14 March 2005

Ten weeks after the tsunami ripped into the Maldives

At first it looked like a blob of thick ink in the water. But as some stick-shaped objects moved towards it, the blob shrank, split and boiled silver-black above the surface with a life of its own.

It was a bait ball, a school of thousands of tiny fish herded into a corner of the shallows of the Maldivian island of Guraadhu by half a dozen young and hungry barracuda.

It's the sort of sight that entrances the half-million tourists who flocked each year to the scores of coral islands deep in the Indian Ocean.

It takes a while for Western eyes to adapt to Maldivian sights. In the tropics, things are seldom what they seem.

The object in the lagoon, bobbing like a discarded plastic bag beneath your balcony, suddenly flaps its wings. Not rubbish but a magnificent manta ray.

The crow flapping leisurely overhead turns out to be a giant fruit bat. The birdsong echoing merrily on your verandah is actually the mating cry of tiny gecko lizards.

The Maldivians know all this. They have lived in harmony with their islands for generations, blessed with a homeland where fish and coconuts are limitless, earth tremors are rare and hurricanes unknown.

Mohammed Solhie and the 1,400 folk of Guraadhu never had much money but they had their own little half a square mile of paradise and knew its every mood.

All that ended in about 55 seconds on Boxing Day. In just under a minute, their homeland vanished under water. They went from safe, secure natives to refugees in seconds.

"In some streets the water was five feet high," Mr Solhie, a village official, told me, indicating a blue-chalk line on a cracked wall, marking the water line.

"If it had gone on for three minutes we would all have died. The water just came from nowhere. When people saw it they ran in all directions."

As it was, two babies and a toddler were washed away to their death. Thirty houses were utterly destroyed and 60 damaged. The 100-yard strip between beach and village centre is like a wartime bomb site.

The tourist islands of Kadhooma, separated from Guraadhu by a narrow strait which once provided employment for local people, is still out of action.

The Maldives escaped the worst of the Boxing Day tsunami. Throughout the tiny nation, about 100 people perished, including three tourists.

But the mental scars go deep. The Maldives are no more than three feet above sea level. The sight, and sounds, of your homeland vanishing under water, have left terrible memories.

Forget the classic image of a mighty, foam-topped tidal wave.

Memories of Boxing Day are more bizarre. There's the barman who watched in amazement as the lagoon at Coco Palm resort suddenly drained, leaving manta rays flapping on the ground. There's the diver, happily exploring the reef 200 yards out at sea whose wrist depth gauge suddenly went from seven metres to 27 metres and back to seven metres. He staggered ashore, eyes bright red from ruptured blood vessels.

There's the blessed, bizarre downpour which lasted two days on the distant resort of Meeru. While other islands lost acres of vegetation to brine-scorch, lucky Meeru was washed sweet and green in 48 hours of unseasonal rain. And there's poor little Guraadhu, doomed by its long, sloping beach which allowed the tsunami to build into a six-foot wall of water. Today, the shore is punctuated with pretty, multi-coloured piles of sandbags, filled more to build local morale than in any real hope of stopping a second tsunami.

The homeless families live in big, comfortable tents from Saudi Arabia and the United States. One newly-wed villager told me how he had finished building his home just eight weeks before the disaster. He laughed out loud at the irony of it all.

The ancient wells of Guraadhu are ruined by salt. Water is delivered from the Maldives capital Male and stored in 1,000-gallon plastic tanks. Sand, cement and corrugated iron are piled around the island. New houses with stronger walls and foundations that the old ones, are taking shape. There is no talk of anyone leaving. Indeed, the greatest fear in the Maldives, and across the Indian Ocean, is of tourists staying away.

They want us back in our hundreds of thousands, and the Brits, universally admired for their pluck, are already leading the way. Sixty per cent of Maldive income comes from tourism. With no trippers, there is no Maldives.

At a press conference the Minister for Tourism, Dr Mustafa Lufti, was asked what he would say to folk who felt they should keep away simply out of respect for the dead. Is it not insensitive to holiday in the sunshine paradise so soon after so much anguish?

"If you stay away," he said, prodding the table gently but firmly with one finger, "you will do us more damage than the tsunami."

The first British survivors of the tsunami have booked return holidays in the Maldives - less than three months after their terrifying ordeal.

The willingness of plucky Brits to return to the scene of the disaster has deeply impressed Maldivians.

"It is something about the British," Mohammed Naseem, general manager of Kurumba resort island, told me. "The Germans and Italians are not travelling again yet but the British seem to take the view that what will be, will be."

Kurumba, like many of the Maldive islands, was protected from the full fury of the tsunami by its steep coral reefs. Even so, a 3ft-high wave swept over the island. Staff brought terrified guests to safety in the reception area.

"We felt a slight tremor at 6.30am," said Mr Naseem.

"But there have been tremors before and no-one expected anything else. Then, at about 9.15am, it hit us."

Since the disaster, which killed more than 250,000 across the Indian Ocean, tourists have cancelled in their thousands. This week should be the height of the tourist season but Kurumba had less than half of its usual number of guests.

And yet the past few days have seen hundreds of British bookings pouring in, partly in response to package companies slashing prices by up to 30 per cent.


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