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In India

'The Water Has Eaten My Child'

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A01

SONANKUPPAM, India, Dec. 27 -- Huddled in silence, an anxious crowd stood staring at the approaching motorboat. When it reached shore, six bloated corpses were pulled off and laid on the ground. The crisp morning air was shattered by the shrill wails of women who began to search desperately through the bodies.

"My son, this is my son," screamed Abirami Kadirvel, 28, as she fell over the muddied body of a 10-year-old boy she identified as Madhavan. "The water has eaten my child," she said repeatedly, beating her chest in mourning.

Women mourn at a burial in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu state, where at least 3,400 people are believed to have died in the tsunami. Estimates of the total number of deaths along India's southern coast range from 4,000 to 7,000. (Arko Datta -- Reuters)

_____Tsunamis Hit South Asia_____
Photo Gallery: Scenes after tsunamis hit coastal towns, fishing villages and tourist resorts across the region.
Video: The Post's Peter Goodman reports on vacationers' reactions from Phuket, Thailand
Audio: The Post's Michael Dobbs describes the massive tsunami in Sri Lanka.
AP Report: Video of Devastation in South Asia
NOAA Animation: Preliminary model estimates of the Indonesia tsunami.
_____Earthquake Data_____
Map: Casualties in South Asia
Graphic: Making of a Tsunami
10 Deadliest Earthquakes
_____More From The Post_____
Toll From Tsunami Rises Above 25,000 (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
How to Help The Victims Of Tsunami (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
Walls of Water Converge on Bus Depot, Killing Hundreds (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
'All the Sea Was Like a Desert' (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
Billions in Aid Needed for Devastated Areas, U.N. Official Says (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
'We Didn't Understand, We Were Just Paralyzed' (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)
'Very, Very Bad of Course. . . . Cholera Is Going to Be a Problem' (The Washington Post, Dec 28, 2004)

Rescuers on Monday continued to pull corpses out of the receding waters in this tiny fishing village along the Bay of Bengal, in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu state. A day earlier, huge waves left a trail of death and destruction along India's southern coast, killing more than 4,000, possibly as many as 7,000 people, including at least 3,400 in Tamil Nadu. Tens of thousands were left homeless.

Scores of people in Tamil Nadu refused to move to safer areas on Monday, choosing instead to wait along the coastlines in hopes of finding missing relatives who had been swept away by waves at least 22 feet high.

As Kadirvel rocked her dead son on her lap, another man searched through the bodies for his 11-year-old daughter.

"I cannot find her," fisherman Parasu Raman, 30, told his wife. "I have looked at each of the fifty bodies brought in since dawn. She is not in any of the hospitals either. I do not know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Maybe she is alive somewhere. Or maybe I will never see her body."

Once a bustling fishing village of about 2,000 people, Sonankuppam, 115 miles south of Madras, was devastated by the fury of the sea, which tore apart thatch-roofed huts and brick houses. Forty people were reported dead in the village, about 500 are missing and 75 are hospitalized, according to villagers. Most of the dead are children and the elderly.

Several large boats rammed into houses after being hurled into the village by the force of the tide. Flattened coconut trees entangled in fishing nets were scattered about, and an eerie silence was broken only by the sound of wandering goats and wailing women in the distance.

"It used to be a beautiful village," said a tearful village leader, Duraimuga Selvam, 40, pointing to where the waves had come rushing in. "Most of it is wiped out, no sign. We have lost their boats and nets. How will we pick up our lives again?"

People whose homes were destroyed packed into wedding halls and temples as they waited for the slow arrival of relief.

Across South Asia, more than 25,000 people died after an earthquake triggered tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh planned to tour the ravaged southern areas of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala on Tuesday. Singh also announced relief payments of about $2,000 to each victim's family.

In Nagapattinam, a district of Tamil Nadu that reported 1,700 dead, a senior district official acknowledged that relief operations were hampered by day-long rains and a broken bridge.

Officials said at least 3,000 people were feared dead and thousands missing on the islands of Andaman and Nicobar, Indian territory lying south of Burma in the Bay of Bengal. News agencies said three Indian air force cargo planes flew supplies to the islands, and radio communication had been difficult. Officials said there had been aftershocks with a magnitude of 6 on the islands.

In Sonankuppam, doctors expressed concern about an outbreak of diseases. Meanwhile, villagers waded through swampy paths strewn with broken bottles, slippers, school bags and toy cars, attempting to salvage muddied clothing.

Scattered in the debris were plaques bearing the image of a demon face sticking out a red tongue. According to Selvam, the village leader, the plaques hang outside the doors of houses in southern India, intended to ward off evil.

"Who knew that the sea that fed us for generations would bring death, too," asked Kuppamma Muthu, 65, a fish trader, consoling the village women as an open truck drove around to pick up the corpses. The local government, unable to cope with the numbers of dead bodies, had announced mass burials.

At a burial site in the village of Manjakuppam a few miles away, relatives howled as a giant earthmoving machine dug into the mud. Bodies from several villages were then lowered into the large trench.

Jagannathan Perumal, a fisherman watched in horrified silence as his 3-year-old daughter, Sneha, was buried along with 12 other bodies. There were no priests to chant the last prayers, so the women showered marigold petals and burned incense sticks around the trench.

Perumal's wife squatted in a corner crying and writing her daughter's name in the mud, again and again.

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