No Easy Access for Remote Islands ; Car Nicobar, with an Indian Military Presence and Indigenous Tribes, Is Kept off Limits to Foreign Aid Workers

By Janaki Kremmer Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

No Easy Access for Remote Islands ; Car Nicobar, with an Indian Military Presence and Indigenous Tribes, Is Kept off Limits to Foreign Aid Workers


Janaki Kremmer Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On one of the remotest islands in the Indian Ocean, survivors are combing through the wreckage caused by last week's tsunami that obliterated 12 out of Car Nicobar's 15 villages.

"I can't find anything - not even a piece of furniture," says one man who calls himself Johnny, as he looks around him at the small fires caused by unattended gas cylinders. The government "is giving us food and medicine and some water, but until I have my home back, my life is lost."

A few miles away, in the thick tropical bush where banana and coconut plantations thrive, a temporary camp has been set up for about 600 Nicobarese who have lived here for thousands of years. Blue plastic tents that house the homeless are visible throughout the forests. One in four people are believed to have survived on the island, once home to 30,000 people.

Despite the initial efforts, rescue and relief work on Car Nicobar and the rest of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands faces numerous obstacles. The islands are home to isolated indigenous tribes, some of whom are openly hostile and have long resisted any sort of integration. But the area also plays host to a sensitive Indian military presence. Since the disaster struck, foreign aid groups have been barred from operating on the islands by Indian authorities who say they will handle the initial response.

"Our main concern is relief and rescue, and then we will think about rehabilitation," says Indian Gen. Nirmal Chander Vij.

So far, the government claims that 712 people have been confirmed dead on the islands, which have a total population of some 350,000. But General Vij admitted that "nowhere are people sure of figures." The UN said recently that the real figure of those who died in the Dec. 26 disaster, may never be known.

One resident who had just returned from Car Nicobar to the capital Port Blair told shocking stories of hundreds of bodies lying inside the jungle. The government says that it is sending a team to check out the situation.

The tsunami hit from all sides and penetrated more than 4 miles into the island in some places. Some people rushed into the jungles, others tried to get to high ground.

By the end of last week, the government had supplied more than 200 tons of donated food and drink to 95 percent of the 12 inhabited islands of Andaman and Nicobar, and say they are getting to the rest by boat now that the jetties are being restored.

However, overseas aid agencies have not been allowed to study the needs of the people for themselves.

Some newer settlers who came from Calcutta and Chennai for work - mostly agriculture, low-paying government jobs, or as employees at the Air Force base in Car Nicobar - are returning to their former home towns.

But the indigenous tribes, who represent 10 percent of the population of the islands, know no other home. Nicobarese are said to be descended from the people of Malaysia and Burma (Myanmar) and prefer to live among their own rather than go to camps in Port Blair, a 45 minute flight north in the Andamans. …

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