Everything about the Andaman and Nicobar islands can leave the Indian mainlander staring with wide-eyed wonderment. For most journalists it was a similar experience - learning how these remote and largely inaccessible islands function, how their ancient tribes live and of course discover the endless beauty of its shores and what a world away these tiny dots in the ocean are from anything we see on the mainland. Vishnu Som, the Associate Editor (Defence) at NDTV was among the first journalists who landed in Car Nicobar after the December 26th tsunami. Here is his account of what he saw, what moved him and what became of one of the world's oldest tribes – the Shompen.
From Heaven to Hell: The Great Nicobar Story
By Vishnu Som Associate Editor (Defence), NDTV
Ever had the feeling of the ground sinking under your feet? It's a strange feeling, the earth gently quivering, not quite an earthquake, but not quite normal either. On Great Nicobar Island, India's southernmost landmass, nothing was normal. Ever since the magnitude 9 earthquake struck, just 40 kms away from where I was reporting, everything had gone topsy-turvy.
Late one evening, as I prepared for a live standup report from Cambell Bay, a small township on the northeast of the island, the ground started shaking again. Should I run, was this a major aftershock ... was another Tsunami just around the corner? Great Nicobar felt like a sinking ship, except that there were no lifeboats. In fact, there was nothing and no one really knew what to expect next. On the one remaining road which connected Campbell Bay and the tiny airstrip the Japanese had built during the Second World War, there were families of crabs, dozens of them, scurrying around. Inside the nearby Coast Guard headquarters, now partially under water, there was only one resident. A crocodile.
The waters of the Bay of Bengal were now just 20 feet away from us. If the waters rose even one foot more, the road would be under water and the only link to the airstrip would be severed. Not that it really mattered. Planes couldn't operate onto the airstrip at night. Rescue would not be possible. But the most frightening reality of Great Nicobar wasn't the aftershocks, or the crashing waves. It was the fact that there were no dead bodies, no over-filled hospitals, no stench of death and devastation and no illness. Those who had survived were in a handful of relief camps. Those who weren't there were dead, their bodies somewhere out there in the ocean, never to be recovered.
The knowledge of death brings with it a sense of closure. For the first several days after the Tsunami, many of those who made it to the relief camps lived with a sense of hope. Sure, their loved ones were missing but who was to say that they were dead?Thousands of people from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are still missing. They have not survived. It's a reality many survivors on the islands have no choice but to slowly come to accept .
Elsewhere on the island, a remarkable story of surviving the odds. The Shompen, perhaps the most isolated tribe in the world date back between 30,000 and 70,000 years. Unlike some of the other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar chain, the Shompen have conscientiously avoided any contact with `civilization,' content in living off the thick jungles which form the core of the island.Very little is known of the tribe. They are extremely shy, scurrying into the jungles at the sound of helicopters. Armed with poison-tipped spears, the nomadic Shompen hunt wild boar and fish in rivulets which run through the island.
The Shompen may have survived 70,000 years but had any of the 200 tribals survived the wrath of the Tsunami? I joined commandos of the Indian Navy in trying to find out.A day earlier, the first signs that at least some members of the tribe may have made it. Two naval pilots had spotted a Shompen dwelling in a densely forested area along a narrow rivulet. Today, it was time to verify the survival of the tribe.
With the jungles on the island too thick to land a helicopter, I was winched down into a narrow opening and joined by a young commando, a Lieutenant from the Navy in hiking to the Shompen village."Be careful where you tread. This undergrowth is infested with snakes and scoropns. Stay clear of the rivulet, there may be crocs" I was warned. As I hiked along the slippery, muddy slopes alongside the rivulet, falling to my knees every fifty metres or so, I spotted the Shompen village - 6 small thatched structures built on stilts at least 15 feet high and 3 smaller enclosed pens nearby. Wading across the rivulet and climbing the thick slope on the opposite side, we reached the dwelling.
There were no Shompen.
This was a deserted village. Or was it?"They're here said Lieutenant K U Singh. And they're watching. They're probably a 100 metres away from us looking on at us from somewhere there" he said pointing to the thick forests which ringed one side of the village. And sure enough, the signs of the tribe having survived were all there. Smoke from what looked like a cooking utensil, freshly cut fruit, footprints in the mud and wild boar in bamboo cages under the Shompen huts. Soon, it was time to leave. No one really knew about the behaviour patterns of the Shompen and there was every possibility that they could attack. In any event, our goal was not to disturb the tribe, only verify their survival through a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions.
The next day, my last on Great Nicobar, was perhaps the ultimate reality check, an opportunity to view the island from the air, and gauge the true extent of the topographical damage.The Navy flew me along the coastline. Within minutes we were at Indira Point, the southern-most point of India. The lighthouse at the southern tip of the island was ten feet under water, the 16 people who worked here, presumed dead. They had no chance. The Tsunami waves struck the lighthouse less than 5 minutes after they were triggered by the earthquake.
But it was the Western coastline of the islands where the fury of the Tsunami was most evident. Every few kilometers, there were dagger-like blows into the jungles along the coast, sea water making its way upto three kilometers inland, parts of the island completely cut-off, now islands by themselves. However, there was one silver-lining. The parts of the island worst hit by the Tsunami were also the least populated and that really was the saving grace on Great Nicobar. Only 7,500 people lived on the island. 567 are thought to have died. Only 27 bodies have been found, of which just 10 have been identified.
For me as a journalist, the Great Nicobar story was not just about death and suffering. It was also about survival, courtesy a few good men, soldiers of the Indian Army, a few Coast Guard Officers, transport pilots of the Indian Air Force and helicopter pilots of the Indian Navy.Two stories stands out.
Within days of the Tsunami, two Navy pilots flying a tiny Chetak helicopter off the deck of a destroyer rescued a remarkable 170 people from a settlement to the south of Campbell Bay. On each trip, their helicopter could not carry more than 2 survivors but that didn't deter them. They kept flying for more than 5 hours non-stop, landing more than a 100 times in order to bring trapped islanders to safety.
Elsewhere, a young Major of the Indian Army felt that those who survived the disaster may have lost everything, but shouldn't feel that they have lost their dignity. And so, he ordered his soldiers out of their barracks and made them camp outside in the open, while survivors were put into the soldier's barracks and given three proper meals a day.No one knows what is going to happen to Great Nicobar. Most of the settlers who were brought here in the late sixties have lost everything. Most families worked on betel nut and coconut plantations which have been devastated by the giant waves. It takes between 12-14 years for these trees to grow back to their full height. Earning a living off these plantations is just not a possibility.
And then there's the fear factor.
Tremors continue to be felt on the island and the coastline has receded sharply. Sea water levels remain higher than normal. All settlements will have to move further inland, a process of resettlement which may take years.Great Nicobar was a tropical paradise. Warm seas, a stunning coastline, a laid back life. Today, it seems to have gone back a century. A handful of settlers, a handful of soldiers and ofcourse the ever-present Shompen.
(Vishnu Som was the first journalist into Great Nicobar Island and the first to independently corroborate the survival of the Shompen tribe.)