THE ASIAN AGE     January 1 2005


Opinion _____________________________



Survival of the luckiest
- By Sreeram Chaulia

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka: For the religious-minded who survived, the terror tsunami that stormed Southeast and South Asia on December 26 is partial apocalypse. They are groping about for answers as to why their dear ones and fellow humans along coastlines were taken by water avalanches up to 30 feet high while they themselves were spared. "Why are we living when so many have been washed away in littoral fury?" What is the rationale of distinction in the rage of the ocean? Is there an unfulfilled purpose for which some were kept alive? Perhaps to grieve and mourn the colossal calamity and to help rebuild from the ruins.

Having narrowly escaped the tidal demon in eastern Sri Lanka, I consider myself privileged to see nobility emerge from the rubble. Maybe that is the reason I was not sent packing to the other universe without a moment’s notice like the lakhs of hapless victims. The dead probably already enjoyed the noblesse oblige of the human species, even the tiny babies whose torsos and heads were wrenched apart. I live to realise it.

A quiet dignity reigns on the motionless faces of corpses littering hospital floors all over Batticaloa district, as nurses scramble to meet the shortage of white funereal cloth. The deformed appear angelic. I reverentially touch the feet of friends and colleagues whose existence was a source of joy and inspiration, hoping that the end came quickly without torture. In their stillness lies a message — I outlive them so that their stories can be the ballast of a resurrection of civil society and peace in this war-ravaged country. I am struck by universal epiphanies in the company of the ultimate truth — how valuable the contributions of these fine people were and what unrecoverable losses in human resource the seven affected countries must have suffered. If disasters simply knocked out economies, they would not be as harmful. In this sense, the tsunami is like war. Human potential and capability are the biggest casualties.

The tsunami is unlike war because of its non-partisanship. Rich and poor, government and rebels, Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils, are all its uncomprehending scalps in Sri Lanka. Survival kissed only the luckiest, not the strongest or the fittest. The response to shelter and feed displaced civilians of one community comes from their constructed mortal enemies. I see Muslim traders collecting spontaneous donations of cash and kind to succour getaway Tamil villagers moving into schools across eastern Sri Lanka. This is a region where the two groups are supposed to be facing a cohabitation crisis. The communal virus is sheathed when the tormentor is a non-discriminatory natural menace.

Citizens’ actions — spreading the news of the oncoming waves to the unaware and caring for the dispossessed — are the main sources of hope in the first two days of the crisis. Government and NGOs are too paralysed to take any action. Appeals over news media have raised flocks of service-minded volunteers in unaffected interior districts. They are rushing in with essential supplies and solidarity to the coastal parts. I read that Sri Lanka last suffered a massive earthquake in the early 17th century, when nearly 2,000 people were killed. Thank God for the communications revolution that sympathy and philanthropy can be mobilised much faster in our day and age.

I apprehend that black-marketing and hoarding have started apace in all the tsunami-affected areas of the southern arc of Asia — when supplies are at a premium, the highest bidder gets them without being the most needy. The vulpine nature of some thrives in such settings, bringing disgrace to the same human race I am praising. For every few thousand Florence Nightingales, there must be one Shylock. It is how good and evil get balanced in the cosmic design. I console myself that as long as the sum total of good people remains at 51 per cent, the universe will be sustained.

How do humans cope with fear? Survivors of the Iranian and Indian earthquakes are still struggling to sleep peacefully, despite time’s diligent efforts to build a healing bridge. The Asian tsunami is still a fresh gnash. Every morning since the 26th, I dread the 8:45-9 a.m. moments and look balefully at the nearest water source. I close my eyes and visualise the rushing horror of a titanic wave propelled by plate tectonics somewhere in Aceh. The ocean is a conglomerate of infinite little water drops. Which lot in this pullulating mass was ordered to go and wreak havoc on land? Was there a contest between drops over which would be assigned for this mass killing under duress? I want to be sure that the ocean water is gentle and life sustaining, home to billions of floral and faunal species, source of human nourishment and trade.

Newspaper editorials are pointing to the absence in Asia of a tsunami warning system such as the one operative in the Pacific Ocean rim. Sri Lanka and India, the worst damaged, are regretting the lack of advance notice that could have saved thousands of lives. The Pacific Ocean system can detect tsunami signs 3-14 hours before the deluge. However, Asia’s uneven and non-contiguous topography will strain the technicians. In the part of Sri Lanka I am in, even one hour of advance warning would suffice for people to pack their life savings into a sack and run. War has displaced people here so often that their danger preparedness is of a professional quality. Even in the total chaos unleashed around 9 a.m. on the 26th, confounded by the lack of information as to which side is safe, people appeared relatively calmer and more stoic than me.

The high points of the ordeal are titbits coming in that contacts of whom I feared the worst are alive, barely. Also heartening is knowledge that the war-executing capacities of armed actors, especially naval-based, have been severely dented. Maybe the thousands who died or went missing sacrificed to give the rest of us respite from the breakdown of ceasefire and resumption of full-scale hostilities. Human folly will undoubtedly be re-established, but any breather is welcome to the conflict-saturated. International aid, that ever-shrinking percentage in Western budgets, has been reactivated, if only for the immediate disaster-related needs. Housing is a medium-term need that will demand serious external investment and expertise about height and distance from the shores.

An intangible gain is the empathy and concern shown by the rest of the world for Asians who lost so much on Black Boxing Day. If individual countries are urging themselves to unite internally in magnanimity, the outpouring of love from around the globe is reminding us of the essential oneness of the human species. A mother in Switzerland knows and feels the sorrow of her counterpart in Sumatra if she has heard the news. She will even contribute if her government or an international organisation appeals in a telethon. I receive goodwill wishes from three continents and know that there is a quid pro quo involved. When floods, cyclones or heat waves ravage innocents in those continents, I will stretch out with my kind thoughts (possibly dig into my pockets) from a distance.

The greatest tacit moral support I receive from the faces of the aggrieved and the unaffected as they go about remaking shattered societies is agreement. They agree through solemn gestures and diminution that what happened on the 26th was horrible. Out of collective grief and collective agreement, I can extract lessons that are reassuring. The human condition is all alone in normal times but all together in tragedy.

Sreeram Chaulia is a columnist with the Asia Times, Hong Kong



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