Gopinath recalls Special Envoy Clinton's Nagapattinam visit
The quiet fishing town of Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu was left devastated in the wake of the tsunami that hit its shores in December 2004, destroying all that lay in its path - fishing boats, houses and more than 6000 lives. Five months later, on 27 May 2005, the bereaved town got ready to receive the former U.S. President Clinton in his new role as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special envoy for tsunami-relief. Accompanied by the UN Resident Coordinator Maxine Olsen and UNICEF Country Representative Cecilio Adorna, President Clinton visited Nagapattinam to try and understand the situation of people still living in temporary shelters and to highlight the importance of a coordinated response and the need to accelerate post-tsunami recovery efforts.
UNICEF extender Gopinath Durairajan chronicles the visit and the weeks preceding it.
It is three weeks now since I first heard the news about Mr. Clinton’s imminent visit to Nagapattinam, and the memory of that moment is still fresh in my mind. I was in a discussion with the Assistant Director of Health Services, when I noticed an unusual expression on his face – an expression I seldom get to see. As though reading my mind, he said “Gopi, Mr. Bill Clinton is visiting Nagapattinam on 27th May.” I remember, I was all excited and thrilled. There was so much to be done, so much to be arranged, so much to be prepared and planned. A district level meeting was called that evening to discuss the special envoy’s visit. Though Nagapattinam had seen many high level delegations since the tsunami, Mr. Clinton’s visit was a matter of enthusiasm. Everybody seemed very happy. Nagapattinam would be highlighted once again in the global picture - this time for happier reasons. The District Collector believed that Mr. Clinton’s visit would bring with it a lot of goodwill for the people of Nagapattinam. The preparatory work started. Meetings became more frequent. Interaction with the district officials increased. A strong bond began to form amongst us, as we worked together with more understanding and enthusiasm. Teams from UNDP-Delhi and UNICEF-Chennai arrived in Nagapattinam to assess the situation. Plans began to roll out. Work became frantic day by day. But all this was made easy by the flexibility and coordination among district administrations - without which, it would have been a chaotic affair.
The UNDP, UNICEF and The Clinton Foundation teams arrived in Nagapattinam on 24 May. The following day a meeting, involving all the teams and the district officials, was held to finalise the proceedings for the visit. Roads were laid down. Buildings were painted afresh - care was taken to retain the original character of the place. During the course of preparations for the visit, I met many officials, and learnt a lot from them. The ever-changing schedule for the SE’s visit was still uncertain. Gradually plans started taking shape. The foyer in the Collectorate was turned into the NGO Coordination and Resource Centre. The ITI shelter was to be the second point-of-stop for Mr. Clinton. Two families living in the shelter were selected to interact with the SE. Two children from the ICDS centre were selected to show him around the centre. Media had a big role to play. UN accredited media were invited to capture the whole event in print, and video. The positioning of media became very crucial, and a detailed plan was drawn regarding the same.
27 May, Friday – The big day dawned upon us. I was given the responsibility of distribution of passes for the UN teams. A dry run was to be performed. I visited the shelter along with the UNICEF Communication Chief to verify that everything was in place. At this juncture, the Superintendent of Police, in charge of security in ITI shelter, helped us a great deal in putting everything in place.
2.25 pm - I was at my position in the ICDS shelter when the SE’s chopper flew past us towards the helipad. My excitement was mounting. I kept glancing at my watch waiting to the time to tick faster. While Mr. Clinton was visiting the Collectorate, I was preparing the kids at the shelter for his visit. The innocent kids were only too happy, because it was no less than a celebration for them. These kids had not interacted with so many people before, as they had during the last two days. They were treated like little VIPs. Suddenly there was a hustle amongst the people. The noise became louder. As I peeped outside the shelter, I noticed members of the media arriving in a hurry and taking their positions. I knew the moment had come. The convoy made its grand entrance into the shelter, reeling past the crowd of people waiting there to catch a glimpse of the SE. Suddenly the noise mellowed, and the first person to get out of the car was the Collector who was playing host to the entire event. The Country and the State representatives of UNICEF joined him in welcoming the SE, who finally arrived in a Toyota land cruiser, which was nowhere close to the limo that I had imagined him to come in. First I saw a white figure sitting inside, looking through the window, and then I saw him, in person, as he got out of his SUV. Mr. Clinton was wearing an orange coloured polo-shirt with casual khaki trousers. He was not very different from what I had seen of him on TV. He disappeared in the crowd, I believe, visiting volunteers from the WHO as a part of the schedule. Minutes later, he made his entry towards the ICDS centre, where the children were sitting in a circle, welcoming him with songs. He made his way into the circle, when all the children began to sing “Welcome Mr. President”. He shook hands with every child present there. The children were happy to see him, and he was happy to be with them. The sight was a pleasant one, and everybody present there could not help but smile. Led by two children, Mr. Clinton came into the ICDS centre, where I was waiting. This was when I had a closer look at him. A handsome person, whose charm filled up the entire place, only he could do justice to the profile of an SE. The District Collector was showing him around the centre, and I was assisting him. The SE picked up a nine-month old baby named Imran and took him into his arms. His compassion with the child was overwhelming. I had my brief moment explaining the services of ICDS to him. Finally, before leaving, he shook hands with me, while I introduced myself. It was a happy moment for me, as this visit would change the lives of the thousands affected by the tsunami disaster. His promising words brought reassurance to the residents of the shelter, the district administration and other stakeholders.
I am happy and grateful to UNICEF for giving me this opportunity to be a part of the SE’s visit.