Mass burials, fears of disease as tsunami toll mounts in Asia

Sea chose who lived, who died

Village In India

December 28, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KOONIMEDU KUPPAM, India - The water hit as Kalaimaran pulled the freshly caught crabs and prawns out of his net. Like the other fishermen on the beach, he started running. When he saw his 4-year-old daughter, he yelled: "The sea is coming! Run!"

But she disappeared. For hours after he made it to safety, Kalaimaran searched for his missing family members: his daughter, his younger sister, his mother. He looked up and down the coast, under palm trees and in the wreckage of his village.

"We didn't know anything," said Kalaimaran, 34, who like many in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu uses only one name. "We just ran. Those who escaped, escaped. And those who were stuck, they died."

The tsunamis came without warning Sunday morning to Tamil Nadu, one of the areas hit hardest when a huge earthquake sent walls of water crashing throughout southern and southeastern Asia, killing at least 22,000 people in nine countries.

In India, at least 6,500 people died, officials said. Almost half were on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, near the epicenter of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

But many of the other fatalities happened in the fishing villages that line the southeast coast of India. Children playing cricket were swept away. Fishermen were lost. Women were crushed under houses.

Mass burials

Yesterday, many bodies were buried or cremated. Mass burials were held near the coast, with bulldozers pushing dirt over hundreds of bodies. Those who could afford it cremated dead family members.

All day, new bodies washed onto beaches. Others were found under debris. Many of the dead were children.

Family members continued to search for the missing or sat along the streets, in bus shelters and wedding halls, too frightened and numb to return to the mess where they once lived. One man held onto a TV like an anchor. Many called out the names of their dead, as if doing so would make them come back.

"Uma," repeated Mariayi, 50, in a sing-song mantra of her dead daughter.

Everyone in Mariayi's village of Devanampattinam seemed to have lost someone - wives, husbands, daughters-in-law, sons, granddaughters, families. Here, the water came so quickly that no one had time to run.

"The sea pushed us down," said Karthik, 20, whose wife and infant daughter perished. "And the sea decided who was saved."

About 300 people, mostly children, died in the village. Hundreds were buried in a grave about 100 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Survivors were taken to wedding halls, used as makeshift shelters, less than a mile away. None wanted to go home.

"Why go back?" asked M. Nagaraj, 44, a fisherman like all the other men. "We have no homes to live in. We have no vegetables to cook."

The worst damage was in the villages that could least afford it, where families have long lived off the ocean and nothing else. The villagers sounded almost betrayed: They had been taught how to fish, but they had never learned about tsunamis, rarely seen in the Indian Ocean.

"We have been here for generations," said Kandasamy, 32, in Koonimedu Kuppam. "We had no idea this could happen, not from our fathers, not from our grandfathers."

The villages were not just flattened. They were thrown into a blender; nothing was where it belonged.

Fishing nets were tangled in palm trees and colorful silk saris. Catamarans and fiberglass boats were thrown like children's toys into the middle of villages. A boat named after a Hindu god crashed into one fisherman's living room. The water ripped palm trees out of the ground and threw at least one horse to its death, hundreds of feet away.

Kalaimaran, the fisherman who searched for his family, walked through what remained of Koonimedu Kuppam yesterday. Boats rested on downed power lines and near a temple. The water was fickle, sweeping away a seven-headed god statue from a beach temple while leaving a fragile pot from a wedding ceremony intact.

The only sounds were of crashing waves, circling crows and a woman wailing for someone who was gone. Nagamalli, 45, married since she was 13, walked up and down the beach, looking for her husband. She wore a yellow-green sari and two gold bangles, and she hugged her elbows to her chest, looking dignified and small. She had nothing else left.

"He didn't even go to fish," Nagamalli said softly. "He just happened to go to the sea."

The dead, the living

Kalaimaran was also wearing his worldly possessions: a polo shirt, khaki pants and flip-flops. His eyes were red.

After hours, he found his mother's body about a half-mile down the beach, floating in the wreckage of a jellyfish shop. She had been swept to sea while cleaning fish. His sister's body came to rest in the same place a half-hour later.

Just up the seashore, bodies were being buried yesterday, one after the other. Kalaimaran buried his mother and sister.

But he did have one piece of good news. His daughter lived.

After he told her to run, the 4-year-old dashed all the way to the East Coast Road. There, she somehow caught a bus to Pondicherry, a city about 12 miles south of the village. For the time being, the family is living at a bus shelter and sleeping on the ground.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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