“We don’t need any money for the work we have done. How can we take a penny from the government when so much money is needed to reconstruct the state?” asks Seldan, a fisherman who helped the rescue operations in Changanassery, in Kottayam. “Even if we do get money, I will put it back in the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund,” he adds.
The most common refrain heard from the hundreds of fishermen who took part in the rescue operations is, “We didn’t do it to earn money, we only did it to save our fellow humans.”
Seldan’s team worked tirelessly for three days, rescuing over 200 people, even as rains beat down on Kerala incessantly.
“When I close my eyes I can still see the starving toddlers, who hadn’t eaten for 2-3 days, in front of me. I cried when I saw them eat the food we shared...They were eating after so many days,” the 38-year-old says. “It still makes me cry when I think about that.”
Seldan and his team didn’t have to think twice when they got a call from a stranger asking to help in the rescue operations. “It was pouring incessantly, there was water gushing everywhere, the undercurrent was very strong… We weren’t sure we would be safe. But who thinks of their own safety at a time like that? We braved the rains and just thought about rescuing people.”
The operations were carried out in medium-sized boats, and 30 people could be rescued in one boat.
“Locals came with us to show us the places where people were stranded. We couldn’t even take our phones with us to read all the messages for help that were pouring in. We would go to rescue two-three families, but would see so many others crying for help nearby. That made us realise the gravity of the mission we had undertaken. We could access those places even the army couldn’t...The CM recognised our work,” he adds. “In fishermen, the instinct to rescue others is always there for we have seen several such moments out at sea.”
Sebasthiaradima takes a notebook and writes down his spelling.
He has just returned home to Vizhinjam, Thiruvananthapuram, after five days of a rescue mission in Mannar, Kottayam. He is a fisherman, same as the hundreds who had set out with their boats to save people stranded in the floods in other parts of the state, risking their own lives.
He and a few other men had already decided to go when the floods hit the central and northern parts of Kerala and got some boats ready. The same day there was a call from the Vizhinjam parish asking everyone willing to go on rescue missions to be ready.
“The collector had asked for 20 boats but we had 50 of them ready,” Sebasthiaradima says. But then only 20 lorries came to transport the boats and each lorry could carry one boat only.
Different lorries went to different parts of the state. Sebasthiaradima’s went to Mannar.
“We didn’t know where to go or the way. We put our boats in the water and one local person accompanied us in each boat. So there would be four or five of us in a boat going for rescue. Our boats can take about 25 more – so we could rescue that many in one trip. And then go back again for more.”
The fishermen found people stranded on the upper floors of their house. The water would be neck-deep in the houses but the people would still refuse to come on the boats. “They would ask if we brought food and water, but they wouldn’t want to leave their houses.”
Still a team of six boats managed to rescue more than 800 people over five days, Sebasthiaradima reckons.
“Some would say that no one had come to save them for days and then offer us money. We would tell them we didn’t come for the money, we came to rescue them. They would then say we are ‘kaanapetta daivam’ – the god they can see. It was very touching. There were really old women who were scared to even touch the water. We carried them to the boat on chairs,” he says.
Back from the rescue mission, the boats and engines are all damaged. Sebasthiaradima hasn’t been able to go back to fishing yet. And no, he has not heard of the reward announced for the fishermen by the CM. Neither have Ajees George and team, one of the last to join from Vizhinjam.
“If there is a reward, we will accept,” Francis, from Ajees’s team, says laughing.
Freddie is old and fragile but he was one of the first to join the rescue operations at the time of the floods in Kerala. Hailing from Vizjinjam, Thiruvananthapuram he has been a fisherman for years and was ready with his boat on the night of August 16 to go with 19 other boats to different flood-hit areas.
Freddie and two others – Robin and Denson (‘younger men, not like me’) – travelled over 130 km to Kozhencherry in Pathanamthitta. They rowed very hard through thick currents of water to reach the spots where scores of people were stranded. But the first reactions they got were not good. “It was all abusive words. As soon as they saw us, they were scolding us, asking us where were we the day before. Why did we come only now?” Freddie recalls with a sad expression on his face.
“We were in it voluntarily. We went all the way from Vizhinjam risking our own lives, to save these people. But because we were a day late, they would abuse us and not get on the boats. They were also asking others not to. But old people who were too weak and unwell said they would come,” Freddie adds.
He reckons they would have rescued some 50 to 60 people and taken food to more than 2000 others.
But he hasn’t been able to go back to work once he returned home. He has sprained his back. “It was an accident. A policeman insisted that he come with us on the boat. I had told him to sit somewhere because he may lose balance. He wouldn’t listen and then fell on my back. I didn’t bother about it then, ignored the pain, and resumed the rescue work. But after coming back I had to go to a hospital. And have been taking rest,” says Freddie.
#keralafloods Freddie is one of the fishermen who went from #vizhinjam for rescue ops in #pathanamthitta. He says how some people he tried to save were abusive, scolding them for not coming a day earlier, when they went voluntarily, risking lives. pic.twitter.com/yWQboKySON— Cris (@cristweets) August 23, 2018
“Rivers were overflowing...There was nothing else but water… There were bushes underwater which could have damaged our boat engines, but we didn’t care. Our mission was to save people and we did just that.” Muthappan was one of the hundreds of fishermen who rose to the occasion as rains and floods devastated Kerala last week.
From Thiruvananthapuram’s Vizhinjam, Muthappan and his friends left to Mannar in Pathanamthitta, one of the worst-affected districts.
Muthappan calls all the people he rescued his brothers and sisters.
“There was a pregnant sister we rushed to safety, there were my brothers who were really sick...I saw 80-90 year olds and children as young as three or four, all of them were praying and crying for help. We realised how tough the mission was as we had to go to as many places as we could. The heavy undercurrents often hampered our speed and our spirits fell, but we never gave up, no matter how adverse the circumstances,” says Muthappan.
He was also part of the rescue team when Cyclone Ockhi battered the lives of people in Kerala’s coastal villages.
“During Ockhi, we rescued four people who were alive and recovered so many dead bodies from the sea. But our mission during the floods was to rescue everyone alive. Our worst fear was finding dead bodies in the houses,” he says.
The team from Vizhinjam went in 20 boats and helped in the rescue operations for three days.
“Another task was to convince people who were reluctant to come with us to rescue camps. They could have been standing on their house’s second or third floor, or may have literally been neck-deep in water, but they would still be adamant about not leaving their houses. We couldn’t imagine leaving them behind...They feared leaving their valuable property behind, but we valued their lives more,” he adds.
One of the biggest challenges they faced was the number of snakes in the waters. “The snakes would even enter our boats, but we got so used to their sight we would tell each other you ignore the snakes and they will ignore you in turn.”
This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.