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Rediff.com  » News » A picture of hell, and no kerosene

A picture of hell, and no kerosene

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Last updated on: January 01, 2005 16:10 IST

It's five kilometres of hell, and it's right here at Nagapattinam.

Kaviarsi studies - make that studied - in the sixth standard. Her schoolbooks lie a short distance away, and besides them lies a doll.

The girl herself lies on a makeshift pyre on what used to be her home, her face totally blackened, her neck twisted upwards, the skin peeling off her legs like torn stockings. There is a large empty container of Pepsi lying just besides her, and four other bodies. And besides the pyre, towards the sunset, are five long kilometers of slushy wasteland strewn with dead bodies.

It wasn't like this five days ago. We - me and two companions - are at a part of Nagapattinam called Akkarakadai, where a prosperous fishing community lived. This five-kilometre-long stretch of land was filled with houses, and had at its heart a bustling Sunday marketplace. The people here were well off - some of them had expensive fishing launches costing many lakhs of rupees. Then the tsunami came.

These settlements begin half a kilometre from the sea, across the road, but the tsunami swept everything away. Every single house was flooded away, all the way till the end of the stretch, and when I went there, I just saw one long expanse of slush. In the distance, there were pyres burning.

Dr Narasimhan, a man I'd wanted to meet, who heads a team of relief workers that has come down from Salem, told me when I called him that we had to walk into that expanse, beyond the pyres. "Walk towards the sunset till you find me," he said, and we did.

It took us half-an-hour to traverse the half-kilometre or so until we reached him. The ground was like quicksand in parts, and our shoes would sink in with each step and resist our attempts to lift our feet again. We came across dead bodies on the way: a young girl in a basket, her limbs akimbo, and her face, with some dried blood on it, contorted in an expression that even Damien Hirst would have found too macabre. Three feet away from her lay a woman, with a frozen look of horror on her face, etched into an eerie permanence.


"In an unprecedented situation, you need an unprecedented response"

"For the next five kilometres," Dr Narsimhan motion towards the setting sun, "you will find bodies everywhere. Only the distance you have walked so far - around half a kilometre - has been cleared of corpses. This is the furthest point till which bodies have been cleared. There is so much work to be done."

"It's five days since the tsunami happened," I say. "Why is this place so deserted, why hasn't all this been sorted?"

Dr Narasimhan sighs. "Sorted," he asks. "All that the government has been doing is lining the streets outside with bleaching powder. They are not interested in coming here, they left this to the NGOs. And look at this." He extends his hands towards me. "We're doing all the work of moving bodies with surgical gloves made of latex, which are no protection against cuts and bruises."

I had heard about this before I arrived here, in Pondicherry, where Aid workers had complained that the locals in Nagapattinam had refused to help out in clearing the bodies, and when the aid workers got down to it with their latex gloves, the bodies had started decomposing, and were difficult to manoeuvre, with a limb prone to just falling away from the rest of the corpse.

"We need heavy earth-moving equipment," he had said. "That way the bodies can be shifted en masse and given a mass burial. That is the only way to deal with this situation." Mani Shankar Aiyar, India's petroleum minister, had announced on TV four days ago that such equipment was at the top of his wishlist of aid. Then why did it not materialise? Could the government not mobilise its resources even that much?

But that need is redundant now, says Dr Narsimhan. "What we need now," he says, "is kerosene. We need to burn bodies as we come along them on this stretch, before they decompose further. And we have no kerosene.

"We've been calling aid agencies and so on asking for fuel to burn the bodies with," he continues, "but we got none. We managed to file some cans of kerosene lying around some of the devastated houses, but there's no more of even that?"

"But can't the government give you kerosene?" I ask astonished.

"The government does nothing," he says. "I thought differently till I came here, but now I've seen it for myself. Everything is left to the junior IAS officers, who are in meetings all day. Ministers come, and all they want to know is how many people are dead. They don't care about relief work at all. In an unprecedented situation you need an unprecedented response. But that has not happened."

The temple without a toilet

Dr Narsimhan gets back to his work, and I look up, where a helicopter moves languidly across the sky. "That's the fifth one today," says a lady who is part of the doctor's team.

"They come and 'survey' the area, which is so pointless, because you cannot actually see the dead bodies from here amid this debris. It is just a show, to reassure themselves that they're on top of things. The army officers who come here, they refuse to even touch the bodies. They just hang around aimlessly."

I ask the lady what she does, and she says that she is a journalist, but would like to remain unnamed for my story. "I have come here to help out and not report," she says. "That is more important for me." I look down, ashamed.

She has been here for three days, and I ask her why, mucky though it may be, the place doesn't have any people looking for their loved ones. "Because the entire community is wiped out," she says. "There aren't too many relatives left of the people who have died here, and those that are have become resigned to their loss."

"Have you been to any of the refugee camps?" I ask her.

"Yes," she says. "I went to a refugee camp yesterday where there were 1,500 homeless people. And not one toilet. Do you know why?

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"Because the camp was based in a temple," she continues, "and you cannot build a toilet in a temple. And I'd gone there to speak to them on health issues! And they cannot even wash their hands.

"And this is not an isolated example. There are scores of refugee camps like this. I hardly call this relief work."

And how are the NGOs handling the situation, I ask. "Oh, they are doing all the work, the government is doing nothing," she says. "But even they are competitive, trying hard to stake a claim to territory." I had noticed a similar tendency when I was on my way here, with many trucks adorned with banners proclaiming the name of the relief agency involved. The organization I had chosen to travel with, Aid India, was an exception, though, working hard and sincerely to solve every problem that arose.

So why haven't the press written about this, I ask her. "The press," she snorts. "The journalists from the Hindu are all flying around with dignitaries. That is the kind of reporting they do."

The sun has set, and there is a column of smoke rising from the pyres flowing in the direction where the sun was. It is New Year's eve. I say goodbye to Narasimhan and my unnamed journalist friend, and I do not wish them a happy new year. I wish them kerosene.

Amit Varma is travelling around the disaster-affected areas in Tamil Nadu, and is writing on his experiences in his blog, India Uncut. This article has been adapted from one of his posts.

Amit Varma
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