Two days after the Indian Ocean erupted and ravaged the coastlines of over a dozen countries, killing thousands and displacing millions, I swam in it. As multi-colored fish shimmered past my feet in the turquoise sea, such overwhelming tragedy in paradise seemed not just absurd, but impossible. Gentle and warm, it was hard to imagine that these same waters had, in the space of hours, swallowed countless lives, wreaked billions of dollars worth of damage from Southeast Asia to Africa and triggered the largest global relief response in history. A year marked by war and deepening political divisions around the world had ended engulfed by the indiscriminate wrath of nature.
When the tsunami struck, my family and I were tucked safely away in our ancestral village by the foothills of the Western Ghats, a mountain range in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. I experienced the shock of the disaster much in the same way as many Yalies. I stayed transfixed by images broadcasted on television: of waves filling cities, of parents desperately clutching lifeless children, of smashed towns, post-apocalyptic landscapes and mass graves.
That I was close to the devastation only sunk in when we drove toward the beaches of Kovalam, a popular resort area for tourists from all over the world. The coasts of Kerala — stretched across the southwest tip of the Indian peninsula — were largely shielded by those of Sri Lanka farther south and Tamil Nadu in the east. Yet they were left by no means unscathed. In Alappuzha district, just kilometers north of where we stayed, a swollen sea claimed at least 200 people and wiped out whole fishing fleets. As we whizzed by in the air-conditioned comfort of our hired car, we passed whole swathes of debris-strewn coastline — billboards ripped asunder, pieces of boats scattered atop toppled palm trees. An entire habitat where people earned their living had been destroyed. Nature’s irony revealed itself when we arrived in swanky Kovalam — whose luxury seaside villas and private beaches remained pristine and unblemished.
I flatter myself when I say that I tried to volunteer my services. My excuse, I hope, is reasonable — that in Kerala, most of the relief effort involved dealing with property damage (not humanitarian aid) and the infrastructure needed to incorporate volunteers into any coordinated assistance was, at the time, non-existent. But in truth, the tsunami had a very disabling effect on me. What could I individually change in the wake of such mind-boggling destruction? And so I basked in my good fortune, reclining in hammocks and taking carefree dips in the once again tranquil, inviting ocean.
Yet — even while President Bush holidayed like I did in the days following the disaster — the international community did not stand idle for too long. Already, I am sure most Yalies have donated to some NGO or international charity. Relief agencies are reportedly stuffed to the gills with private contributions, and countless more organizations are springing up in college campuses and cities across the world. For the tsunami’s victims, there is no lack of foreign sympathy for their suffering.
We have all run through the necessary catalogue of emotions: shock at nature’s destructive capacity, perhaps translated into rage against its terrifying cruelty, and melted into compassion for those it harms. As I stood in the beach’s soft sandbar, gripped by the self-indulgent guilt of knowing that I was free from danger and calamity, I recalled the last time I had been in close proximity to tragedy.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I watched from the rooftop of my New York City school as the World Trade Center smouldered and collapsed. At that time, I also felt a certain paralysis, a confusion, an inability to come to terms with the unfathomable loss in the rubble of those buildings. Of course, the events of Sept. 11 were “man-made” — a radicalized, fundamentalist Islam isolated and blamed for the devastation of lower Manhattan. But, equally obvious, responses to both terrorist attacks and tsunamis are governed by political dictates and agendas. Already, President Bush has sniffed an opportunity to show the world America’s “generosity.” I remember on Sept. 11 dreading what “opportunities” would emerge for an administration struggling to find its feet, and my fear was soon realized: a global war that has proliferated terror and escalated violence.
Yet, the Bush administration and the rest of the international community do have a chance to now genuinely sow the seeds of goodwill around the world. We all know of the failure of promised aid funds reaching the earthquake-struck Iranian city of Bam and Honduras following Hurricane Mitch. The world’s rich governments must remain committed and focused in rebuilding this region for years to come. Though staying the course of humanitarian aid offers no opportunities to land triumphantly on aircraft carriers, redevelopment done right will assuage “terror” better than any invasion and occupation.
Even through cataclysms, the effects of American foreign policy echo in all corners of the globe. After swimming in the ocean, my twin brother and I soon left to go snorkel by a coral reef. We journeyed atop a low-riding catamaran, piloted for a pittance of a fee by a local fisherman named Khalid. As we rounded a cove, he pointed to his village’s proud, intact mosque, 30 meters away from the ocean’s edge. He claimed, “It was God’s will that it was unharmed by the sea.” And then, directing a sneer at his American-based tourists: “Maybe George Bush will finish it.”
Ishaan Tharoor is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.