26 December 2004.
It was the day Geology committed Genocide.
For millions of people along the coastal regions of South and Southeast Asia the morning had begun like any other passing day, a step closer to the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one. Very soon though, both Earth and Ocean had conspired to take all of them to the very end of their world, initiating the greatest natural disaster in recent human history.
First came a great quake that made the entire globe tremble. Next, Tsunami waves several meters high, that destroyed everything in their path, leaving thousands upon thousands dead across half a dozen countries. Men, women, children- swept from their homes and swallowed by raging seawater. Homes, cars and even a train plucked and tossed about like toys before being smashed to pieces.
Most human societies cope with the loss of loved ones by drawing upon tradition and ritual to drown out their sorrows. The scale of the tragedy wrought by last Sundayâ€™s deadly duo of tremor and tsunamis was such it made all conventional mourning meaningless – for no one knows where to begin or where to end.
Even as I write now, from the southern Indian city of Chennai, which was also hit, the official estimate of the total numbers of dead people in India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand is touching 125,000. Over 500,000 have been injured and millions have lost everything they possessed and stand vulnerable to disease and stark poverty.
All these numbers are expected to go up further in the coming days as more and more bodies are found amidst the rubble and ruin of once functioning communities, settlements and even tourist resorts.
The killer waves ambushed and destroyed entire coastal communities, tore apart families, whimsically decimating a parent here, a child there, somebodyâ€™s wife, husband or sibling somewhere. There are countless tales of babies slipping from the hands of desperate mothers, husbands watching their wives and children drown and children seeing parents washed away to their watery graves.
Many who were witness, victim or even in the vicinity of the disaster described the experience as apocalyptical. That it well and truly was. But the catchall term â€˜Apocalypseâ€™ does not really capture the real nature of the tragedy; one needs to look closely at the personal tales of loss, sorrow, shock and injury that are emerging. What occurred clearly, was not one but countless apocalypse â€“so many individual universes snuffed out- all at the same time.
Like all great natural disasters, this one too has been spectacularly secular, caring little for the religion, caste or color of its victims. Striking as it did on the morning of the day after Christmas, a Sunday and with the full moon out in the sky for good measure, the tsunamis snared praying Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists in the region all alike. The mythology of each of these religions has ancient tales of a great deluge wiping life off the Earth and it must have certainly seemed to many that fateful morning like the legend had come devastatingly true.
Neither did the wild dance of death and destruction respect any of the vain and arbitrary national boundaries we humans create on the surface of the planet. Starting off somewhere 250 kilometers southeast of Sumatra, Indonesia the tsunamis ravaged the shores of at least ten countries, traveling thousands of kilometers, including Kenya and Somalia in far off Africa. It was a perverse reminder from Mother Earth it is She who draws all the lines in our world and that too at humanly unfathomable depths.
The disaster maintained strict political neutrality too, killing Acehnese separatists in Indonesia and Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka along with members of the state security forces hunting for them. I will never ever forget that small news item on the morning of the disaster that talked of the Indonesian army killing 19 Acehnese rebels the previous day. No one can go bankrupt overestimating the arrogance and ambition of the Indonesian military; compete as they do with quake and tsunami.
In terms of economic background, among those tragically killed were scores of Western travelers and even a grandson of the Thai monarch on the scenic beaches of the Thailand and the Maldives. An overwhelming majority of victims though were poor fisher folk and other villagers along the coasts of India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. As always in our unfair world those who had the least lost the most.
Was this immense loss of life preventable at all in any way? While the earthquake itself was obviously not predictable there could certainly have been some warning about the tsunamis that followed. This is particularly true for South Asia where the waves struck a full two hours after the great quake off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia.
According to a Reuters report on December 28 from Los Angeles the wall of water set off by the earthquake was in fact tracked by U.S. seismologists who said they had no way to warn local governments of the danger. In this age of instant messaging, email, mobile phones, spy satellites and 24-hour television it is difficult to believe that claim.
The blame for not warning their people of impending danger does really lie with the national governments of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. True, tsunamis are extremely rare occurrences in this part of the world, but that morning any seismologist worth his salt would have surely noticed what was the largest quake in four decades and since it occurred under the sea- deduced the consequences easily.
