26 January 2005

Operation Sea Waves

A diary account of my team's deployment to tsunami-struck Car Nicobar.

Thursday, December 30:
It had been a routinely hectic 9-hour work day, until the evening briefing about a mission to Chennai. En-route to the airport, I received a phone call about deployment to Andaman & Nicobar instead. This was late at night, so there was no time to react emotionally. Memories of exactly one year ago kept visiting me: We were all dressed up and packed up and at the airport on our way to Bam in Iraq that was hit by a major quake. Some desk warrior denied us permission and we had to turn back from the airport. I tried not to think about it.

Just shy of midnight I was at the airport, as Tactical Chief of a 50-man team consisting of rescue workers and sanitation experts. An initial snag: We had to leave our fuel supplies and gas cylinders behind as we were refused permission to take them aboard the plane for safety reasons.

Friday, December 31:
Our plane left for Chennai by 2 am. By 4 am we had reached Chennai for a stopover, and dawn was breaking when we reached Port Blair. We would spend the whole day there arranging for our deployment, liaising with army officials and the civic administration. My nightmare was breaking up the entire team and equipments into 3 functional units to fly to our designated operations area, Car Nicobar, as the AN-32 cargo aircraft weren’t big enough to take 50 of us and our 3.5 ton equipment payload. We reached and regrouped at Car Nicobar by 1945 hours and reported to the Military Operations command. As it turned out, they weren’t too happy with civilians and advised us to leave. Previous civilian teams hadn't been able to withstand burying decomposed bodies and had pulled out, they said. We had 30 minutes to decide. We took 5 minutes to decide that it was ‘No retreat, no surrender’. We were told to pitch camp anywhere; we chose the runway off-ramp. The world was celebrating as 2004 ended. But there was nothing happy about our new year. We were to find tsunami survivors, which would be a silver lining, but mostly we would have to bury the dead. We relished the first nap after nearly 40 stress filled hours.

Saturday, January 1:
The three of us (Mission Chief, Operations Chief and Tactical Chief) had strategy meeting with the military command while the rest were divided into 3 groups and deployed to different areas for locating and burying bodies and disinfecting the area. No, we weren’t assigned a fancy ‘Bravo Delta’ military codename.

By afternoon my group of three received input that there was one survivor in Lapati, a remote village. We were briefed that one of his legs was fractured and the other badly infected. The hope of finding a LIVE victim, and the general lack of any communications equipment, meant that just the three of us would undertake this mission. We took an ambulance and two doctors with a stretcher. A Times of India reporter from Mumbai covering the tsunami disaster also came along. Getting to Lapati involved a long drive and a 7 km trek through devastated jungle terrain littered with broken TVs, fridges and furniture. There was the smell of decomposition in the air, and every few meters something was rotting.

On reaching Lapati, it turned out the man had already been evacuated by other survivors. The trip wasn't a total waste of time, however. We were the first team to get there, and our mapping of the area would be useful to the army to remove the dead bodies. On our way back, we paused by a beach with almost white sand. The azure sea and the pristine beach was a sight to behold. It was difficult to believe that this very pristine sea was a killer a week ago.

Sunday, January 2:
Sunday passed in burying the dead. The only way of retaining our sanity was to steel the mind and body. By the end of our stay, we had buried 27 bodies. We would spray each body to kill germs, spray the spot, find a good burial spot, mark the grave with a red flag and heap stones to prevent dogs from getting to the body. We would doff hats and stand in silence for some time. Maybe the dead would rest easier for it. The daily evening debriefing saw the army heads praising our mapping data on Lapati, Tapoiming and other tiny villages that we had provided them the earlier day from our trek. They had found nearly 17 bodies there. One of our teams had located a 100 kg turtle trapped under debris and relocated it back to the water. We had rescued a ‘live victim’ after all.

Monday January 3:
Buried a small boy. His body had been in the water for six days, and
was bloated. His face was decomposed. He was wearing good clothes,
which told us he had a family that cared for him. Were they dead too?

We decided to begin planning the return trip there was no sense in taking undue risks overextending ourselves and our equipment. We had experienced mild tremors each day. Plus the psychological factor that we were cutoff from the mainland. Moreover, the air force guys told us their airplane sorties were going to be reduced or stopped because of the damaged runway. Either we could leave now, or wait indefinitely. The army command was full of praise. A Major said we had not only outdid civilians but ‘almost came close’ to their standards.

One team was still in the field so a few of us waited back to take the last aircraft out of Car Nicobar while I was among those who were to board the giant IL-78 aircraft. I sat up front with the navigator in a glass bubble under the aircraft’s nose. After a spell of darkness, I could see the lights of the mainland’s coastline approaching. Ahead still, the navigator pointed out clusters of lights as we flew over Maharashtra: Solapur, Navi Mumbai and finally Mumbai. I reached home and went to sleep.

Tuesday, January 4:
Back to sweaty elbows, and two inches of personal space in local trains. In the Andamans there were miles of nothing. The body and mind still tense up, but for alt ogether different reasons. I brace not for the stench of dead bodies but the onslaught of hundreds of live ones as I board the train. The few team members who had stayed behind had returned safely too. Tremendous sense of fulfillment for a tough mission done very well and safely. As I filed the report on the mission, I relived all those experiences. We have learnt a lot. We have earned our wings. My classification of Phillip Kotler's 'Necessity, Comfort, Luxury' stands changed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2005:
At the debriefing I learnt that the entire Military Operation in which we had participated was named Operation Sea Waves. Back from the everyday job. Wonder what is more stressful!

Based on the article in the Times of India co-authored by Suhit Kelkar

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