Life starts anew with a church on the beach
Two years after the devastating tidal wave, AsiaNews looks at PIME’s campaign and involvement in South-East Asia. All projects in Thailand, Myanmar and southern India have been completed. This year some € 300,000 have been raised but more is needed to complete the work still underway on the Andaman Islands.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Rebuilding homes and a normal life remains a struggle on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands two years after the December 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated South-East Asia. In this archipelago, which is located far to the east of India’s eastern shore, some projects started by the campaign launched by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) with AsiaNews’s support are still underway.

PIME moved in right after the tidal wave—its action in support of victims was immediate. In the first few days, relief aid arrived in India, Thailand, and Myanmar. Fishing boats and gear were provided in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, relief aid for schools and hostels reached the Andamans and psychological support was given to survivors in Thailand.

Andrea Ferrari, who is the administrator of the PIME Missionary Centre in Milan, reports that all projects have been completed, except for the “biggest and most ambitious one” on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

After a 15-day visit to India to see how things were progressing, Andrea Ferrari said that people were still living in extremely difficulty conditions after two years, waiting for permanent housing that the government is still not providing. Still, they are not hopeless, partly because of the initiatives taken by 15 Pilar Fathers who manage the funds and campaign the Institute promoted.

According to the Missionary Centre’s estimates, some € 320,000 was raised this year for tsunami victims, all projects included. “Of course, the amount of money is much lower than in 2005 when we raised € 2,063,992, but if we do not want to leave some projects unfinished with need more donations,” he said.


Schools and hostels for youth

The “Rebuild Andaman and Nicobar Islands” project has various goals, Ferrari said. On 12 hectares in Manarghat, a place some 30 kilometres from the Islands’ capital of Port Blair, a new school complex with boarding school accommodations is being built. It is expected to house 150 male and 150 female students.

When the school is finished, it will open on May 15 next year and will serve 800 students. But for the time being only the first floor is ready; the second is expected soon.

The Boys’ Hostel should be function by September 30, 2007. Until then pupils will be housed in the unused areas of the school. The younger one, aged four to seven, will stay in the Girls’ Hostel run by Ursuline nuns.

The school will offer elementary and high school education.

In Port Blair, donations to PIME funded the rebuilding of a school destroyed by the quake.

“The building,” the PIME administrator said, “is finished. It only needs some final touches but it is already being used by at least 150 students who will become 500 by the time everything is done. The school includes a kindergarten and elementary classes. The school charges a fee but about a hundred places will be free for orphans and disadvantaged kids.”

The overall cost totals € 1.25 million including building, furniture, bursaries for some orphans, and some special expenditure (road and bridge). More than € 900,000 was raised by an Italian TV newscast (TG 4).

“In the beginning we expected to use only this money but then we added € 250,000 from PIME’s tsunami campaign itself. Money also came from overseas like foreign missions in Brazil.”

“Diocesan missionary centres were also very much involved,” Ferrari said, “that of Novara for instance. We are thinking about getting someone to sponsor the schools and hostels.”

Overall, “we need € 150,000 to pay for our neediest pupils for three years as we promised. With the amount of money we currently have we can only cover the expenses for the first year and half”.


Church by the beach

On the Andaman Islands, churches and chapels were rebuilt on their original site and are breathing hope that life can get back to normal, said some Pilar Fathers.

On Little Andaman and Car Nicobar two churches with respective community centres and six chapels as annex are planned. “because of popular demand we decided to add two more chapels but this also requires more money,” Ferrari said.

On Little Andaman, the Pilar Fathers church and residence are in use again. Six chapels were built but an additional two are still not finished: one has the foundations but building the other has not yet started.

Same problem on Car Nicobar where the complete rebuilding of local churches requires still more donations.

So far € 150,000 has been spent on churches and chapels but to be complete the projects needs an additional € 80/90,000. “Until we find this money, everything is on hold,” the administrator said.

But according to both Andrea Ferrari and the Pilar Fathers, rebuilding the places of worship is giving hope to the prostrate local community. For example, Car Nicobar’s capital of Hut Bay was built along the beach and the local church was some ten metres from the water. When the 14-metre tidal wave came crashing onto the beach, it wiped out everything. Now one can see the church by the beach surrounded by the foundations of the new homes being built.

“People are very happy to see the church on its old spot,” said Fr Joseph from the Society of Pilar Brothers. “It is like a sign that life is being reborn where it was once broken. When it was inaugurated the whole population took part in a huge celebration. Many Protestants come to our functions as well ”.

For his part Andrea Ferrari told the story of a man he met in the last, the remotest, chapel he visited. “I met this young man, 25, who impressed me. He lost his entire family in the tsunami but was there, smiling, when the chapel was rededicated. As he told me, he plans to stay in the village and go on.”


Full recovery still difficult

The islands are still far from full recovery. Rebuilding is experiencing delays and higher costs due to a variety of factors, Ferrari said. First of all, it is hard to get the necessary materials because demand is high. Throughout the Andamans there is building boom—bridges, roads, housing—with the result that supplies arrive late and are more expensive. “Not to mention the fact that the price of some materials like iron are up because of Chinese demand,” he added.

Workers flown in from continental India are an additional problem because they are more expensive that locals.

Moreover, there are technical problems as well. For instance, when a school collapsed in Tamil Nadu, the Education Department introduced new building regulations so that we had to retrofit our walls to comply with the new rules.

And last but not least there is the weather. Last year, the monsoons lasted two months causing widespread flooding.

Despite the hope, the situation on Little Andaman is tragic. Fr Joseph reports that people are still living in shanties waiting for permanent housing the government promised but has not yet delivered.

“The impression is that two years after the disaster everything is still like in the first emergency phase,” PIME’s administrator said.

According to Fr Joseph, the hardest recovery is that of the spirit and the mind. “People are grateful to those who helped them, but when a foreigner visits the first thing they all do is retell the story of that fateful December 26,” he said. “The memory is still alive and raw.”

“Many told me that after they were cut off , for days they could not figure what had happened. Some thought about the atomic bomb, World War 3, or that Jesus had arrived a day late (the day before the tsunami was Christmas),” he explained.

Notwithstanding his trust in people’s spirit, Fr Joseph is convinced that “it is almost impossible under the circumstances to recover. Families and orphans lack everything and it seems the world has forgotten them”.

The December 26, 2004, tsunami affected most of the Indian Ocean coastline. Its final death toll stands at about 226,000 people but tens of thousands are still listed as missing whilst the number of displaced people ranges from three to five million.

In India it is estimated that some 15,000 people died.