Eyewitness to Disaster

2005-01-05
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RFA reporter Pema Ngodup has been traveling through coastal towns in Tamil Nadu that were affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Pema spoke with Mr. Zoepa, a Tibetan living in the southernmost town of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and got a first person account of what happened that day.

The recent earthquake and tsunami has affected coastal areas in twelve south Asian countries including India. Tamil Nadu, the southern most state of India, was hit hardest.

Although about 27 families in Kanyakumari did not lose any personal belongings, the leader of the Tibetan traders group in Kanyakumari, Mr. Zoepa, related his first-hand account of the tsunami in the area. Here is his story as he told it to me:

The waves were so high that it looked like they were touching the sky. Some began to run...others just fainted.

"At about 10:30 in the morning of Dec. 26, 2004 we went to open our stores as usual. A couple of Indian stores near us caught fire. Some of us went there to put out the fire while others tried to pack our goods.

"All of a sudden, a 130-foot tall statue by the shore near Swami Vivekananda's temple was hit by a high wave. And gradually the water began to come to our area.

"Our area is surrounded by ocean on all sides. Some of the elders yelled for holy grains. And some Tibetans sprinkled holy grains. The water seemed to recede and we were able to see the beach. But then somebody shouted that there was water coming again.

"We looked at the sea. We saw the huge waves of water from the middle of the ocean rushing towards us. The waves were so high that it looked like they were touching the sky. Some began to run for safety with only the clothes they had on. Others just fainted.

"Many people were so scared that they were crying loudly. Many others were trying to slap their own faces with fright but they were so scared that they could not even slap themselves. Some of us went to a hotel on a higher ground. Some were so frightened that they went back to their settlements vowing never to come back.

"So those of us left behind decided to pack things of people who returned home. We received a divination from a lama from back home and we were advised not to go to the market place at least for the next 24 hours. We were advised to move to another place.

"Then the next day we went back to our market place. But the government made an announcement to evacuate the place because there might be another tidal wave. And again we ran away to Nagakoi which is about twenty kilometers from here. We stayed there for two days and then returned here.

Pema: Have you all started your this year's business?

Zoepa: On Jan. 3 when we returned, Tibetans did not see much loss, by the grace of Chenrezik (Tibetan deity of compassion). But the local Indians are in very big difficulty. So we gathered and discussed what we could do to help the local people.

We collected $5,000 rupees (U.S. $114) and went to give it to the local collector. But he was busy in the morning with other officials. In the afternoon when we met, we gave him the money and introduced ourselves to him. We told him that we were Tibetans and have been coming to town for the last fifteen years to trade. He was very gracious and thanked us.

Pema: How do you think this year's business will go?

Zoepa: Our biggest trading time is until the 18th of January. Although we did not lose our market place, there are few people coming this way. So business will not be very good.