'You Can Rescue Me, But Only if You Don't Touch Me'

Some people are just too good for others, even in the face of a natural disaster.
Tuesday 21 August 2018
These fishermen are part of the rescue operations in Kerala, India. Photo: CNN

As devastating floods hit India’s southern state of Kerala, thousands scrambled up to the higher floors in their buildings and crouched together on balconies, waiting desperately for help.

And then, finally, the rescue boats came.

Fishermen, who had loaded their boats onto trucks, voluntarily travelled to Kerala’s inner towns and villages, inundated with more than 10 feet of water. Most people gave them a hero’s welcome, grateful to be evacuated after a long wait.

But others have hurled insults and abuse at the volunteers.

Marion George, a 47-year-old fisherman, reached a home in the city of Kollam on Friday with a family of 17 trapped inside.

When he told them that he was there to help them, he was asked, “Isn’t this a Christian boat?”

When he replied that, yes, he was a Christian, the men in the family refused to get in his boat and waved him away.

The men were from India’s highest Hindu caste, Brahmin, and would not go near George, despite their desperation.

Five hours later, George was back in the same neighbourhood and saw the same family calling for his help. He docked his boat close to their home but was again told by the men that they would only board if he did not touch them.

“Normally, their attitude is like this only. We just thought that in this situation, they would have changed,” George said.

George estimated that he rescued 150 people over two days until his boat was too damaged to continue.

CNN spoke to several other fishermen who also reported being insulted and treated suspiciously by victims they were trying to help.

The Kerala state government has said that more than 2,800 fishermen have been involved in the relief effort.

More than 300 people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced, as torrential rains triggered the state’s worst flooding in nearly a century, destroying homes and roads. People are clinging to anything that floats to get them out of their homes.

People refuse to leave their homes

There is also an issue of trust in strangers. People have been reluctant to leave their homes and belongings behind out of fear that they will be robbed.

Arun Michael, a fisherman in Kollam, saw the news of the flash floods on TV on Wednesday last week and decided to help. On Thursday morning, he loaded his 32-foot boat onto a truck lent out by the local police and he and three others made their way to the district of Pathanamthitta.

Over the next three days, Michael evacuated more than 1,500 people. He navigated his boat through strong currents and rising water levels, reaching flooded homes and helping people climb in. On the last day, he evacuated a total of 600 people.

“What happened now, can happen to anyone. If tomorrow something happens to us, we hope that help would come for us,” he said.

But he was surprised to come across victims who greeted him with suspicion and insults.

Some people abused him for trying to convince them to evacuate, he said, referring to a number of victims. Some even made him first carry their dogs to the boat before climbing in themselves.

In some cases, people refused to leave their homes. “They were arrogant and just wanted us to give them food,” he said.

But others have been grateful for the bravery and creativity of Michael and his fellow rescuers.

In one instance, Michael and his friends found a house filled with water. They swam out and broke through a door, finding a mentally ill woman in one of the rooms.

The team found three tables and stacked them on top of each other to make a stable base to carry her out, wading through water up to their chins. At times, to stabilise the tables, they had to go underwater, he said.

The government has announced compensation of 3,000 rupees ($40) to each volunteer fisherman plus the costs to repair damaged boats.

For now, many of the fishermen have been unable to use their boats for fishing, waiting for authorities to deliver the money for quick repairs. But Michael isn’t waiting.

“My boat is severely damaged but I won’t take anything from the government,” he said. “I didn’t do it expecting benefits.”

Source: Swati Gupta/CNN-Wire