Boy rescued after nine days trapped in well

Teenager who mistook tremors for a bomb is pulled out alive as aid workers race to combat threat of cholera epidemic
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The Independent Online

A village about 25 miles from here was celebrating the miraculous escape of a teenager named Arjunbhai yesterday. He was pulled unscathed from a well nine days after the earthquake which has devastated India's westernmost region.

A village about 25 miles from here was celebrating the miraculous escape of a teenager named Arjunbhai yesterday. He was pulled unscathed from a well nine days after the earthquake which has devastated India's westernmost region.

According to villagers in Sikaravadi, on the edge of Bhachau district, Arjunbhai thought the 26 January quake was a bomb, and took shelter in a shed which fell into the well. He finally attracted the attention of rescuers by lobbing stones out of the pit.

For most people in the Kutch region, however, the reality is that hope of finding further survivors has been abandoned. The authorities called in the bulldozers over the weekend, fearing the spread of disease from thousands of decaying corpses buried beneath the rubble of towns such as Bhachau, Anjar and Bhuj, the regional capital.

Aid workers said there were no signs yet that contamination from the bodies had caused cholera or typhoid, but unhygienic living conditions and lack of shelter against the cold nights had led to outbreaks of diarrhoea and vomiting as well as respiratory infections, especially in remote villages.

Mountains of firewood for the cremation of corpses were still stacked up yesterday at the turning to Bhachau, where barely a building was left standing. But all over the site of the town, heavy earth-moving equipment was at work, indiscriminately scooping up the ruins of houses and shops, along with the remains of their former occupants, and dumping them into trailers. Soldiers moved around in surgical masks, spreading disinfectant chemicals by hand.

On 26 January Bhachau - once a "nice place", according to Father Wilson Matthew, a Catholic missionary from southern India - was turned into what now resembles a brickyard. In a few days it will be scraped clean of any sign that people once lived here. Heavy equipment is being summoned from all over India for the task; as we watched, another bulldozer arrived on a low loader.

In Anjar, a larger town 25 miles to the south-west where the entire bazaar quarter was levelled, machinery was being manoeuvred with difficulty through the cramped and crooked lanes. A digger was tearing at the ruins of a Jain temple which collapsed with 40 worshippers inside. "They got 20 of the bodies out, but they have given up on the rest," said a student, clutching a cloth mask to his face against the stench.

The decision to sacrifice the dignity of the dead for the safety of the living adds to the likelihood that it will never be known exactly how many were killed. By yesterday the confirmed death toll was just over 15,000, according to the Delhi government, while the local authorities believe the final figure will be about 30,000. This has caused anger in Kutch, where people claim the toll was much higher.

Mahender Kotak, a community worker in Anjar, said: "The Gujarat government is saying two to two and a half thousand died here, but we have had 5,000 funerals already, and many more people remain buried."

In Bhachau, the official estimate is that 13,000 died, a shocking figure for a town of only 40,000 people. But aid workers said this might be too low, because another 40,000 unregistered workers had been attracted to the area by public works projects.

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