Across his tsunami-devastated island, his relatives, friends and teachers lay dead, lost in water that submerged his home. As Koshi Mackenroe John hunkered down on a hill with his parents, there was little he could do except wait for rescuers.
So the 13-year-old started writing letters.
From a forest in remote Katchall Island in India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, Koshi wrote page after page in his neat cursive handwriting, reporting the devastation around him and pleading for help.
“Dear Uncle,” read one letter dated Dec. 28, two days after the tsunami. “Everything is over. ... About 2,000 acres of land was overwhelmed and destroyed by the flood. We are starving over here and trying to send messages because every communications center or station is destroyed.”
“I hope you will find this letter very soon... We need an immediate rescue.”
Two of Koshi’s letters arrived this week in Port Blair, capital of the island territory, carried by other evacuees. Volunteer groups delivered them to his uncle in the city. A volunteer group, Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, made them available to The AP.
Katchall Island was one of many in the 500-island chain that was badly affected. Across the archipelago, officials say more than 6,000 people are missing and believed dead. India’s official death toll is near 10,000.
Koshi’s family, indigenous Nicobarese tribesmen, survived the waves that swept the island. Along with his father John Paul, mother Esther and sister Munni, the teenager scrambled to safety and took shelter on a hill.
From there, brokenhearted, they could see what the furious waves had done to their island. His letters, written in English and also sent to government officials, describe a bleak scene.
“From the west side, only water and water can be seen,” he wrote. “There is no sign of land or island in the west. Over 2,600 people have died and more than 600 people are still missing. Less than 800 people have survived.”
The Nicobarese tribe, which numbered an estimated 30,000 people before the tsunami, is the archipelago’s largest. Unlike the five other tribes, who live a primitive and isolated existence, most Nicobarese are Christian converts and have been partly assimilated into contemporary society. They live in villages led by a headman and raise pigs, coconuts, yams and bananas. Many have access to English-speaking schools.
In a line barely visible behind an ink blot, Koshi wrote that teachers at his school were among the thousands killed.
“All the teachers except Mrs. Evelyn (with her family), Verghese and Molly Madam are dead,” he said. Of his extended family, 21 survived but many others were lost.
“We are the only survivors ... and Uncle Sylvester and his wife too, but they couldn’t save the lives of their three children. Nuni and everyone are dead except two kids. None from Livingstones’ family has escaped. Everyone is dead or missing except his son Anthony.”
Two days after the disaster, a helicopter flew overhead, raising the family’s hopes. “Today the chopper was flying over; we were signaling but the chopper didn’t land up here,” he wrote.
News reached the family of destruction on the rest of the island. One letter lists towns where no one survived: Marine, West Bay Katchall, East Bay Katchall, Ponda, Jansin, Hittat and Mottatapu.
They “have lost their lives completely,” Koshi wrote.
Eventually, the Indian government began evacuating survivors. A doctor was taken in a small boat to safer ground on a neighboring island. Perhaps their turn would come soon, Koshi wrote.
Mesmerized, the family listened to state-run All India Radio for word of an imminent rescue or the fate of their relatives on other islands.
Some relatives went searching for the bodies of family members and friends. But none could be found.
“It was heard that Car Nicobar was fully destroyed. What about our family members and (Uncle Peter) and his family?” Koshi asked.
His story ended on an upbeat note. A second letter, dated Dec. 31, expressed heart-felt relief that the family was finally rescued by a ship searching for survivors; they were taken to a relief camp on Camorta Island.
Finally, he was safe, but the teenager still worried about his home island.
“It’s been the fifth day and nobody has come to recover the dead bodies,” he wrote.
“If the dead bodies won’t be taken out or recovered, then it’s going to be disaster for those people living there and struggling for life.”