PORT BLAIR, India — Situated more than 600 miles from the Indian mainland, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is an archipelago of more than 500 islands stretching several hundred miles across the Indian Ocean.
The Port Blair diocese that encompasses the scattered and isolated islands accounts for half of the 80,000 Christians, who comprise about 25% of the islands’ population.
Bishop Aleixo das Neves Dias of Port Blair spoke recently with Register correspondent Anto Akkara about the unique life of the Church in the islands, and the devastation that the Dec. 26 tsunami unleashed there.
How do your priests serve the people?
Each one of our parishes is very extensive and large in area with the people scattered in forest camps deep in the jungles. In fact, several islands make one parish. So, area-wise, we have very big parishes, and it is impossible for the people to come for Sunday Mass. It is unthinkable here.
What the priest has to do is to make rounds to the scattered communities. We try to do it once in three months so that the people can participate in the Mass at least once in three months.
Every parish has, on average, 25-30 outstations. Each of these outstations has a chapel, which is most often thatch-roofed. Each village also has a catechist who is elected from among the people with the approval of the parish priest. Every Sunday, the people gather together in that chapel and the catechist conducts the service for the people. There is no Mass, of course.
How has the tsunami affected the Church there?
This was a real catastrophe. It began with the massive earthquake. I was scared to death. It happened when I was getting ready for Mass at 6.35 a.m., and I ran out as the building started swaying like a boat. When I went back to my room, I could not enter it as the doors had been blocked by fallen bookshelves. So, I went to Mass in the Cathedral for the first time without a cassock.
We decided to have the Mass outside the cathedral and during the Mass, we had at least three more tremors. Since Port Blair is full of hillocks, even the rising waters did not cause much damage. But, we had no idea of the devastation this earthquake had wreaked in the southern islands.
Can you describe the scenes you saw in the southern islands?
I was speechless when I saw the devastation there. It is difficult to imagine or describe the massive destruction all around. You begin to wonder how water could cause this kind of damage. Huge trees have been uprooted and carried away. Coconut trees are broken and twisted.
There is no trace of many villages with everything destroyed.
What about the death toll?
So far, our estimate is that at least 100 Catholics have died.
But the number of deaths has been very high in the flat islands, which are also very close to Sumatra [where the tsunami originated]. The government’s death toll count is only a couple of thousand and another 3,000 missing. This is gross understatement and ridiculously low.
The death toll in the southern islands, I think, is nothing less than 20,000.
I spoke to a government official about this and he said that unless the dead body is found, one cannot be counted as dead. A magistrate can declare the missing as dead after nine years. That is our legal system.
How are the survivors coping with the calamity?
In Katchal, I stayed for five days and visited the relief camps and celebrated Mass with them. Most of them are happy that they survived. The resilience of the tribal people is very remarkable, and they have a lot of capacity to take suffering in stride. But they are thinking of the future, what it holds for them.
In Hut Bay (in Little Andamans), I celebrated Ash Wednesday in the tsunami-hit church. The fans were hanging down and the wall behind the altar was full of cracks. I have asked the priest not to use the side altar, as it is very dangerous.
More than 80% of the people in the islands beyond Little Andamans are still in living in relief camps run by the government. I visited several camps in Kachal and Campbell Bay. Most of them are still living in tents and the hygiene is very poor.
What about the rehabilitation of these people?
The situation of these people will be aggravated soon when the monsoon starts in a month in the far south like Campbell Bay. The people will have to be provided some shelters before the monsoon hits.
We are also attending to 600 people now left in the relief camp at our Nirmala School (in Port Blair). Initially, we had 1,800 people in the camp. Many of them have gone back to salvage whatever is left of their homes, as the water has receded in some areas.
We wanted to help the affected people as much as we can, especially our Christian brethren in Car Nicobar. Nearly half of the 30,000 population of Car Nicobar — 95% of them Protestants — perished in the tsunami. But, the problem is islands like Car Nicobar are “restricted areas” due to the tribal people there, and unless the government permits, we can’t do anything.
With the support of Caritas and Catholic Relief Services, we have expressed readiness to build at least 1,000 temporary shelters in any island the government would allot us. But, no allotment has been made to us so far.
So, like the islanders waiting anxiously for the boats to come, we are waiting for the government permission to start our rehabilitation work.
Anto Akkara writes
from New Delhi, India.