The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Homeless, but hand in hand
- Nicobarese refugees brought together on festival ground

Port Blair, Jan. 6: It is lunchtime in Port Blair. A solitary 10-year-old boy bounces a football as his friends dig into steaming plates of rice, dal and sabzi.

He is not hungry. Sorrow shouts out from aching brown eyes, taking in splashes of red, green, blue, yellow. Men and women stir voluminous vats, dishing out hot food to a patient queue. Clothes dry in the midday sun as men are fiercely at work putting up plastic sheets to shelter a few more homeless heads.

This is the Island Tourism Festival (ITF) ground, housing over 1,200 refugees, the few surviving faces, young and old, of the Nicobarese tribe, the worst hit in the Andamans.

'We can help ourselves get back to life, sharing our grief, as long as we are together,' says Lucas Robert, one of the tribals ' and an education department official ' holding things together in desperate times.

Family has become all important for the Nicobarese. The refugees of the 30,000-strong aborigine group were scattered across a number of shelters in Port Blair, but insisted that what they needed most was togetherness, after losing thousands of their people. So they were moved into the brightly-coloured stalls of the mosaic-and-tile ground, to recreate a feeling of community in which they lived before December 26 swept it all away.

ITF is one of the biggest events on the local calendar, which was scheduled for mid-January 2005. It has, of course, been cancelled. Now, the wide, open spaces of this model haven await the Prime Minister's touchdown. And it sees many senior Congress functionaries dropping in through the day to show for it.

A few miles away, Soma, a Class X student, has gone back to books. She has no home, but mercifully her family surrounds her at Delanipur Secondary School. Like many of the refugees from Hut Bay who have found their way to the capital of the archipelago, Soma is Bengali. Her CBSE exams are around the corner.

Conditions here are very different. Dingy rooms in the government school house 330 men, women and children. Relief workers from local NGOs are doing the best they can to stir up meals. For the Bengali women, rice and pickle are hardly wholesome, but they are quick to point out that they have few complaints, in the circumstances.

Emerald islanders are keen to get back to where they belong. A daunting task lies before those from flattened Car Nicobar. But while the rest of the region cries out for national and international assistance, these resilient men and women are determined to go it alone, armed with nearly nothing.

Nothing, that is, except unity. One of the island's pivotal organisations is Ellon Hinengo Limited, or Central Cooperative Society. It is already playing a key role in helping its own, as it has been for years. Heads of 15 villages of the island are the stakeholders of this organisation that has brought together Nicobarese trade. It purchases the main produce of the land ' coconut copra and belel nut ' and sells it on the mainland.

'We have cargo ships which have been sailing between Calcutta and Port Blair and Port Blair and Car Nicobar with relief material,' explains N. Karthikeyan, senior executive manager, EHL. 'What we need most right now is material to build temporary houses on Car Nicobar,' he adds.

The predominantly Protestant tribals will do the rest themselves. The coconut trees that used to put food on the table ' every household would have some, the number depending on financial strength ' have been uprooted, but they will still be useful to support a roof. Axes are needed to chop the trees before they rot. Four logs will be sturdy enough to support a tarpaulin covering till more permanent arrangements are made. They work in numbers, with villages made up of 'tuhets', which are extended households of as many as 60 families. Villages ' led by captains ' can have several tuhets, each with its own headman.

Matters are messier at Hut Bay, but its residents are no less keen to get back. The day the tsunami hit, Ganesh Das' wife gave birth to a daughter. 'I pleaded with nurses to come and take a look at her, but they didn't,' he relives. Four days later, the unnamed child died. A few days in Port Blair have been enough to treat the mourning mother. Now, the man who hails from Hooghly, is planning to return to his adopted home, which had given him work when he needed it eight years ago.

Aid workers, however, are apprehensive. Rotting corpses are apparently creating unbearable stench and unimaginable health risks. At the Delanipur camp, more than alms (on Thursday, the promised Rs 2,000 did reach the families) are needed to pick up the shrapnel of shattered lives.

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