In fact that is precisely what government seismologists in Thailand did soon after they detected the quake on December 26, but failed to issue appropriate warning because they were afraid of scaring off tourists!! As an anonymous government official explained to a Bangkok newspaper, a day after disaster struck, â€œSix years ago a similar warning that turned out wrong brought great recrimination upon usâ€. Well, that was a typical Thai/Asian â€˜Risk Ass but Save Faceâ€™ hesitation that cost precious lives.
In countries like India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka of course the story was slightly different- none of them really had a clue as to what was happening. All three countries spend a large proportion of their national budgets on buying armaments and very little on technology that can help save the lives of their own countrymen.
For example, the tsunamis hit the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar, located just 150 kilometers from the northern tip of Sumatra, soon after the quake occurred at 6.30 AM (Indian Standard Time). Among many other settlements and facilities they destroyed a full base of the Indian Air Force. And yet nobody in the Indian capital New Delhi knew about this in time to alert people on the coast to watch out for the same killer waves that hit them only a couple of hours later. A mere phone call to a television news channel could have saved thousands of lives.
India, with a bulk of the worldâ€™s poorest people, is run by an elite that takes great pride in sending rockets into space or exploding nuclear bombs while neglecting the basic needs of its population. The country does not have a tsunami warning system because â€˜well, no tsunami has hit the Indian coast since 1941 and the equipment is too expensiveâ€™. On the other hand it does not mind having even more expensive nuclear bombs despite no nuclear threat to its existence in 5000 years of recorded history!
Talking about things nuclear, last Sundayâ€™s tsunami ravaged the Kalpakkam nuclear reactor and its nearby employees residential compound outside Chennai killing 65 people and leaving grave doubts about the future of the facility itself. Despite official pronouncements that the reactor was shut down in time there are grounds to believe all is not well and God knows what disaster is cooking behind those secretive domes.
The question now before not just the affected countries but indeed the entire world is â€“ what can be done to help the millions of affected people overcome their immediate trauma and get back on their feet again?
Immediately, the dead, strewn all over the region, need to be buried or cremated to prevent the outbreak of disease while survivors require urgent supplies of basic inputs like food, water, clothing, and shelter. Most of those hit by the tsunami also need urgent medical attention. Implementing such relief operations will require volunteers in large numbers particularly in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where the devastation has been extreme.
The more challenging requirements are really long-term. Primarily there is the mammoth task of restoring employment and income to all those displaced by the disaster. The quake and tsunami hit regions also need well-designed projects to look after orphaned children, special programs to help those disabled and for dealing with post-trauma stress disorders among the general public.
All the affected countries also need to implement sound policies to deal with erosion of coastal ecologies, which are under pressure from the poor looking for a livelihood but even more from the bored rich seeking new playgrounds and resorts to while away their time. There is considerable evidence that coastal areas in the tsunami-affected countries with rich mangrove cover were spared from much damage.
As the United Nations has already indicated, the task of rehabilitating the victims of the December 26 catastrophe in Asia and Africa will require the largest relief operation in modern history given the numbers of people and countries involved. The response from ordinary citizens around the world in terms of donations and other assistance has so far been extraordinary.
But much more needs to be done, consistently and over long periods of time. Citizens everywhere will also have to force those who run their governments to change their usually skewed priorities and bring about a tectonic shift in the way our planet is run.
For example, the diversion of even a small portion of the funds spent every year on armaments and war globally could easily help rebuild the shattered lives of those who lost everything in Asiaâ€™s quake and tsunami disaster. It is worth reflecting at this juncture that the only other calamity that has killed an equivalent number of innocent people in recent times is called the â€˜US Occupation of Iraqâ€™- an incredibly expensive and entirely manmade tragedy.
As 2004 exits and a New Year begins, it is time for human beings to quit the business of dispensing Death in any form and instead focus all energies solely on the preservation of Life against all odds. That can be the only real and lasting tribute we can pay to all those who died last Sunday, so abruptly, so cruelly and without a real chance.
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand, currently in Chennai, India. He can be reached at [email protected]