Trauma still runs deep

Trauma still runs deep

RAGGED with exhaustion and grief, Ms M. Indira was unaware that someone was taking a picture of her sprawled helplessly on the beach next to the body of her sister-in-law Maheswari 10 years ago. For three days, she had stumbled through the rubble left by the tsunami that hit the Tamil Nadu coast on the clear blue sky morning after Christmas in December 2004.

Off shore, bodies occasionally floated by. Many were bodies of children. Her own three children had survived but she had been away at the market well inland and endured a day and night of agony before she found them.

With them safe, she had set out to find other family members. Maheswari's body was already decomposing by the time Indira located it and collapsed on the beach, wailing with grief and banging her forehead on the hard wet sand near the young woman's outstretched hand.

Arka Datta, then a Reuters photographer, captured that moment. The picture was published all over the world, and won that year's World Press Photo of the Year award.

Today, Ms Indira owns a cement house in her own name, compliments of the government's massive effort to provide proper housing for hundreds of thousands who had been living in vulnerable clay and thatch houses on that awful day on the disaster-prone coast which was also battered in 2011 by Cyclone Thane. It is a big improvement over the flimsy dwelling that was partially damaged in the tsunami that destroyed most of her few possessions.

But apart from that, the fame the photograph brought has not made her better off. She was poor to begin with, and now in debt and more or less alone; her husband had abandoned her and their family years before the tsunami.

Aside from the twist of the picture, Ms Indira's story is not unusual. South of Pondicherry, down Tamil Nadu state's fabled Coromandel Coast from Cuddalore to Nagapattinam, fishing villages that were on the shore and were struck by the tsunami were wiped out. More than 16,000 people died on the coast; the fishing communities were the worst hit.

Tens of thousands of houses have been built for those who lost their homes, mostly in places further from the shore. Up to 80,000 boats were damaged or destroyed and new ones given to all of their owners.

But in some of these communities, there remains a sense of dislocation. The tsunami altered not just this region's physical contours, but its social and psychological landscape too.

Money poured in - from aid organisations, the government, the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and an array of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - and it brought relief and hope.

Today, the spinoffs continue. For example, one remote rural school in Nambikkai in Cuddalore district, set up for tsunami orphans with Italian aid, now provides schooling for orphans in general, as well as children from dysfunctional families. Italian university students take turns to teach there.

The Irula tribe, once semi-nomadic and who until the 1970s made a living from catching snakes and supplying the snakeskin market, also benefited. The tribe lost homes and possessions and livestock in the tsunami, but being largely situated well back from the beach, no lives were lost.

The community of 65 families in Thottithopu, Cuddalore, have been able to rebuild their homes and lives with assistance from the state and from NGOs which, among other things, have paid for new school facilities.

Before the tsunami, few of the children in the affected districts went to school and fewer still completed their schooling; today, all go to school. Even some of the older, illiterate women have learnt to sign their own names.

Girls, who once routinely dropped out of school on reaching puberty, stay in school longer today. Some are training to become nurses. Ms S. Vijayalakshmi, 29, who is now a qualified teacher, describes herself as a "creation of the tsunami" because of the opportunities the disaster opened up in its wake as aid and attention poured in. "Education was given priority only after the tsunami."

But there are exceptions. In many communities, the aid and rebuilding have not addressed fundamental problems. For example, houses have toilets - but it is a struggle to teach some communities, who have for generations just used the surrounding countryside, how to use them. In some places, ground water became saline; in one resettled village, residents have to pay two rupees (four Singapore cents) for a 5-litre container of fresh water from a private water truck.

The state government is trying to eliminate the factors that contribute to making disasters worse, says Mr Suresh Kumar, the District Collector - the top official - of Cuddalore. In an interview, he says: "We are converting more and more temporary houses into full-fledged houses; we are in the process of constructing 80,000 such houses." Under another scheme, 100,000 houses had been built, he says.

"The government played an excellent role," says Mr Arul Selvam, an independent environmental and social activist who helped coordinate rescue and relief efforts after the tsunami.

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