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Touched by the Waves

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February 2005
Touched by the Waves

By SWATI BAJPAI

Like a prism, the deadly tsunami has brought forth myriad reflections of human nature, ranging from the heights of compassion and determination to the depths of greed and exploitation. The relief efforts that are pouring in from all over the world are bringing out the true meaning of the term, ?Vasudeva Kutumbkam' ("The world is one family"). At the same time, governments and human rights organizations are on the alert to prevent human trafficking of the thousands of newly orphaned children.

In our times of a hyperactive media characterized by "eye-witness" news, we have seen much death and destruction from the comfort of our couches ? often with popcorn or pakoras on the side. With our abysmally fickle attention spans towards tragedy and trauma, there is a distinct fear that we will soon gloss over this calamity as well. 200,000 dead? Well, it's just a statistic "out there".

With that in mind, we decided to talk to a few locals who were closely, if not directly affected by the killer waves ? in an attempt to personify the stories and remain engaged rather than aloof.

Pastor Palmer Paramdas, who lives a simple life working for the Atlanta Tamil Church, celebrated Christmas Day with gaiety. In his prayers he remembered his many family members in India. Little did he know that for some of those, life would be forever altered. His wife's sister had gone to visit Nagapattinam, one of worst affected areas. They were there to offer their prayers at a local shrine of Mother Mary when the waves hit them. Eight members of their group were immediately swept away. A lone boy from an entire family survived. "He has become speechless. He is completely shocked and is not reacting at all," said Pastor Palmer. "Imagine his whole family dying right before his eyes. At the moment he is staying with a relative in Bangalore."

Speaking about his involvement with the relief work, Pastor Palmer said, "They need money!" Full of praises for the actor Vivek Oberoi who has adopted a village, Pastor Palmer has set up a Tsunami Relief Fund for his church. "We hear that fishermen for whom the sea was their mother, feel that it has become their enemy. The sounds of waves terrify them. Yet they want to get back to their source of livelihood as they don't like to be dependent on aid. We plan to help them secure their instruments of earning," he elaborated.

Becky Douglas, who was featured in an earlier issue of Khabar for her work with leprosy patients in Chennai, runs an organization called Rising Star Outreach. Amongst its many services is a RSO school for children of lepers or as well as those who are abandoned or handicapped. Situated on East Coast Road in Chennai, this facility is a good bit away from the shoreline. At the very minute the first waves hit, Becky was on the phone with Gopi Sundaram, the Director of children's school. In the midst of the conversation, a flabbergasted Gopi reported there was seawater coming through the door! He hung up in haste.

After many anxious minutes when Becky finally got through to Gopi again, nature's massive destructive force had already asserted its ruthless power. Miraculously, the wave had stopped just a few feet from the school, and RSO and its children were sparred. That was no consolation, however, to a broken down Gopi who described a scene of total death and destruction between sobs. He spent the next few hours amidst the debris and the bodies of the dead children, flattened and impaled against fences ? a surreal and devastating sight.

Within days, Becky was on a plane to Chennai, having decided to include tsunami relief as a part of RSO efforts. Recounting her experiences, she said that while the main city seemed as normal as if nothing had happened, the shock came when they saw the sheer scale of destruction in the coastal areas that were affected. "The scene near the beach was heart wrenching. So many people were on the roads, waiting for relief supplies to come. These were the people who were earlier earning their livelihood with grace, and it was really sad to see their faces in this time of total destruction."

Full of praises for the Indian government and the Army, Becky thinks that they have done a commendable job in face of such adversity and on such a short notice. "They built roads overnight. There is a National Relief Officer to avoid duplication of relief supplies and to help with distribution of the goods. The government is relocating the survivors and every death is being compensated monetarily," she recounted.

As far as the reaction of the victims is concerned, Becky feels that she has seen ?The Good, The Bad and The Ugly'. "Like at any time of devastation, people have developed a hoarding tendency, be it for food or for clothing. But there is also another side. We were visiting one of the villages, where all the boats and nets of the fishermen had been destroyed. When we asked them how much the boats cost, they told us the real costs. They could have said that they had motorboats but they were really honest about it. In another incident we took 100 blankets to a village panchayat with a population of 325. Since there weren't enough blankets, another organization too offered 150 blankets. There was no frantic grabbing," she remembered.

About the relief organizations too she feels the same. "Some of them were making an effort to know people and their needs while others were just dumping the goods and moving on."

Overall Becky feels that the distant and unreachable villages are the worst affected and they are not getting adequate help. "The ones near the mainland were getting biryani and curries and the streets are clogged with clothes while many are still going on, on empty stomachs. I hope they too get adequate help," she prayed.

Jaliya Wickramasuriya is a dedicated member of the Georgia Buddhist Vihara and is originally from Sri Lanka. "A friend of mine was vacationing in a luxury resort with his family on Christmas Day. When the tsunami struck, he was on the first floor with his wife while his children, who included a son and two daughters, were taking gifts out of the car. Suddenly my friend saw a pitch-black wall of water as high as thirty feet. He shouted for his children to rush up but it was too late. The waves came and enveloped everyone. Later, the son and one daughter were found. They found the body of the other girl," said an emotional Wickramasuriya.

Impacted by this and other stories of tragedy in his native country that were constantly bombarding the TV screens, Jaliya decided that he had to be there to help.

Reaching Sri Lanka, Jaliya felt that life was as usual in Colombo. "Just the half kilometer area near the beach has been affected. Tourism and Fisheries are the two worst hit industries. Since I went to Hambantota to help, I met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa too. He belongs to that area and I have to admit that the government is doing a commendable job. They are allocating land, and various private companies and NGO's are offering to reconstruct houses and communities. Architects are offering their services, too. There is enough food, water and clothing."

Life has changed forever for the tsunami victims and Jaliya too felt its impact. "Thousands of children have become orphans. Wives are left with no husbands and husbands are left with no wives. The social thread has weakened and we will have to wait to see its impact. For the moment, the most important thing is to bring normalcy back into the lives of the victims by rebuilding houses and securing their boats and nets so they can return to earning their own livelihood. Georgia Buddhist Vihara, Inc. has taken on building twenty-five houses and a community center. The construction of one house costs roughly around $2,000-2,500 and we are collecting funds," he added.

Praising the various religious leaders, be it Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Buddhists for their work in these disastrous times, Jaliya says, "They forgot all differences and got together to offer their services. I wish that it can remain like this and we continue to remain living like humans bonded with love and not be divided by religions."


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