The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Living search photos on wall

Velankanni, Jan. 8: If the photographs match, there is Rs 200,000 for the taking. But it would also confirm that a loved one is dead.

Swept away by the tsunami and then disgorged by the ocean, the dead have been reduced to photographs on the wall. Two galleries ' one manned by police and the other by the special village panchayat ' have been set up where those who survived the wrath of the elements troop in, a photograph in their clenched fingers.

In a few minutes they would know if their 'missing' dear ones are 'really alive or dead'. If dead, the compensation is Rs 1 lakh each from the Prime Minister's and the chief minister's relief funds.

The gallery of the dead is another dimension of the tragedy unfolding in this coastal village in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu's worst hit district. Of the 1,626 people missing in Nagapattinam, 943 are from Velankanni alone, many of them pilgrims to the 17th century Portuguese-built church.

As church assistant J. Vijay pored over a thick brown file that contained names of missing persons, R. Subburaj and his relatives, hoteliers from Madurai, walked in to say they could not find photographs of two children ' Chitra and Selvam ' in either of the galleries.

'Half the bodies buried here had been done without being photographed. How can we establish that the persons said to be missing are living or dead' he asked as he urged Vijay to go through the missing file again.

A little distance away on the beach, a song for tsunami victims echoed Subburaj's agony. 'The waves of joy suddenly turned waves of terror and in no time our lives have become shadows. Why did this terror happen here' There are no answers. Oh! God, like children we weep, and clutch thy feet.'

Voices quivered as they rose and fell at the all-faith prayer meeting after hundreds of people from nearby villages had joined a three-km-long silent march from a mass burial site to the beach where the killer waves had roared up on the morning after Christmas. They prayed that the 'souls of the departed may rest in peace', as the now gentle waves rolled in and out.

For those still searching for their loved ones, it is still agony. Their faces worn, friends and relatives lined up at the two centres where the picture galleries have set up. At the police centre, photographs of 241 victims have been pinned on the walls. At the panchayat centre, over 750 pictures are on display. M.P. Nirmala, director, special village panchayat, said 51 persons have been identified so far.

Some of them are mutilated, revealing the work of thieves who have cut off body parts of even children like ears and fingers to steal gold earrings or studs.

People have to first identify if any of their relatives are among the pictures displayed and then produce a picture of that person from family albums to the police, who have uploaded all photographs of the dead on a computer. The police would project the picture on a screen, with which the relatives should match the photos they have brought.

If the two match, the identity of the body is fixed and there is one person less in the sarkari 'missing' list. The police would then 'cancel' the FIR that was filed to trace the 'missing' person and authorise the relatives to collect the death certificate from the local taluk office.

At the police Information Centre, computer science students from Anna University in Chennai have set up a small desk with a portable personal computer that runs a software programme which had been used in the last Kumbh Mela to track missing persons.

Whatever information they get about the missing persons, the students feed it into the computer and post it on a website called 'People in places outside Velankanni can access this website, come down here and try to trace the missing,' said S. Purushotaman, who mans the kiosk. 'So far, the bodies of three boys have been identified using this method.'

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