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Correction to This Article
A Dec. 30 article about tsunami damage in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands incorrectly said that about 40 of the islands are uninhabited. About 40 of the group's more than 500 islands have human settlements.
In India

Devastation Threatens Tribes' Existence

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A20

CAR NICOBAR, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Dec. 29 -- At daybreak, a stream of refugees emerged from a narrow jungle path onto the runway of the wrecked air base on this island, a remote Indian outpost in the Bay of Bengal. Through the morning, more and more desperate people struggled in, some with broken limbs, some carrying old men and women in makeshift hammocks.

"Take me away, take me away from my village," mumbled Dyna Issac, 80, a withered woman who was suspended in a cloth cradle that her daughters-in-law carried on their shoulders. Issac, a member of an indigenous tribe, said she lost her sons to the tsunami that on Sunday created waves that lashed India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago of 500 bumps in the ocean.

An elderly woman is carried to a refugee camp in a makeshift hammock on the Nicobar Islands, an isolated outpost 900 miles from the Indian mainland. (Manish Swarup -- AP)

"Our village, Sawai, has been completely swallowed by the sea," said Clara Issac, one of the women carrying Dyna, as they approached Indian officials to beg for help. "Nothing holds us back here now."

Car Nicobar is the gateway to more remote parts of a group of islands that spread out in a scythe-shaped strand along hundreds of square miles in the Bay of Bengal. The islands stood directly in the way of the waves that were triggered by an undersea earthquake about 450 miles to the southeast.

The sea swept more than a mile inland in some places, stripping away undergrowth and felling trees. Villagers were carried off by the torrents; wooden houses and cement buildings along the shore were smashed.

Because the islands are so remote, the extent of the devastation is only now becoming known. Officials say the waves killed at least 3,000 people on the islands. Some unconfirmed estimates put the death toll as high as 10,000, out of 350,000 inhabitants.

Located about 900 miles east of the Indian mainland, the islands have been home to primitive indigenous tribes for thousands of years. During the 19th century, British colonial rulers used the chain as a penal colony, bringing in people of diverse ethnic groups from the Indian mainland.

In recent years, the islands have become a destination for divers and adventurous tourists and have gained strategic importance for modern India. The Indian military uses the Car Nicobar base as a listening post to monitor China and track vessels on cargo and oil shipment routes. The base is usually off limits to foreigners.

The base's headquarters and adjacent residences were flattened by the waves, and 102 military personnel were killed, officials said. The control tower toppled from its perch, and the runway, now lit by kerosene landing lights, is cracked and broken. During a visit by correspondents to the base Wednesday, officers could be seen monitoring takeoffs and landings from a tent.

The islanders who stumbled out of the jungle Wednesday are camping out in the buildings that remain, giving them the look of crowded rail stations.

So far, 2,500 people have been flown from the base to the islands' main commercial center and administrative capital, Port Blair, which suffered less devastation than other parts of the islands. But water supplies have been cut there, forcing people to rely on water supplied in buckets. The islands' ferry system has been disrupted, and the military command is struggling to distribute food, water and medicine throughout the chain.

The islands have been hit daily by aftershocks. Two jolts hit Car Nicobar on Wednesday at 11:25 a.m. and 5 p.m., causing people to run into the open, ready to flee the shore if the waves return.

So far, search teams have been unable to reach the areas that are farthest away. One official said privately that he hoped the dead would be eaten by crocodiles to eliminate the need for burials.

Before the devastation, the islands were known for their startling beauty: glistening emerald waters, brilliant tropical flora, thick deciduous rain forests and mangrove swamps. Some of the islands are hilly, and most have idyllic palm-fringed sand beaches and coral reefs. About 40 islands are uninhabited.

Beyond the seashore and the tourist sites, the islands are home to the tribes. Several are traditional hunter-gatherers, using bows and arrows to kill wild pigs and harpoons to spear turtles. Members of one tribe, the Sentinelese, are said to be so hostile to strangers that officials hesitate to contact them.

For years, India has debated the ethics of disturbing the lives of the tribes to bring development. Some people now fear that the floods may have delivered a death blow to their fragile cultures.

"Ecosystems tend to regenerate. But my biggest concern is for the primitive tribes who are already living on the precipice and dwindling rapidly in numbers," said Sameer Acharya, who heads a group called the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology in Port Blair. "Their extinction would now become a reality, just a push button away."

The most threatened, officials said, are the Shompens, a community of only about 250 people who live on the southeast fringes of the Great Nicobar islands, which lie at the closest point to the epicenter of the earthquake.

"We don't know whether the Shompens are dead or alive," said Rajendra Jamwal, an official at the base. "All our efforts to trace them have failed. There are many people who are trekking long distances to reach our airstrip, and even they don't have any idea about the Shompens' whereabouts."

Jamwal sent three naval boats to search for the Shompens on Wednesday on little-visited islands, but crew members detected no signs of human life in the dense forest.

On Wednesday, Patlo Ma, a 55-year-old tribal coconut farmer, was one of the thousands who arrived at the airstrip on foot. His extended family of 74 people had journeyed for two grueling days through the jungle.

"We survived the waters by climbing onto trees. And the last two days, we just ate raw bananas, tapioca and coconuts in the jungle," Ma said. He said he is ready for a permanent change. "We want to go to the city of Port Blair and live a different kind of life from now on."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company