 
there is no coordination with food or medical care. 
Ambulances are everywhere, from all over India, and 
bearing signs from various missionary organizations or 
foreign governments. Clinics are concentrating just 
now on tetanus vaccinations - so many were injured in 
the big wave, and antibiotics are dispensed freely to 
those suffering injuries. It is now 8 days since the 
tsunami, and hundreds are walking around in a daze. 
I meet one unsavory character representing some kind 
of Christian organization who can best be described 
as "hunting for orphans" - he is apparently being paid 
to care for orphans, but he doesn't have enough of them. 
But this is a very closeknit community. Any child who 
loses a father and mother would quickly be taken in by 
an extended family member, and the last thing this 
community wants to do is lose more children!

The District Collector (kind of like a local governor)
is holding a meeting to try to untangle the aid mess, 
but my mother does not feel a need to go. She 
communicates with him directly, and is clear about 
what she is planning to do. Tomorrow, she is sending 
out teams to clean up the local schools, some of which 
had been hit by the wave, others of which had been 
used in the initial aftermath as collection points for 
displaced persons. She is going to get the schools open 
again - the streets and byways are unsafe places for 
children as the cleanup goes on, the teachers have no 
work, and there is great need to create even the 
semblance of normal life for them, and also have a 
place to talk about their own grief and losses. I 
think this is where Aliyah and I are headed tomorrow.

LAFTI is currently feeding 74,000 people. But Amma says,
"People cannot live only on rice." She purchased a 
chili pepper grinding machine, and is making "sambar" 
powder (sambar is a kind of watery South Indian curry). 
"The people will not have any money to purchase sambar,
" she says, "and to get back to living, they must eat 
that to which they are accustomed."

She asks me to plead with our friends not to forget us
in late January, when many of the aid organizations 
will likely disappear. The health situation will likely 
worsen; houses will still need to be built, and 
something will have to be done about the loss of 
employment. She is not going anywhere - this is home 
turf, and these are her people.

I need to end this note. Krishnammal has dragooned me
into writing to supporters in Italy to explain the 
connection between the mangrove forests, prawn farms, 
and veritable sea of destruction all around us.


Blogger Danielle said...

So few comments, yet so many of us, I'm sure, are reading with rapt attention and rent emotion. Thank you, David and Aliyah and all those you work with, for sharing your time and honesty and perspective and knowledge.

Thank you, from the depths of my soul, for this portrait of beauty and destruction living side by side. I will continue to read and keep you mindfully in my thoughts and deeds.

--Danielle Conger, Maryland, USA
Theatre du Monde

5:20 AM, January 04, 2005  
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2:44 AM, July 16, 2012  

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