Thursday, July 21, 2005

Tsunami-hit region a long way from recovery

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (July 21, 2005): Residents of the areas where the tsunami hit last December are still in need of help to get back on their feet, a Catholic bishop from southern India told the Scarborough Rotary Club Tuesday.

Bishop Yoohanon “John” Mar Chrysostom Kalloor, bishop of Marthandam, in the southernmost district at the very southern tip of India, said he was two miles from the shore on Dec. 26, 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck his area.

He was in the middle of ordaining two young men into the priesthood, and went to the coast. “It was a tragic situation,” Kalloor said. He said he didn't see "even a single human life” in the first village he went to, struck by a 200-foot-high wall of water generated by an earthquake below the ocean floor off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about 2,000 miles away.

In his local area, about 3,000 people were killed, most of them Christian, he said. “It was a massive burial.”

Local and international aid agencies started 42 camps for people displaced by the tsunami, which ruined homes and other buildings, destroyed boats and fishing equipment, and caused people to fear the sea from which many of them earn their living.

“Under my care, there were 5,000 people in four camps,” Kalloor said.

He told of a conversation he had with one boy whose entire family had died, and whose house had collapsed.

“He came and told me, ‘Bishop, I don’t want your food. I don’t want your clothes. I don’t want your money,’” Kalloor said. When Kalloor asked him why, “He said, ‘I want to die.’”

“I talked with him for hours,” brought the boy back to his own residence and helped take care of him for the next month and a half while the boy got his life back together.

In his village, the tsunami orphaned 150 children and widowed 50 women. “That is one small village,” Kalloor said, out of the vast area affected by the disaster.

But the need in his community did not begin with the tsunami.

As many as 700 children need money to help pay for school uniforms, shoes, textbooks and bookbags.

Every morning when he finishes Mass or prayers, “there are so many people waiting for me to ask some favors,” Kalloor said.

“Leprosy is a big problem.” He was once a director of a sanitorium that housed 4,000 lepers, who are often disowned by their families and left homeless.

“I got them under the bridges of the roads. They didn’t have homes,” he said.

In his diocese, which he has led since 1998, Kalloor has started a university and a home for lepers, as well as a new orphanage – in addition to the existing four – to house orphans from the tsunami.

That is part of the relief effort, which began with giving every family a small room in large tents, and providing them with food, water and sanitation.

The next step toward recovery is just beginning, he said, with plans to purchase fishing boats and nets.

“Ninety-some percent of the people who died in this area are poor fishermen,” Kalloor said. “Some of them are afraid to go to the sea,” but it is their best hope for providing for their families.

The final stage of relief is to build homes for the families, on land the government has purchased a ways back from the shore.

“Each day, I pray never to see such a scene again” as he saw after the tsunami struck, Kalloor said.