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Doctors fear epidemics in overcrowded camps

© Anupam Srivastava / UNICEF / 2004
Yohana, a fisherman, breaks down while narrating his story in village Mela Manakudi, one of the worst affected areas in Tamil Nadu

Kanyakumari, December 28: The sea that gives livelihood also gives death. Thousands of fishermen, their families and others living right on the edge of the sea in Kanyakuari district of Tamil Nadu -- which has the southern tip of the Indian peninsula -- have learnt this lesson after being face to face with death.

Hundreds of them have not lived to learn from the experience. Official figures put the deaths in this district at nearly seven hundred. The death toll is rising by the hour as bodies are being extricated from the debris of houses that were razed to the ground by the tsunamis that hit this district known for its fishing and its majestic temples and churches. District officials fear the numbers will continue to rise over the next few days. More than seven hundred fishermen are still missing.

It all happened on the morning of Sunday, December 26. Sub-inspector K. R. Sonamithu was at Mela Manakudi, one of the worst-affected villages. "The sea struck twice," recalls the police officer, recuperating in a private hospital after he suffered injuries in his encounter with the sea. "The first time, the waves were lighter, but dangerous," he says. Before noon, however, the sea withdrew and he saw a sight neither he nor anyone else in the area had ever seen before. The sea withdrew by more than a kilometre or so, leaving shingles and fish on the bed. "Hundreds of people -- especially women and children -- rushed towards the sea to watch this incredibly interesting phenomenon. Many started catching the fish," he says.

Trainee Sub-Inspector, Clarence, says the police persons suspected danger and they whistled to send people away, but no one listened. Suddenly, the sea rose like a giant wall "as high as two coconut trees" and rushed towards them. It was as if the sea was gathering its strength like a tightly strung bow, and shot its immense water at people as they stood watching. "I could see it from a distance. That is when we all ran for our lives," she says.  She is one of the four of over a hundred people who survived from the crowd that stood by the sea that morning. Mela Manakudi has reported 134 deaths till now and a large number of people are still reported to be missing. Two-thirds of them are women and children. Children particularly were badly affected as they could neither run fast nor hold on to anything for support as the sea lashed them.

For the people of Kanyakumari -- particularly the fishermen whose lives revolve around the sea -  it is a situation they are not able to cope with.  It is as much about losing their family and kin as about being betrayed by the sea. Yohana's wife is missing. As he stands crying on the village street, with bulldozers rummaging through the debris and turning the earth upside down, he has little hope that she will be found. Sub-inspector Periyasamy, supervising the rescue operation, says their three days of search has yielded many dead bodies but only one living being -- a two and a half year old who was found in the bushes.

With villages completely destroyed by the tsunami, villages have become ghost villages with broken, empty houses and stench of decomposed human bodies prompting the police where to look for victims. Thousands of families have abandoned their homes and are living in camps that are being run by churches and non-governmental institutions. The only residents are those who have survived and are looking for their missing relatives. The UNICEF team visiting Kanyakumari was told in one such camp run by a local church that "we may be on the brink of a diarrhoeal epidemic" with 4,000  people depending on 15 toilets in the church premises. Doctor Sunil, working in the camp, says, "Children need cleaner water and cleaner environment than anyone else as they are more vulnerable. If they continue to live like this, there may be an outbreak of an epidemic."

Going back to villages means camping would require support in staying somewhere close to their houses. Father Angelo from the church says that people will need support in terms of camp back in their villages once they decide to go back and begin to reconstruct. Joint director, Health, Guruswamy says that the need of bleaching powder is "immediate and urgent" and will help in ensuring that no epidemics break out when people return.

UNICEF is arranging to send shelter material and bleaching powder to the areas affected by the tidal wave surge. Currently, there are four teams in different parts of India, conducting rapid assessments of the situation so that UNICEF can target its relief activities more effectively.

 

 

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