Sat, Jan 08, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Tricksters pose as victims of tsunami to beg for aid

AFP , MATHANKADI, INDIA

Villagers untouched by last week's killer waves lie in wait on roads leading to the devastated southern Indian district of Nagapattinam, hoping to snatch aid intended for others.

For unsuspecting relief workers, the women and children squatting in groups along the roadside with hands outstretched may give the impression of people shattered and in dire need of help and supplies.

But the villagers, mainly laborers and farm workers, are cashing in on the disaster, treating it as a lucrative source of food, water, rice and clothes.

Most of the women pretend to cry and tell the story of how the tsunamis devastated their homes and destroyed their livelihood. But a trip to their village 3km away reveals a different story.

Not a single house has been touched by the giant wall of water which smashed into the southern Indian coastline Dec. 26, killing at least 9,986 people on the mainland and in the far-flung Andaman and Nicobar islands, and left 5,679, missing and presumed dead, according to official figures.

Some 6,023 people died in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, which has recorded 7,932 dead so far.

On the outskirts, a group of children are posted to flag down relief trucks on the way to the worst-hit Nagapattinam town laden with medicine, mats, stoves, food and other supplies.

Muthuswami Ilangovan, a 15-year-old boy, heads a team of more than 20 girls and younger boys to grab supplies. They shout and mime signs of hunger by pointing fingers to their mouths in front of any passing vehicle.

"I've lost everything. The waters entered our village. All homes were destroyed," Ilangovan told a reporter.

"During the last couple of days we've managed to get bags of rice and clothes," he said. "Some trucks and cars stop when they see us while others just speed past."

But the team of reporters took Ilangovan home to his Mathankadi village and found his family safe and house standing tall. He laughed and swiftly vanished into the narrow bylanes.

The Indian Citizens' Initiative, a private non-governmental organisation, said it was seeking to tackle the problem of aid freeloaders.

"We've set up a coordination committee among the NGOs to try to ensure relief reaches the right people," said Clifton Rozario, a senior official with the group.

At the same time, he said, Nagapattinam district was hard-hit by a lack of rain.

"They might not be affected by the tsunamis but they've been affected by drought. They tell us, `At least give us the leftovers.'"

More than 500 villagers, mainly women wearing colorful saris, are engaged in the same trade as Ilangovan. In the late evenings, they cart home bagfulls of supplies along with bamboo sleeping mats intended those made homeless.

Fifty-two year-old Nayakam, who goes by one name, is among one group of around half a dozen women who squat for hours on the road.

"On some days, we sit from morning to evening. My whole family has been affected and I've nowhere to go. The government is not giving as any relief and they are only giving it to people near the sea," she lamented.

"I have lost my family. If you've the money, I'll accept it," said Nayakam.

Another woman in the group, Indrani, chided her in the local Tamil language not to tell "so many lies."

"You're exaggerating too much. Don't say people died in your village, just say you have lost everything," she said.

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