Thu, Jan 06, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Indian villagers struggle to deal with despair

ASSAILED BY DOUBTS Anxiety levels are high among tsunami survivors as they worry about the future after having lost their homes, boats, fishing equipment and families


Workers yesterday repair the bamboo roof of a house that was destroyed by the tsunami at a fishermen's colony in Nagappattinam in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In hundreds of villages along India's ravaged southeastern coast, tens of thousands of people, mostly fishermen and their families, are grappling with the psychological scars of the disaster.


In a crowded relief camp teeming with screaming babies, noisy children and anxious parents, one woman sits quietly alone, barely able to speak.

Meenakshi, who like most south Indians uses only one name, lost her four children in the killer tsunami that battered her small fishing village the day after Christmas.

"She barely talks, just lies there blaming herself," says her husband Kailasam, a 32-year-old, wiry fisherman who was away at sea when the tsunami struck.

In hundreds of villages along India's ravaged southeastern coast, tens of thousands of people, mostly fishermen and their families, are grappling with the psychological scars of the tsunami. Depression, sleep disorders, guilt and grief about relatives who perished are compounded by feelings of insecurity and anxiety over the future.

Meenakshi's fishing village, Nagore, is in the worst-hit district of Nagappattinam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. At least 9,575 people are confirmed dead in India, most of whom were from the southern shores of this South Asian nation. Nearly 6,000 are still missing and feared dead.

Yesterday, as harried welfare workers dragged in sacks of relief material -- rice, lentils, clothes -- the crowd of survivors at the Kamala Kalyanamandapam shelter would surge forward, snatching at the latest handouts, jostling and shoving to get to the front.

But Meenakshi remained in her corner, staring vacantly at the walls.

That Sunday, Meenakshi's four children, between the ages of 4 and 12, were playing outside, a short distance from the house. Meenakshi, 28, was preparing an early lunch. The quiet was broken by shouts and screams and she could hear people running past the house.

"I didn't pay much attention at first, as children in the neighborhood are always shouting and pounding up and down the beach," she recalls listlessly, her purple sari and shiny gold nose stud in sharp contrast with the dullness of her eyes.

"Then before I knew it, there was a roar and this wall of water smashed through the house," she said speaking softly in her native Tamil language.

For what seemed like hours, she clung on to the rafters of her home, as the tsunami waters thundered and whirled through the small brick and concrete house. When the waters receded, she was rescued by neighbors.

"For days she wandered about like someone gone mad, climbing over mounds of debris, searching and calling out to the children. Then I brought her to this relief camp. Now she just sits. Or weeps," said a ragged-sounding Kailasam.

Anxiety levels are high among the survivors as they worry about the future. Many have lost their homes and all possessions, left with just the clothes on their back. They've lost their boats, fishing equipment and nets and are assailed by doubts over returning to the sea.

"Survivors are ridden by guilt, recurring images of the tsunami and many have expressed fears about going back to the high seas," said Dr. I. Meenakshi, a psychiatrist from the Institute of Mental Health in Madras, also called Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu.

Meenakshi, part of a team of psychiatrists working in relief camps, said that while government departments and aid agencies have ensured emergency medical care, food and shelter, the emotional and psychological fallout of the tsunami could take years to heal.

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