No easy access for remote islands

Car Nicobar, with an Indian military presence and indigenous tribes, is kept off limits to foreign aid workers.

On one of the remotest islands in the Indian Ocean, survivors are combing through the wreckage caused by last week's tsunami that obliterated 12 out of Car Nicobar's 15 villages.

"I can't find anything - not even a piece of furniture," says one man who calls himself Johnny, as he looks around him at the small fires caused by unattended gas cylinders. The government "is giving us food and medicine and some water, but until I have my home back, my life is lost."

A few miles away, in the thick tropical bush where banana and coconut plantations thrive, a temporary camp has been set up for about 600 Nicobarese who have lived here for thousands of years. Blue plastic tents that house the homeless are visible throughout the forests. One in four people are believed to have survived on the island, once home to 30,000 people.

Despite the initial efforts, rescue and relief work on Car Nicobar and the rest of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands faces numerous obstacles. The islands are home to isolated indigenous tribes, some of whom are openly hostile and have long resisted any sort of integration. But the area also plays host to a sensitive Indian military presence. Since the disaster struck, foreign aid groups have been barred from operating on the islands by Indian authorities who say they will handle the initial response.

"Our main concern is relief and rescue, and then we will think about rehabilitation," says Indian Gen. Nirmal Chander Vij.

So far, the government claims that 712 people have been confirmed dead on the islands, which have a total population of some 350,000. But General Vij admitted that "nowhere are people sure of figures." The UN said recently that the real figure of those who died in the Dec. 26 disaster, may never be known.

One resident who had just returned from Car Nicobar to the capital Port Blair told shocking stories of hundreds of bodies lying inside the jungle. The government says that it is sending a team to check out the situation.

The tsunami hit from all sides and penetrated more than 4 miles into the island in some places. Some people rushed into the jungles, others tried to get to high ground.

By the end of last week, the government had supplied more than 200 tons of donated food and drink to 95 percent of the 12 inhabited islands of Andaman and Nicobar, and say they are getting to the rest by boat now that the jetties are being restored.

However, overseas aid agencies have not been allowed to study the needs of the people for themselves.

Some newer settlers who came from Calcutta and Chennai for work - mostly agriculture, low-paying government jobs, or as employees at the Air Force base in Car Nicobar - are returning to their former home towns.

But the indigenous tribes, who represent 10 percent of the population of the islands, know no other home. Nicobarese are said to be descended from the people of Malaysia and Burma (Myanmar) and prefer to live among their own rather than go to camps in Port Blair, a 45 minute flight north in the Andamans.

The island chain once served as a British penal colony housing mainly political prisoners from the Indian mainland. Critics say the Andaman and Nicobar Islands continued to be treated as a colony even after India gained independence.

"It was a deliberate policy of the Indians in the 1950s to send poor people from the mainland to try and integrate with the locals in low paying, mainly government jobs," says Samir Acharya who runs an NGO called SANE, or The Society for Andamans and Nicobar Ecology.

"Hindu refugees from the former East Bengal were sent here in droves, and only others who were educated or rich escaped the net. No one wanted to come here and it was considered a punishment post," says Mr. Acharya.

Acharya says this influx disturbed the traditional lives of the indigenous peoples, and damaged the delicate ecology of the islands. Until 20 years ago, corals were being used to lay roads on the islands. The government has also stopped the indiscriminate cutting of valuable oak.

India has used the islands, located 600 miles from the mainland, as a listening post for east Asia, mainly China, for many years. Foreigners need a special permit to enter the islands, and the government has discouraged the development of major tourism there.

"When the Chinese set up a signals intelligence facility by leasing an island from Myanmar, to monitor Indian missile tests in the northeast of the country, Indian intelligence came onto the scene with three state-of-the-art ESS, or electronic surveillance station, provided to them by the Americans, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands," explains India expert Subir Bhaumik who has written books on the region and also reports on the subject for the BBC.

"The United States gave us the hardware to intercept Chinese intelligence and it was put in place by 2002, but now all three bases in the islands of Kakana, Katchall, and Nancowrie are believed destroyed by the tsunami," Mr. Bhaumik adds.

The airforce base and military housing in Car Nicobar are in ruins and more than a hundred residents are dead or missing. The tsunami is also believed to have killed 17 intelligence agents.

The military is now sending continuous sorties of relief to the island from Port Blair by helicopter and transport planes, sometimes up to 50 in one day, and the work is grueling.

"I haven't seen my family since the problem began as they are asleep when I go home and I am gone before they wake up," shouts one soldier over the screech of plane engines in the cavernous hanger at the unified (Air Force, Navy, and Army) command air base INS Utkrosh, which has been transformed into a relief transport center.

"Still, it is our duty to do this job properly as we have really been honored guests on these island for some years now," says the soldier who prefers to remain unnamed.

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