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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Rocks Kerala’s Coast

Two months after Cyclone Ockhi, fishermen fear the sea and bereaved families are unable to get back on track

Alexander S has three-decades of experience of braving the rough seas alone, many a time on a catamaran and sometimes with friends on small boats.

But after Cyclone Ockhi hit the coast of Kerala in December 2017, the 49-year-old in the Pozhiyoor coastal village – some 45 km from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram coast – is reluctant to go to sea.

“Even after 59 days, I am very frightened. I was fighting alone to stay alive for at least 35 hours in water till the rescue came. It was pitch-black, dark everywhere and there was heavy rain. Somehow, I was able to hold on to my catamaran. But waves were tossing me up and down. After a few hours, I started throwing up too. I thought I would die,” Alexander told The Lede at his small house in the coastal village.

On November 29, 2017, Ockhi passed some 100 km from the Kerala coast. But it claimed around 50 lives while 100 are still ‘missing’. In Pozhiyoor village, which is known for contributing football players to the Indian Super League and Santosh Trophy, 13 are still ‘missing’.

“Since that day, I am not able to sleep peacefully. I feel that I am thrown up and down again and again. I am disturbed and frightened. I have not gone to sea since then,” Alexander added.

Alexander went fishing early on the morning of November 29 and was rescued on November 30 at around 2 pm. He was found by a rescue boat lying unconscious holding on to his catamaran in Vizhinjam, a fishing hamlet nearby.

Meanwhile, Anto Alexander, Alexander’s son, said that it is quite difficult to survive -since Ockhi hit. “Appa (father) is reluctant to go to sea. As he has been rescued, government will not give us any compensation. He has lost his catamaran and other equipment too. Only thing we are getting is a few kilograms of rice and green gram from the public distribution department,” Anto said.

According to Mercy Alexander, a trustee of SAKHI, a NGO in the capital city, both men and women in the fishermen community are suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Under the guidance of Mercy and her team, during the last few weeks, 15 local girls in the coastal areas and another 15 psychology degree students from Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram, held a preliminary survey. “More than 200 fishermen’s condition is still traumatic,” Mercy said. “They are scared of the sea. They require long-term counselling and sadly the family members are also in a traumatic condition with no means to satiate their hunger. Their condition is pathetic,” she told The Lede.

The team of 30 counsellors and the medical team were caught off guard with the extent of mental trauma the fishermen and their families have been undergoing. Several fishermen and their families have turned to God for solace – visiting Velankanni and Potta Divine Centre at Chalakudy seeking mental relief.

Mable S, 38, who lost her husband Silvadima and her 18-year-old son, is still lying on the floor on a bedsheet in the entrance room with her son’s and husband’s photographs behind her. “The stress is too much. My son loved me a lot. Neither of them has come back. Now, I and my school-going daughter are left behind. She is also not able to concentrate on studies. The government gave Rs 10,000 for survival. After that there has been no news. We are depending on PDS rice and green gram,” Mable who continues to live in anxiety said.

Inconsolable grief keeps her silent most days.

Mable said that had the fishermen been alerted on time, she would not have lost her son and husband.

Last Thursday, the Congress-led opposition staged a walkout in the Kerala Assembly after the Speaker turned down the demand for a discussion on the government’s handling of the crisis following Cyclone Ockhi.

Replying to the notice for an adjournment motion moved by M Vincent, a Congress MLA of Kovalam Constituency, from the coastal area, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the government had risen to the occasion and tried its best to restore the situation to normal in the coastal areas affected by the cyclone.

Responding to Vincent’s allegation that the government had ignored cyclone warnings issued by Central agencies, he said the State had received the first cyclone alert only by noon on November 30 when the storm had already started unleashing its fury on the Kerala coast and a large number of fishermen had gone out to sea.

Mable’s son and husband had gone on November 28.

Mini Mohan, a social worker who is involved in counselling and supporting the fishermen folk, said that the situation at the tertiary level is grave. “This has happened during tsunami time (2004) too. Children who have lost their brothers, father and uncles would be the worst hit lot. The bad memories will be haunting them. Even studious students will be suffering, unable to focus on studies,” she added.

Currently the government is conducting DNA tests to identify bodies kept in different government hospitals in the state.

Twenty-two year old Jasmine hoped that her husband would come or at least she will be able to see his body. But she lost that hope last week. “On January 19, the government, through DNA tests, has identified my husband’s colleague who went on the same boat. We married just 20 months ago. I have a small baby girl. I have to take care of her,” Jasmine who has become widow at the age of 22, said.

Jasmine’s mother Jacquiline said that they struggle a lot to console her. “As she has to take care of the child, she is somewhat okay now,” Jacquiline added.

The story is the same in the case of other coastal villages too. Michael S, a social activist based in Poonthura said – “Many of the men are scared to go back to work. They have seen their friends drowning. We don’t know when they will recover from this suffering,” Michael told The Lede.

On January 02, Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma had said that the financial assistance of Rs 20 lakh each will be provided to the families of the missing fishermen in three months’ time and until then, each family will be provided with an interim assistance of Rs 10,000 each.

Joseph Vijayan, a senior researcher and social worker among the fishermen folk, said that the families of the missing and those declared dead are getting compensation. “But then those who returned alive losing their boats and equipment are in a fix. The paperwork inprocessing these cases is causing many hiccups,” Joseph added.

Meanwhile, the State Assembly witnessed heated arguments between the ruling coalition and the opposition over Ockhi.

The Opposition demanded a judicial probe into the alleged lapses of the state government and staged a walkout after permission was denied for an adjournment motion on the matter.

While the Chief Minister maintained that the government made all humanly possible rescue initiatives despite lack of advance cyclone warnings, Opposition leader Congressman Ramesh Chennithala demanded that the State Disaster Management Authoritybe revamped to evaluate threats of natural disasters, communicate alerts and actimmediately without loss of time.

The Opposition also flayed the government for not being able to confirm the exact number of those missing. The Opposition trooped into the well of the House shouting slogans and displaying hoardings with pictures of over 100 persons still missing after Ockhi.

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