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Faith that swamped the hungry tide

Car Nicobar, Jan. 10: Ten minutes away from the Car Nicobar air force station is a relief camp for villagers from Kakana.

Women, men and children line up with buckets and vessels as a water truck arrives. In the midst of the midday bustle, an old man sleeps under the shade of a plastic sheet. The pole holding it up bears the image of a cross, and these words:

'I asked Jesus how much do you love me'

'This much,' he answered.

Then he stretched out his arms and he died.'

A few kilometres away is Kakana village, where the homes of the 364 inhabitants of the relief camp lie in a heap of rubble.

It is not just faith and hope that keep the Nicobarese going in these dark times. It is a contentment so fundamental to their peaceful and close-knit lives that even the hungry tide that wreaked havoc across continents cannot shake it.

Gabriel, one of the residents of Kakana, is fast losing hope of finding his daughter Joris. But those around him do all they can to keep his spirits up. 'Do you have a companion' Oped, his neighbour, asks a female visitor to the settlement. 'No' Then you should marry someone here' You should marry the captain.' Gabriel, though clearly not very amused, can't resist a small smile. 'Not me, I have become old,' he sighs.

Children are the most vocal survivors of the tsunami here. The youngest is two-month-old McMillan, who grumpily spits up his last meal, cradled in his mother's arms. His twin, McLawrence, is unwell, and lying in a hospital cot elsewhere on the island. Mother and child are surrounded by the women and smiling kids of the tuhet, or the extended tribal family. If there is no time to panic about what may befall her infant, there is even less to mourn for past losses.

And if they did, where would they begin'

At the Perka camp, further down the now passable road, women are making cups out of coconut shells. They flash broad smiles at those who pass. There is no way to return to their village by the sea. They will make their new homes on higher ground.

The tribals have started cooking their own food now, with rations provided by the forces.

'Sometimes we don't get enough to eat,' whispers Torcus, a student of Class IX who doesn't know when her school in Malacca will reopen. They make do with rice, dal and a tuber they call the Nicobarese aloo. 'Here, take it,' she smiles, occasional hunger no deterrent to generosity.

At the same camp, the portly Reverend George Tunkep stands in only a pair of shorts, smoking what looks like a cross between a bidi and a cigar. 'I lost my robes that day,' he explains, a little embarrassed by his state of undress.

There is little doubt that these folk realise that they have had a miraculous escape. Survivors describe three waves the height of coconut trees pounding into homes. The coastal villages have been reduced to junk heaps, mile after mile of uprooted trees, and fragments of houses. Even today, disaster management workers found eight bodies, and burned them where they lay. With no way to identify the corpses, these will add to the administration's headcount of the dead.

The Nicobarese leave their makeshift homes to rummage through the remains. Much looks intact amid the bulldozed lands, but will be of little use ' CDs, toilets, and even a picture of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

A few look for clothes that can still be salvaged and scraps to strengthen their homes. They walk away, leaving the wreckage and the smell of death behind them.

And unbelievably, they find it possible to smile, and welcome the world into their new, naked lives.

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