- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

CAR NICOBAR, India — Nothing remains standing on this remote Indian Ocean island except a pillar with the bust of Mohandas Gandhi — and that’s because it was the only structure made of stone.

On one of the remotest islands — which is closer to the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the epicenter of last week’s earthquake than India — a stocky, middle-aged man in a pair of shorts and sandals wandered through the flattened debris of what was once his home, with a white bucket in one hand, looking for belongings he might salvage.

“I can’t find anything — not even a piece of furniture,” said the man who called himself Johnny, as he looked around him at the small fires caused by gas cylinders that continued to explode spontaneously.

A few miles away, in the thick green tropical bush where banana and coconut plantations thrive, a camp for about 600 Nicobarese has been set up to accommodate the homeless.

The plastic tents are visible throughout the forests of this tiny island where 12 out of a total of 15 villages have been obliterated. It is believed that only one in four persons is left on the island of 30,000.

The government said Friday that a total of 712 are confirmed dead in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — which has a total population of 350,000 — and 306 are missing in Car Nicobar, but could not say whether the others had been accounted for.

One local who had just returned from Car Nicobar to the capital Port Blair, on the main Andaman island, told shocking tales of hundreds of bodies rotting in the jungle. Indigenous tribes represent 10 percent of the total population of the islands and in most cases their numbers are reducing.

There are six known indigenous tribes that have been living for centuries on the islands. The Sentinelese, living in North Sentinel Island and numbering not more than 120, have resisted any sort of integration, and are known to shoot arrows at anyone who tries to approach them.

It is not clear if they survived the tsunami, as no one can get close to them. Relief helicopters flying over the islands found some tribal people standing on the beaches.

The tsunami came like a guerrilla attack from all sides on Dec. 26 and penetrated as far as four miles into the island in some places.

The Andamans, once a British penal colony for mainly political prisoners from the mainland, are now home to several military bases. India uses the territory as a watching post for East Asia, mainly China. Foreigners need a special permit to enter the islands, and the government has discouraged the development of major tourism there.

Overseas aid agencies have not been allowed to study the needs of the people. They mostly sit frustrated in Port Blair, the capital of the territory on the Andaman Islands, where their only contact is with the refugees evacuated from various islands.

An air force base at the southern tip of Car Nicobar has borne the brunt of the tsunami. An estimated 110 air force personnel and family members died when the wall of water crashed into the base, destroying aircraft on the ground, military officials said.

“We could salvage 43 of my men and family members, and one soldier who was a priest performed the last rites before the cremations. Now we are leaving the archipelago,” Agence France-Presse agency quoted base commander Group Capt. V.V. Bandhopadhya as saying.

Despite losing their own family members, many air force pilots flew several sorties to rescue survivors or reach them with relief supplies. Some officers flew barefoot in their undergarments to pluck survivors, army officials said.

According to Press Trust of India news agency, two islands in the Nicobar chain are largely underwater and a third needs to be rebuilt. The 100-foot lighthouse at Indira Point, the southernmost point on the islands, — less than 100 miles from the epicenter of the magnitude-9 earthquake — remains underwater. Its entire staff is believed to have been washed away by the tsunami.

Gen. Nirmal Chander Vij, chief of the army staff, confirmed that the military “had flown over the naval base at Indira Point, and they have not spotted anyone there.”

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