India: Four years after tsunami, hunt for missing children continues
Accompanied by his friend M Venkataraman, Shankar has been to several temples across the country, showing his daughter's photos to strangers in the desperate hope that someone would help him track her. Venkataraman too is searching for his son Arvind Srinivasan, who would be a teenager now.
It is the eve of the fourth anniversary of the tsunami that killed 1,20,000 along the coastlines of 12 countries in south east Asia. In India, the toll was estimated at 10,805 dead and over 5,640 missing, of which children constituted a large percentage. Many like Apurva and Arvind remain untraced. In their case, their fathers are certain that the children, after being separated from the families, made it to a tsunami relief camp, from where they were abducted.
The two children went missing when tsunami waves crashed into the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, sweeping away hundreds with their force. Ravi Shankar and Venkataraman, both sergeants, had been posted at the Air Force Station, Car Nicobar Islands. Apurva was eight years old and Arvind 12 years when the tidal waves hit the islands on December 26, 2004, submerging most of them under water.
Both men say they were able to hold on to a tree branch and float to safety. Ravi Shankar's wife clung to her one-year-old baby boy and managed to reach dry ground. But the baby had swallowed too much sea water and died in her arms. Their daughter was missing. As for the Venkataramans, he managed to drag his wife out from a mass of dead bodies floating in the water and save her. His daughter, 13, too managed to swim to safety, but his son was not to be found.
When the sergeants, who were transferred to the Air Force Station at Tambaram in the aftermath of tsunami, went back to Port Blair a few months later, they showed photographs of their missing children to relief workers. Some of them said they had seen children who resembled Arvind and Apurva in the camps. "At least three women said they had seen my daughter," recalled Ravi Shankar. But there were no further leads to go by; the crestfallen father had to return to work.
As for Venkataraman, he had read a report that orphans from Andaman and Nicobar Islands were sent to Kolkata. Sensing hope, the sergeant and his in-laws visited orphanages in the city, carrying photos of Arvind. The register of orphans in one of the camps run by the Nirmala School, a welfare institution in Port Blair, even mentioned a boy named Arvind.
"One of the pastors serving with a missionary in Kolkata said he had seen the boy in the camp in Port Blair. We flew to Port Blair. The authorities in the camp had apparently sent my son with two men, who claimed they were his uncles, but had no identity or even an address," said a shocked Venkataraman.
Last year, Sivakami, a friend of his sister-in-law, who left Andaman after the tsunami disaster to settle in Tamil Nadu, recalled meeting Arvind in one of the relief camps, and in fact, had spotted "the accompanying uncle'' as well. Venkataraman took her to a police station in Puducherry, where his in-laws reside, and got the sketch of the "uncle'' using computer generated graphics. He went back to Port Blair with the picture, but in vain. "A complaint of kidnap has been filed but Andaman police slept on it," he said. After he petitioned the President, Prime Minister and home minister, the police made a few enquiries but the boy was nowhere to be found.
With the governments and police force unwilling to part with information on the investigation and unable to help, the frustrated fathers are now visiting temples and astrologers keeping their fingers tightly crossed and with undying hope in their heart. "A keen study of videos shot at the relief camps in Port Blair could open a door or two,'' pointed out Venkataraman. But they were denied the tapes.
(Ravi Shankar can be contacted at 098687-63263 (New Delhi) and Venkataraman at 097107-45190 (Chennai) for any information on their children.)