01/13/2005, 00.00
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Struggling through the emergency to get back to a normal life after the tsunami

Christians, Muslims and Hindus are working together to rebuild their lives, says Sr Benigne Menezes. Things are getting better in the state of Andhra Pradesh but it is still an emergency situation in Tamil Nadu. For many, the Nirmala Hospital is the only refuge to go to.

Vijayawada (AsiaNews) – Things are getting better in Andhra Pradesh. The emergency phase is over, and rebuilding houses and outfitting boats are already being planned so as to restart the economy and get life back to normal. By contrast, in many areas of hard-hit Tamil Nadu people are still dealing with an emergency situation.

Sr Benigne Menezes, a nun with the Missioners of the Immaculata, spoke to AsiaNews about the long and arduous journey back to normal life in the areas stricken by the December 26 tsunami.

Sister Benigne lives in Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh) but, in recent weeks, she has been on the road to and fro the Nirmala Hospital in Karinkal (Tamil Nadu) to check out how aid collected in PIME's campaign for tsunami victims was being used.

The tsunami was "frightening", she says. In some areas, things are still in a "critical" state. In many, "people lost everything and must start from scratch," but faith "united those who were affected by the tragedy". In many more, "there are beautiful stories to tell of cooperation and mutual aid between Christians, Muslims and Hindus".

Sr Benigne insists however on the difficulties people in Tamil Nadu face. Many homes "were destroyed and every family is mourning the loss of someone dear". Before reconstruction can start, "we'll have to wipe the slate clean and clear away all the debris".

All that volunteers see is a total loss. People who went through the experience "have the images of the tragedy burnt into their minds". And even though "they do not want to rebuild near the coast fearing another such tragedy", they are motivating by an equally "strong will to get back to a normal life".

Many displaced people have found a refuge in the Nirmala Hospital where, thanks to the indefatigable work of the nuns, they can at least stay alive.

Twenty days after the event, Sister Benigne says, many people "have not yet found even a temporary shelter and must rely on the nuns for help."

Survivors "are still traumatised from what they went through and for the human losses they endured. There is such a need for psychological counselling, not only for food. They must be helped to start their lives anew and overcome the shock they received".

The Church has a number of projects that include "housing, new boats and fishing equipment" which are essential to get the economy going again.

But it is the children who need special attention. First they went through the tsunami, and then came the threat of trafficking for adoption. Priests, nuns and volunteers attend to their needs and "make sure that they are safe" with the help of law enforcement after the government decided to "protect them".

The tsunami changed people's lives in other ways too. For years, inter-religious conflict prevailed. But now, Sister Benigne stresses, "Christians, Muslims and Hindus have been working together to help survivors".

"In Andra Pradesh," she says, "there is a shrine near the sea. When the tsunami arrived the parish priest opened its doors to Hindu pilgrims who had come to the beach to perform ritual washing under the full moon which is something sacred to them".

Since then, every day volunteers from the diocese of Vijayawada, led by Bishop Prakash Mallavarapup, provide food to 800 families who lost everything.

"The goal, however, is to help the 10,000 families in the diocese who are barely hanging on by providing them with money and basic essentials so that they can start rebuilding a life with dignity." (DS)

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