When a tsunami crashed over southern Asia in 2004, Deutsche Welle sent journalists to the region to show how the catastrophe affected people's lives. Priya Esselborn was among them.
Arjuna Devi had lost all hope. The elderly woman who lived in a fishing village near the southern Indian city of Cuddalore sat in the sand in front of her house every day - at the spot where the bodies of her daughter and grand-daughter were found. She would often sit there without speaking or eating until dusk.
Catastrophe of the century
When I carefully tried speaking to the thin Arjuna Devi, she broke out in tears. This was the moment that I really understood the meaning of the term "catastrophe of the century," which had often been used to describe the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami. Arjuna Devi's fate moved me. I still see her face in my mind when I think back to the time I spent reporting on the tsunami.
Shelters made of corraguated metal were too hot to live in during the day so life took place outside
The killer wave devastated entire regions. It looked like a military campaign has destroyed the area by the time I arrived just a few days after the wave struck. I reported for DW's German, English, Hindi and Urdu departments as well as for Germany's ARD domestic broadcasting network. My trip first took me to the southeast coast of India, then to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, some of which are restricted military areas.
I spoke to survivors like Arjuna Devi, interviewed politicians, accompanied aid organizations and stared confounded with all of them at the dimension of the catastrophe. Despite the chaotic times, we all managed - somehow - to do our jobs. The tsunami claimed some 15,000 lives in India alone and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands who lost loved ones as well as their livelihoods.
Rays of hope
But what sticks with me most are the small moments of cheer. Right after the catastrophe, I visited a mosque that despite being surrounded by corpses became a ray of hope for Muslims, Christians and Hindus alike. They were all lovingly received and cared for. Compassion and solidarity transcended the borders of religion and social standing.
Shortly after the tsunami, the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe aid group and the city of Bonn decided to collect donations to support the Indian city Cuddalore, where some 1,000 people died. When I visited the region again six months after the catastrophe to check on the progress of reconstruction, the Cuddalore regional administrator was moved by the generosity. It felt good for the people of Cuddalore to know that they were not alone in their time of need, he said. The "Bonn helps Cuddalore" project was a major success.
The participation of our viewers, listeners and Internet users on the fates of the people in southern India was overwhelming. The tsunami wiped away everyone's apathy.