Amid Tsunami Havoc, a Military Base Copes With the Future

Car Nicobar Air Base (Bay of Bengal)
A little over two years after the killer Indian Ocean tsunami, the once pristine beachfront of this frontline military facility is littered with poignant reminders of the day the sea rained death and destruction.

A visit to the base is a very humbling experience.

As the gentle waves lap the shore, they make for, at once, harmonious symphony and an eerie and surreal air. Indeed, it seems almost sacrilegious to walk on the sands. It seems like one is trampling over the ghosts of the dead - 121 of them the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami claimed.

This is where, not too long ago, children would play while their elders looked on indulgently. This is where families would gather for tête-à-têtes and impromptu picnics. This is also where young couples would nestle against a palm tree as they contemplated the horizon and the complexities of their future.

All that is now gone - and might never return.

All that remains of those happy days are heart rendering reminders of everyday life - torn school exercise books and satchels, children's cycles, torn clothes of various hues and sizes, footwear, dented utensils, shattered TVs and radio sets, scooters and motorcycles twisted beyond recognition.

Just inland of the beach is a scene straight out of a World War II movie - the four-storied residences of Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel that seem to have been bombed with a vengeance.

Once, some 80 of these structures stood along the beachfront. Now, just one precariously tilting building remains - with the others having been brought down as part of the cleaning up process continues.

This one building is a horrific reminder of the destruction the 20-foot high waves the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami wrought, smashing the very foundations of the structure and making it tilt at an impossible angle, wringing its steel beams like they were made of putty, cracking its walls, and bringing down its balconies.

A little beyond this lies a demolished mini-market with signs like "Cigarette Shop" and "Laundry" still visible. Just ahead, a grey motorcar stands mournfully - its roof dented, its doors open and its windows smashed.

In the midst of this is a miracle - the three-storey building of the Kendriya Vidyalala government school standing defiantly amid the destruction around it. Its doors and windows, its furniture and other objects have all been washed away but the structure is virtually unscathed.

This building now houses the labourers brought from the Indian mainland, some 1,800 km away, to clear the debris and undertake reconstruction operations.

The paucity of labour, as also the fact that all the resources for the reconstruction operations, has to be brought by ship via a tortuous route from Chennai to Andaman capital Port Blair and thence, again by sea to Car Nicobar, is the reason the cleaning up process is taking so long.

The IAF base itself suffered considerable damage as the tsunami knocked out the air control tower (ATC), offices, residences and other assets and even damaged the runway and main hangar that is home to the 122 Helicopter Unit.

The Mi-8 machines that the unit operates survived the storm as they were ordered up moments after a 9.3 Richter scale temblor was felt 6.28 a.m. that Black Sunday morning, with the tsunami striking eight minutes later.

As the pilots, clad mostly in pyjamas, took to the air, they watched in mortification as the huge waves rolled in, smashing everything in their path.

These machines then returned to winch up to safety a large number of people who had fled their residences to occupy a ramp-like structure adjacent to the living quarters.

One officer, Wing Commander V.S.K. Kumar, received the Kirti Chakra, the second highest award for gallantry in peacetime, for winching up 300 people in repeated sorties and ferrying them to the airfield a kilometre away that is the highest point of the otherwise flat Car Nicobar Island.

Given the clockwork with which the military functions, the base was operational on the evening of the tsunami with aircraft being guided in through the headlights of motor vehicles as it became dark.

The base was fully operational a few months later with temporary accommodation being created to replace what had been lost. But then, even as the base is operating at its optimum, it might never again be declared a family station, which it was before the tsunami struck. Once home to some 1,000 souls, including families, the base is now down to 33 officers and 300-odd personnel.

It has also been declared a hardship station, meaning that officers and personnel are rotated every two years against the normal three.

The visit is a reminder that no matter how destructive human beings can get, they can be no match for nature's fury.


More by :  Vishnu Makhijani

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