- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

PUDUKUPPAM, India — After the Dec. 26 tsunami killed his wife, swept away his house, tore apart his boat and large fishing net, Arumugham withdrew to one corner of the damp floor of a relief camp at the edge of this village, overcome by shock and grief.

As soon as the authorities began dispensing relief aid for the victims in this coastal village in Tamil Nadu state a week later, the 30-year-old fisherman got in line, collected the allotted 4,000 rupees (U.S. $90) and quietly headed for a tool shop in a nearby town.

When he returned to the village with tools including a pickax, spade, crowbar, hammer and an iron basket, some of the elders chided him for spending nearly half the relief money on things that were “useless” amid the devastation.

Arumugham declined help from the government-supplied earth-moving equipment and started removing the debris of his house alone, using his hand tools. He called in his brother from a distant village to help him but would not allow rescue workers onto his land.

This week the village headman of Pudukuppam, Chandran, said that Arumugham had recovered all his wife’s gold ornaments from an aluminum jewelry box buried under the sand near his property.

“When he could not find it at his house site, he kept digging in adjoining areas and finally found the box in front of a neighbor’s house buried under two feet of sand,” said Chandran. “It took about three weeks for him to retrieve the ornaments, but his patience was rewarded.”

During his search, Arumugham told neighbors who asked what he was looking for that he was trying to retrieve some valuable mementos of his marriage.

“When a possible tsunami was forecast last week [it turned out to be a false alarm], and we stayed away from the village for a whole day, Arumugham did not leave the site of his house despite the warning. We suspected that he could be searching for something as valuable as gold or a large amount of cash,” said Settan, a neighbor.

After finding the aluminum box, which contained gold worth about 80,000 rupees ($1,860), Arumugham told a team of counselors he was planning to sell his late wife’s jewelry.

“Even with the aid promised by the government, the fishermen will need to take loans to buy boats and fishing nets,” he said. “I think I won’t have to take a loan now: The money I get from the gold will be enough to help me return to the sea.”

Before last month’s tsunami, half the villagers of Pudukuppam were fishermen and owned concrete houses, mechanized fishing boats and large nets. These wealthy fishermen also had hoards of gold — mostly jewelry — at home. When the tsunami hit, their houses and other belongings were also swept away.

The tsunami’s high waves carried vast amounts of sand inland and deposited it three feet deep or more in the village and nearby farmlands.

Chandran, the village headman, said he had heard reports of others in the village who also found some of their valuables beneath the debris of their house or under the sand elsewhere.

Last week, Nagappan, another fisherman from Pudukuppam, discovered his savings of 60,000 rupees ($1,400) under the sand. After 11 days of searching he recovered the wooden cash box about 80 feet from the ruins of his house. The currency notes, protected by a tightly closed vinyl bag inside the box, were not damaged by the water.

Arumugham said that after villagers heard of his recovery of his wife’s jewelry, some began similar searches but were being discreet out of safety concerns. Some villagers who had been unable to find lost valuables like gold or cash only began outdoor searches under sand and debris in the village last week, after rescue and emergency-relief workers left.

In some parts of India’s tsunami-battered coastline, the debris of wrecked houses has not been removed more than a month after the disaster. The owners have refused to allow the government and nongovernmental rescue teams to work on their property.

On Tuesday, when hundreds of thousands of villagers fled their coastal villages fearing another tsunami the following day some villagers and residents of beachside urban slums refused to leave their land. Though the rumor of another tsunami drove all women and children to higher ground, some men stayed behind, guarding their damaged houses and debris.

In Samiarpettai, a coastal village in Cuddalore district, a fish merchant named Mariappan said last month’s tsunami destroyed his boat, fishing net and house. A nongovernmental organization provided him with a temporary shelter on higher ground outside the village, to which he sent his family — but he said: “I have been standing guard here every day at the site of my ruined house.

“Since I am sick,” Mariappan added, “I have been working at a slow pace. It will take some more weeks for me to remove the entire pile of debris and dig the sands. But I cannot allow anyone to remove this debris. If I am so lucky, I may recover some valuable items from here.”

The tsunami did not kill anyone in his family, but the ocean waves carried him more than a mile inland from the fish market on the beach. As he struggled to keep afloat, he sustained many bruises and swallowed muddy seawater that has made him sick and weak since the day of the disaster.

“In almost all tsunami-hit villages in the area, many have started digging around quietly, looking mostly for gold. We have information that some gold diggers found [gold] ornaments belonging to others and took them away,” said Chandran, the Pudukuppam headman. “In fact,” he added, “many such fortune hunters are in operation across the area and it is difficult to identify them.”

Many people believe that immediately after the disaster, when most villagers feared new tsunamis and flocked to relief camps, outsiders entered the wrecked villages in the guise of rescue volunteers and vanished after finding valuables in the debris.

“I think they are the men who identified themselves as rescue workers and spread the rumor of fresh tsunamis, simply to make us flee the villages,” said Veerappan, a fisherman in the neighboring village of Pudupettai.

“Then, in our absence, they got free access to our valuables.”

Veerappan said that early this month, a week after the tsunami, he found his empty steel trunk in sand-filled farmland a quarter-mile from his house. It appeared to have been dug out of the sand and been broken into by someone hours before he found it.

His wife had kept all the family’s gold in the trunk under lock and key, he said.

“Gold, cash and other valuables are still lying buried under the sand in and around villages and fortune hunters are on the prowl. We have asked the villagers to stay on alert,” said Chandran, the headman of Pudukuppam.

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