Indian Stone Age Tribe: We're OK
JIRKATANG, India – Members of the ancient Jarawa tribe (search) emerged from their forest habitat Thursday for the first time since the Dec. 26 tsunami and earthquakes that rocked the isolated Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and in a rare interaction with outsiders announced that all 250 of their fellow tribespeople had survived.
"We are all safe after the earthquake. We are in the forest in Balughat," Ashu, an arrow-wielding Jarawa, said in broken Hindi through an interpreter in a restricted forest area in the northern reaches of South Andaman island (search).
According to varying estimates, there are only 400 to 1,000 members alive today from the Jarawas, Great Andamanese (search), Onges (search), Sentinelese (search) and Shompens (search).
Some anthropological DNA studies indicate the generations may have spanned back 70,000 years. They originated in Africa and migrated to India through Indonesia, anthropologists say.
Government officials and anthropologists believe that ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea and birds may have saved the indigenous tribes from the tsunami.
Seven men — wearing only underwear and amulets — emerged from the forest to meet with government and police officials to say they had all fled to the forest and survived by eating coconuts. The men were all carrying bows and five arrows each and wore colored headbands with leaves.
Two reporters and a photographer for The Associated Press were allowed to accompany government officials to an outpost in the isolated northern region.
The seven tribesmen were lazing at the outpost, some sitting on plastic chairs, resting their feet against the trunks of trees. One was mock-wrestling with a government official, from whom they'd learned a few Hindi words.
Ashu, who said he was in his early 20s, gave his name and those of three others of his tribe as Danna, Lah and Tawai.
The men stopped an Associated Press photographer from taking pictures.
"We fall sick if we are photographed," Ashu said.
He also did not want to talk about how his people survived the tsunami, which killed 901 people and left 5,914 are missing on the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Ashu showed off his bow, arrows and a metal box tied around his waist with a thread containing ash with which he smeared his face and forehead during ceremonies.
He gestured with his hands and asked for "khamma" — water in the local dialect used by the Jarawas — and drank from a bottle of mineral water offered to him.
When asked what they typically eat, Ashu said they eat pork and fish caught with their bows and arrows. "And we like honey."
He said tourists had sometimes thrown packages of cookies at them from buses, but the packaged food upsets their stomachs.
"We prefer to eat raw, roasted bananas. Ripe bananas make us sick," he said.
Though friendly, the tribesmen were wary of the visitors.
"My world is in the forest," said Ashu. "Your world is outside. We don't like people from outside."
Jirkatang police have had a love-hate relationship with the Jarawas. In 1997, a year after the tribe made its first-ever contact with government authorities, they stormed the Jirkatang police outpost and shot a guard dead with their arrows.
Relations have since improved.
"Today is the first time they have come out of the forest in a month," said one accompanying official who asked not to be named.
It was apparent that the aborigines had picked up some of the officers' habits. Ashu was chewing tobacco, his teeth stained brown.
A police officer, who also asked that his named not be used, called the Jarawas "good friends."
Ashu demonstrated how he shoots his arrow. He mounted an arrow and arched his body to the left and pulled the arrow back, smiled and let it go.
The official then picked up another mounted arrow, pointed it at the police officer and said: "I am going to get him today."
Ashu turned around and said, matter of factly: "If you kill him, I will kill you."
When asked where he was when the earthquake hit, Ashu just shook his head. He didn't want to talk about it.
Elsewhere on the remote island chain, bodies still hang from trees and float in water in wiped-out villages on Car Nicobar island (search), said leaders of the Nicobarese (search) tribe, the largest tribe on the islands.
At a relief center in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar territories, Robert Henry, 66, the headman of Mus village on Car Nicobar, described the scene 12 days after the tsunami hit.
"Bodies are on the ground, trapped in trees. The blood of dead bodies is floating on the island," said Henry.
Thousands of Nicobarese were killed when the tsunami flattened 12 of the island's 15 villages, he said.
Dense forests and tough terrain have made it difficult to penetrate many areas where the Nicobarese died. Returning villagers say horrific sights await relief workers.
"We couldn't stay there because of the stench. We had to evacuate the island," said Henry, who said about 14,000 Nicobarese were without food and water for at least four days.
But survivors among the estimated 30,000-strong tribe have shown courage and resilience in the face of the tragedy, a trait they say came from deep community bonds and centuries of traditions of sharing joy and sadness.
"We have a peaceful mind in the island. It's in our nature. Even when we have trouble, we never say we have trouble," said Henry. "We are good Christians. If we are starving, we are starving. If we have food, we will share. We share everything. Sorrow, sadness, everything."
Pastor Ezra Alpan, dressed in a long white satin cloak, read out Nicobarese prayers to some 200 members of the community. Singers from an Indian spiritual group, Art of Living, sang religious songs from Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
The congregation sat in silence, clapping along with the songs with their eyes closed.
Other Nicobarese said they had come to terms with destiny.
"We have a lot of emotions inside us, but what is the use if I keep crying all the time?" said Elsie Moses, 23, as she described how the wave flattened her village, killing her brother, grandfather, grandmother and two nieces.
"We saw them go down in the water. It was as if someone was pulling them down," she said, her eyes widening in horror at the memory.
Anthony Victor, 34, lost his sister and his six nephews and nieces. He was relaxing outside his home in Marine village when the tsunami hurled him inside. He somehow stepped out and began furiously swimming to safety as his house collapsed behind him.
"I saw my house collapsing. I closed my eyes. I thought I would die," he said.