April 09, 2020
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The Deathlands

Ersama used to be a cluster of prosperous villages; it is now Orissa’s infernal earth

The Deathlands

If there is hell on earth, this is it. Once a modestly prosperous cluster of 2,400 villages in Jagatsinghpur district, Ersama is today a smouldering crematorium. A stinking, ravaged shanty-town where trees have been bent and stripped of their foliage and bark. Where concrete tenements have been ripped open by the winds and the gushing sea, barely 10 km away. Where human bodies and animal carcasses litter the landscape and contaminate the ponds. Here the sky is sooty and smoky as thousands of small pyres are lit to burn the dead.

They are burying the bodies too. No wonder this block in coastal Orissa is its killing field - over 70 per cent of the cyclone toll is from here.

"There are bodies here, and more and more and more as you proceed," says S.K. Jha, additional relief commissioner of Orissa, who is camping in Ersama town. The landscape looks grotesque with everyone in a hurry to bury or cremate the dead. Near Kothi, we stumble across a bleached human skull, followed by a half-burnt corpse. "People have been left to rot and turn into skeletons by the wayside," says survivor Prakash Hota. "We are too busy trying to survive."

Like Babul Rout, 28, a Chennai-based crane operator who returned home to Ersama last week to find that his wife Manira, mother and farmworker father had died when their thatched home collapsed during the storm. His only family now is his seven-month-old daughter Samita. The day the storm killed his wife and parents, some villagers pillaged an almirah stuck in the debris. Next day, Rout pulled out the bodies and dumped them on the wayside for some RSS workers to bury. Then he went about retrieving whatever he could find in a debris of mud and wood - mud-caked lanterns, music tapes, dented utensils, oil bottles. He ferried them on a cart to a nearby concrete tenement where 500 people were packed in two small rooms. Says he: "I’m just going through the motions of survival."

Chasing the pyres have also become a pastime with masked politicians hanging out in the area as relief trucks flood the main town. At the end of the week, news washed up about Ambiki village in the area. The army had just landed up in an assault boat to check out the village and could not proceed. There was no sign of life there and there were rumours that they’d found 1,800 bodies. "The bodies are just piled up," says Captain R.S. Reddy of engineers who led his men into the village.

Ersama is truly out of a holocaust film, a stench-filled wasteland of corpses and carcasses. Little else remains.

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