Fishermen did not notice the wave that changed everything

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The Independent Online

Ravi did not even know the tsunami had passed below him. The fisherman was at sea, in deep water five miles offshore, and the vast wave moving out from the great Sumatran earthquake didn't cause a ripple. When it reached shore, it reduced his house to rubble and killed all four of his children.

Ravi did not even know the tsunami had passed below him. The fisherman was at sea, in deep water five miles offshore, and the vast wave moving out from the great Sumatran earthquake didn't cause a ripple. When it reached shore, it reduced his house to rubble and killed all four of his children.

It wasn't until Ravi and the rest of the crew returned, hours later, that they found out. The news had gone around the world, but fishing boats here have no radios. As the boat approached, Ravi saw the devastation with rising panic. Devanarpattinam, his fishing village, lay in ruins. Ravi rushed to find out if his family were alright. He found his wife alive, but their children were dead.

Stories like this haunt the Tamil Nadu coast. The fishing communities that dot the shore have been worst affected, and most of the dead have been women and children. The men were out fishing when the wave struck and it was the women, waiting to help carry the fish in, who were cut down. In Nagapattinam, south of here, 2,360 women died, and 1,835 men.

Today, the fishermen and their families sit in silent huddles next to the piles of stones, where the houses stood, and the boats which lie dotted around the village, where they were dumped by the wave.

They have been given shelter at a refugee camp in nearby Cuddalore, but they only go there to sleep at night. By day they all come back, as if drawn to the ruins of their homes.

The figures can be deceptive: 110 people died here, but the number of lives affected is far higher. Three thousand families are facing destitution. Indian families are large, often as big as 10 people, so that could mean up to 30,000 people. The boats on which they made their living have been smashed beyond repair, their houses have been flattened, their possessions destroyed.

"All we have are the clothes we are wearing," said Nagamootoo, 80. "We don't have a single rupee in our pockets."

More than 150,000 have died around the Indian Ocean. But millions are facing a desperate struggle to survive with nothing left to call their own.

The relief effort has arrived. A stream of lorries rolls in, piled high with food or clothes. The sides are painted with letters in different languages. They have come from every corner of this vast country: Hyderabad, Gujarat, Mysore. Just as the world is sending donations to the stricken, so they are sending what they can here from across India. State governments are diverting as much as they can.

The scenes could not be more different from India's Andaman islands, where bureaucratic incompetence has left the aid piling up and undistributed while survivors starve. Here it is reaching those in need.

New, temporary housing is being put up, metres from the ruins of homes. Not tents but solid structures, with thick bamboo walls. These have been donated by a millionaire Indian hotelier. Under a rapidly improvised system, benefactors have each adopted one affected village along the coast. The hotelier adopted Devanarpattinam. The next village down the coast has been adopted by a local church. From India's grandest VIPs to the humblest people, everyone is trying to help.

But the fishermen insist they do not want to live on handouts. "We need food now and we are grateful to those who are giving it," said Nagamootoo. "But we don't want to be given food. Please, give us new boats and we will go out fishing again."

These are proud men. They are poor, but they have supported their families on their own all their adult lives. The tsunami has not only taken their homes and possessions. It has taken their dignity as well.

"They all learnt to fish from their fathers, who learnt from theirs. This is the biggest disaster they have ever faced."

Nagamootoo lost his daughter, granddaughter and three grandsons. Locally renowned as an exceptionally strong swimmer, even in his old age, he was knocked over by the wave, dragged under and spun around and around, but managed to get back to the surface.

"We don't want to go anywhere else," speaks up another fisherman. "This is our home. It will take us at least six months to replace boats and nets. We will have to find other jobs to get money. But fishing is all we know." Ravi agrees. He has lost his home and, more importantly, his children, but when you ask him what he wants to do now, his answer is simple. "I want to stay here and fish."

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