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'My Boat Is Nothing but Scrap'

Indians Return Home to Find Their Livelihoods Destroyed

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page A26

AKKARAPETTAI, India -- Surveying the ruins of his fishing boat, a bare-chested fisherman named Raja Krishnamurthy let out a deep sigh. Then, poking into corners of the mangled vessel, he began salvaging tools, chunks of rusted metal and broken fish storage boxes.

Krishnamurthy lost three family members to the tsunami that struck India's southeastern coast Dec. 26, killing about 8,000 people in Tamil Nadu state and hundreds in this seaside town. Now his only source of livelihood was in tatters as well.

Raja Krishnamurthy, center, and his family returned to their fishing town to find their house filled with sludge. (Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)

"This was the first boat I owned in my life. The boat was my pride," said Krishnamurthy, 50, a potbellied man in a gray and blue sarong, whose teeth were stained red from chewing betel nut.

He bought the motorized craft three years ago, with the help of a bank loan, for more than $11,000. He named it "Murugan Thunai," after a Hindu deity, for good luck. It was not covered by insurance.

"Today my boat is nothing but scrap, to be weighed and sold," said the fisherman.

Krishnamurthy and his extended family of 11 have spent the past three weeks living in a city wedding hall -- a makeshift relief shelter much like the ones that have housed thousands of other survivors in the long coastal district of Nagapattinam, which bore the full fury of the tsunami. Over the past few days, they have returned to their ravaged villages, to try to pick up the pieces and resume their lives.

But the families are finding very little remaining with which to rebuild.

Every morning, fishermen squat on the beach, silently staring at the row of boat carcasses on the shore. Buried beneath them are the bodies of tsunami victims who were collectively interred by municipal workers.

"It is an old habit for us to come to the sea at dawn, except there is no work now," said Manmaga Kalaimani, 30, who lost his brother and two fishing boats when the waves hit Akkarapettai, a fishing town of 10,000. About 1,200 people died here and in the adjacent village. "The conversation is usually about death, or about the wreckage of our boats," he said.

Many of the families have returned reluctantly from shelters, some of which were set up in schools and wedding halls. After schools reopened this week, it became more difficult to live in them. Meanwhile, wedding hall owners have begun clearing their facilities, anticipating a large volume of marriages because the new month, known as tai in the Tamil calendar, which began Friday, is considered lucky in Tamil culture.

As Krishnamurthy loaded scrap from his boat into a three-wheeled pickup, his frail wife, Valliammal, broke down.

"Is this all that you could salvage?" she asked in a thin voice, holding her head. "What are we going to do now?"

The family's house was flooded, the thatched roof was blown away and all the family's belongings were lost to the water. When Valliammal came back to clean a few days ago, she said she only found sludge. She and her family did receive $90 in relief aid from the Tamil Nadu government, and they used it to put up a new roof.

"We were a prosperous village once, and now we are beggars," said Valliammal, as her family sat on the kitchen floor for a meal of rice, potato stew and yogurt. "This meal is made from what I receive by standing in the charity line. The clothes we wear are also not ours."

Krishnamurthy's two sons and brother-in-law sat by the doorway, wondering aloud if they should quit fishing and migrate to a nearby boomtown, where young men work in dingy factories making T-shirts for export.

No local fisherman has ventured into the sea since the disaster, because almost every boat was badly damaged. Officials are still debating the amount of compensation to be provided for repairing or replacing boats. Boats in Akkarapettai were not insured, because companies viewed them as high-risk and charged extremely high premiums.

"We have no other skills but fishing. Only after we get the compensation can we buy new boats," said Sinnapu Sevusettiyar, 41, a relative living in Krishnamurthy's two-room hut. He lost two aging catamarans when the waves lashed his village.

"The sea mother will be generous to us again," he added, using a phrase common among fishermen here. But his wife, Kasiamma, broke in sharply.

"I trusted the sea all my life, but look where she brought us," she said, adding that she now wants to move inland. "Do not say sea mother again."

Krishnamurthy, who lost both his parents and younger sister in the tsunami, stopped eating and tried to calm her.

"We are fishermen; how can we stop trusting the sea?" he asked.

Villagers said they had repeatedly asked authorities to build a sea wall along the coastline to protect them from future storms.

Shantasheela Nair, the relief operations supervisor for Tamil Nadu state, said the chief minister promised to build a sea wall along the entire coast. Nair's team has begun planting coconut and cashew saplings along the beaches as a natural barrier. But she said many villagers now wanted to move inland.

"They have seen too many dead bodies in this village. They don't want to live here anymore," said Nair. She said the government would relocate the families to apartments or houses in another area. "There would be too many fights in apartments over water and garbage, but we don't have enough space for separate homes," she said.

In the evening, Krishnamurthy and his wife joined a long line outside the village temple, carrying their new ID cards. After an hour, they received a plastic bucket, some pots and pans, clothes, floor mats, soap and milk.

"After sunset, I am afraid of ghosts. So many died here," said Valliammal, hurrying back home through darkening lanes. "They will roam the streets in the night. So we keep the lights on all night as we sleep and only switch them off at dawn."

Still, at the end of a long, disappointing day, Krishnamurthy reminded his wife that tai, the auspicious new month, was about to begin.

"They say when tai is born, a new path will open," he said. "Let us not forget that."

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