'Stone Age' life of island tribespeople helped them survive 'Black Sunday'

Nick Glass sees the impact on the remote indigenous peoples of the Andamans and Nicobars
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The Independent Online

Only now are we starting to discover how many of the tribespeople of India's remotest islands were lost to the Christmas tsunami.

Only now are we starting to discover how many of the tribespeople of India's remotest islands were lost to the Christmas tsunami.

Here, in the 300 or more islands in the Andamans and Nicobars, there are six unique indigenous tribes. Half now wear clothes, are Hindi-speaking and modest horticulturalists. But the other half are still naked hunter-gatherers, speaking dialects that only they understand. About one tribe, the Sentinelese, we know virtually nothing, not even the size of their population. They live in isolation on a particularly remote island. Any attempt at contact has been met with a volley of arrows.

The Nicobarese - indo-mongoloid in features - occupied six of the 12 Nicobar Islands, were the most assimilated of the tribes and almost as close to the quake's epicentre as Banda Aceh in Sumatra. Many of them are Christian. One young man called Israel told me the tsunami was God's way of punishing them for their sins. The tribe eked out a subsistence living, harvesting coconuts, raising pigs and fishing. According to the last census in 2001, there were some 26,000 Nicobarese. Some fear this number may have as much as halved when the wall of water slammed into the islands, in three successive waves, at 6.45 in the morning.

The Indian government - already criticised by its own press for its sluggish relief effort - is limiting access to the disaster zone. Journalists are flown to the relief camps at Car Nicobar, but only to those close to the airstrip. Just over 1,000 people are listed as dead and missing on this island. But many Nicobarese think the true figure is between 5,000 and 10,000. A doctor told me he'd seen "many, many bodies in the sea". The coconut groves where the villages were have been laid waste. A small fire was burning in the groves about 20 feet away. On closer inspection, I could make out a human ribcage and skull. Cremations take place where bodies are found.

The islands' governor, Ram Kapse, shuttling around the Nicobars in a helicopter, admitted that 5,500 people had died on a more southerly island, Katchall. To my knowledge, no journalist has been allowed there. The island has changed shape, losing about a fifth of its landmass. I tracked down some Katchall survivors in Port Blair. They talked of waves up to 80 feet high. One man had been "shot out to sea like a speedboat".

Two tribes - the Onge and the Greater Andamanese - were settled in special villages, built by the government. Both were hit. Most tribesmen seem to have survived, although Samir Acharya of the islands ecology group Sane told me that 14 of the 97 Onge at Dugong Creek, the biggest settlement, were unaccounted for. On Thursday night, I met the tribal elder of the Greater Andamanese evacuated to Port Blair. His tribe, once large enough to do battle with the British, has now shrunk to 50 people. He apparently fathered 10 of them.

Our evening meeting had to be secretly arranged - the Indian authorities actively discourage media contact. The elder, Jearaka, 76, and his wife, Surmei, 53, emerged from the darkness - matching the colonial description - tiny, no more than 5ft tall. The interview - through a Hindi interpreter - was conducted at a crouch. The tribe had all survived, scrambling up the hill and outrunning the water. They will return to their reserve on Straight Island on Wednesday. But Mr Acharya believes the Greater Andamanese don't really have a future without assimilation.

The fate of the other two Negrito tribes , the last of the true hunter-gatherers, remains unclear. A naval helicopter went over North Sentinel a few days after "Black Sunday", flying low enough to provoke a Sentinelese tribesman to fire off an arrow. Apparently a few Sentinelese were spotted - though there are believed to be more than 200 of them. Since the policy with this hostile tribe is to leave well alone, we will probably never know.

The Jarawa - 260 or so strong - hunt and gather on a rainforest reserve of some 800 sq km on Middle and South Andaman. Historically, they've proved hostile whenever their territory has been encroached. Four years ago they killed and castrated a fisherman who was believed to have raped a Jarawa girl.

A forestry worker told me the tribe was probably in the interior when the tsunami struck as this is the honey-gathering season. KC Ghosal, who works in the Tribal Welfare Department in Port Blair, had heard an intriguing story from the rainforest. Jarawa elders from four different hunting groups had called a meeting. Any Jarawa meeting like this is unusual in itself, but this was just four hours before the earthquake.

Mr Acharya particularly admires the Jarawa. From long observation, he doesn't believe the tribe has a word for orphan. Entering a Nicobarese relief camp in Port Blair this week, I was struck at how happy they all seemed. You could hardly believe they'd recently been through such a trauma. And yet this was a camp, I was told, that included 33 new orphans. For these resilient people, the tribe means a genuine extended family, intimate and highly supportive.

At the main hospital, an Onge girl - looking no more than 13, though assumed to be older - gave birth prematurely nine days after the tsunami. The baby weighed less than 2lbs. Mother and child are doing fine and are sharing a ward with a Jarawa couple.

Nick Glass reports from the Andamans on 'Channel 4 News' tonight at 7.30pm