PORT BLAIR, India – Even as the people of the isolated Andaman (search) and Nicobar (search) islands told harrowing tales of fending off starvation and hungry crocodiles thrown ashore by the towering tsunami, they vowed Thursday to go back to their tiny islands and start all over again.
"We are broken, but this is not the end of life," said George Aberdeen, whose village on the remote Car Nicobar island was washed away on Sunday. "We will rebuild our lives. It will be difficult — but the whole family will do it together."
But just how many villages and families remain is unclear.
According to the International Red Cross (search), 30,000 people may be missing on the remote island chains southeast of India's mainland. More than 50 aftershocks have struck since Sunday's 9.0 magnitude temblor and subsequent tsunamis along the coastlines of 11 Asian nations.
The administrator for the islands, Lt. Gov. Ram Kapse, said some 400 bodies had been cremated or buried and that 3,000 were still missing. On Wednesday, he said at least 10,000 people were believed missing.
"I don't want to hide anything," he told reporters when they demanded to know why they were not allowed to travel to the islands to make their own death assessments.
Island authorities have so far barred representatives of international aid groups such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and CARE from going to the islands.
Rescuers Thursday followed the stench of death to find rotting bodies in jungles on the remote territory comprised of more than 500 islands. About 350,000 people live on about 30 of the islands. Survivors from the islands said they had not eaten for two days and people had to contend with crocodiles that were washed ashore.
Sister Charity, a 32-year-old nun who was rescued from Hut Bay island by a navy ship on Wednesday, told The Associated Press that confused and hungry crocodiles were on the prowl.
"As we were returning [to the ship], two or three crocodiles started coming toward us. The navy officers had to fire their revolvers to ward off the crocodiles to protect us," she said.
"There's not a single hut which is standing," Mohammad Yusef, a 60-year-old fisherman from Tea Top village on Car Nicobar, told The AP at a Roman Catholic Church in Port Blair, the capital of the Indian territory.
Yusef said he and his extended family of 20 walked some 20 kilometers (12 miles) to a devastated, but functioning airfield where thousands were being evacuated by the air force.
He said there were about 15 small villages on Car Nicobar's coastline; all were destroyed.
"Everything is gone. Most of the people have gone up to the hills and are afraid to come down," Yusef said.
At another makeshift refugee center, Nirmala Convent School, papier mache stars were still strung from the Christmas Mass. Hundreds sat under blue plastic tarps, as women in white saris served bowls of rice and lentils.
Langley Matenga, 50, a coconut farmer and Aberdeen's brother-in-law, spoke of how he and his family of 10 ran from the waves that spread out over their village, Mallaca, where some 500 Hindu, Muslim and Christian families lived together.
"We were trying to run ahead of the water. When we turned around, all the houses were gone," said Matenga, an indigenous Nicobarese. "Within five minutes, everything was gone. It was Sunday morning and we were planning to go to church — and suddenly there was no church."
But there were few tears or hysterics among the thousands of survivors who were being ferried by boat and helicopter to Port Blair.
"The Nicobarese are very calm people. They have taken this with a tremendous sense of maturity," said Deputy Inspector-General A.N. Basudev Rao.
He said finding and disposing of bodies was a "daunting task."
"A huge number of trees have fallen. There is a lot of slush," Rao told The AP.
Nearly all the jetties in the islands were smashed by the waves and rescue parties were using small wooden and rubber boats to land.
"The rescue parties are approaching inch by inch," Rao said. "There is also a lot of stench. From the stench, they are trying to follow the direction to the bodies."
Helicopters took off from 10 ships patrolling the vicinity of the islands Thursday, carrying out intensive reconnaissance sorties for any signs of life, or mounds of dead, but it was difficult to see through the thick foliage.
Six Russian-made AN-32 Air Force planes conducted dozens of sorties from Port Blair to the air base on Car Nicobar to pick up the 80 to 90 villagers on each flight.
About 580 survivors from the island of Hud Bay arrived by boat before dawn on Thursday. The waves were so fierce that most of those who could board the ship were men, who had to swim from shore. The government ship took 12 hours to reach the island, where, according to survivors, more than 800 people are dead or missing.
"We just managed to save our lives," Dana Amma, 60, said. "All our houses, our cattle, everything is gone. We don't know what to do."
Drinking water was being rushed on ships and planes, but the situation was largely calm and local people were making do with eating coconut and drinking coconut water, Rao said.
"People find their own ways of survival. They are doing it admirably," he said.
In many islands, the tribal residents maintain little contact with the outer world, disappearing into the forest when strangers approach their lands. Authorities hope that is the case this time, as well.
"They might be hiding in forests and taking shelter in places where we haven't reached yet," Rao said. "But God's grace is needed for that in ample measure," he added.