Out of the jungle come the starving, startled survivors

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The Independent Online

She lay in a hospital bed, her baby son curled up by her side. The boy's head and body were smeared with dried blood. Her name was Priscilla and the boy was Michael. Two more victims of the tsunami. But she did not want to talk. She turned her back and gently tended to the child.

Other people in the hospital said she was a single mother, an aborigine from the remote island of Chowra, where her village had been wiped out by the tsunami.

And Irene James now owns nothing. Even the clothes on her back, the sober black dress, the red scarf tied round her forehead, were given to her by relief workers. Everything she owned was wiped out in two minutes. Her 10-year-old granddaughter, Olive, sits quietly in her lap.

They have nowhere to go. Their village, too, does not exist. Car Nicobar, their island, is all but uninhabitable now. Irene and her granddaughter survived three days in the jungle before Indian rescue teams found them. They lived off coconuts, yams and bananas. There was no fresh water, so they drank the milk from coconuts.

They used to have a comfortable house and a television until the wave snuffed out the 21st century and returned their island to the Stone Age. They have no idea where they will go or what they will do. They are utterly dependent on the charity of others, huddled under a makeshift canvas awning in a refugee camp in an empty school in Port Blair, the capital of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Crowded around them are thousands of refugees, all with their own stories. "Ask England," the head of the family says quietly, "ask England to pray for us."

Moses Reuben is Irene's brother-in-law, a soft-spoken man with a heavily lined face. His son and two grandsons died. "My son, Paul, was trying to rescue my grandson. Melchior, my grandson was sleeping.

"He was two years old, he wouldn't wake up. Paul tried to lift him but he couldn't get hold of him in time. The wave came up and the wall of the house collapsed on them. My other grandson, Gaile Fostis, died too. He was nine months old."

Mr Reuben and his family are Nicobarese, the original inhabitants of the Nicobar Islands. They look little like mainland Indians and they speak their own language. But the aborigine culture of Car Nicobar is not a pre-modern leftover, as is found on some of the other Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The people are formally educated. Mr Reuben speaks impeccable English. He worked as a social worker on Car Nicobar.

Like most of the people on the island, he is also a Christian. "We were praying in church when the tsunami came," he says. "We had just started praying. I want to go back to Car Nicobar. It's our home. But I cannot think that Car Nicobar will ever be the same again."

Then he starts to sketch out a map of the island on paper. He crosses out the coastline, and draws a new, smaller coast. "That's all gone now," he says, "disappeared under the water." Car Nicobar is the worst-hit. Almost all traces of civilisation have been wiped out and half the island's population of 10,000 people are missing. Thousands of survivors lived in the jungle for days and there are hopes that still more are hiding out deep in the jungle.

The authorities have imposed a blanket ban on journalists travelling to Car Nicobar, but relief workers who have been on the island say the situation is far worse than the government is admitting.

At Port Blair's harbour, a constant stream of ships bears refugees from the islands, their grim features picked out by the spotlights in the harbour. As the crowd trudges wearily down the jetty, one woman stops and begins to wail uncontrollably, cradling a baby in her arms.

"Will you write what has happened to us?" demands another man. "The authorities have done nothing for us. We have been forced to live in the jungle for a week, and only now they have come for us." His name is AK Das and he is from Hut Bay on Little Andaman. "There is nothing left there," he says."We had nothing to eat for three days." His wife is moaning with hunger.

Raji Suri, a woman clutching a baby, says: "There were wild elephants and snakes in the jungle where we were sleeping. Little green snakes; they are poisonous and we were afraid of them. This child is one year old. There was no food to give him."

Anger is boiling against the authorities. The government has refused US aid, saying it can handle the problem. But many refugees from the islands say the authorities have not done enough. Relief workers have accused the authorities of underplaying the scale of the disaster.

At the harbour, a man looms out of the darkness. At first, he smiles and wants to shake your hand. He is a refugee from Car Nicobar. Then, abruptly, he starts to cry. You put your arms around him. There is nothing else you can do.