One of the most eerie aspects of the tsunami that engulfed coastal areas of the Indian Ocean rim Dec. 26 is that the destructive waves generally spent their force soon after hitting the coast. Villages located uphill or slightly inland often emerged unscathed while low-lying areas several hundred yards away were decimated. If you didn’t live, work, shop, or vacation near the water’s edge, you were, in general, quite safe.
Alas, then, for the Maldives, where everybody lives and works on the water’s edge. None of the 200 inhabited islands that constitute this micro-nation is broad enough to have an “inland.” Government officials in the Maldives are almost apologetic about the tiny number of people who died there—about 100, when the missing are included—but they rightly point out that no other nation was so extensively obliterated by the tsunami. Ten percent of the inhabited islands were completely destroyed, one-fifth were left without a supply of drinking water, one-third without schools. Tourism and fisheries, which together account for about 70 percent of the economy, were crippled. The minister of finance told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with whom I was traveling, that the damage to the country’s capital stock equaled more than twice its gross domestic product. He put the cost of rehabilitation and reconstruction at $1.5 billion, or about $5,200 for each of the nation’s 290,000 inhabitants.
The Maldives has a lot going for it. It is, first of all, tiny and harmless, with a minuscule army and no enemies. It’s also paradisal, in the way of tropical islands. One of the young women whom the Foreign Ministry assigned to Annan’s delegation explained to me that the Maldives was founded by Sri Lankan traders who got shipwrecked a few millennia back and decided to stay—a theory that, whatever its merits, has far more poetic truth than one of the alternative theories I heard, that it was founded by exiled convicts. Those first immigrants, whoever they were, would have encountered a charmed world of turquoise water, fine sand beaches, banana and mango groves. The Maldives consists of a network of atolls—coral reefs surrounding a lagoon and, often, an island. Seen from above, the country is a scattering of pale green coronets encircling an electric-blue body of water, like the eyes of a peacock’s tail or a butterfly’s wing.
Geographical isolation has protected the distinctive and composite Maldivian culture. The national language, Dhivehi, contains elements of Sanskrit, Urdu, and Arabic, and the alphabet is a Sanskritized form of Arabic. The Maldivians look like the Tamils of Sri Lanka and South India, but less sharp and bony. They practice Islam, but I was told that they also practice serial monogamy, with the official divorce rate running at 35 percent, leaving everyone with a network of half-brothers and sisters. The Maldives is officially dry, though this rule does not apply to the tourist economy. The country has no natural resources to speak of, except those paradisal beaches. It exports tuna and imports practically everything else—including tourists.
The absence of natural advantages appears to have made the Maldivians, like the Singaporeans or the Japanese, acutely aware of the developmental benefits of education. Primary education is virtually universal and secondary education widespread. The Maldives has no university of its own, but the government as well as private citizens provide scholarships for study abroad. The Maldives has taken out two World Bank loans in order to subsidize study abroad. I met or heard of people who had received their higher education in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. And after graduation, or so I was assured by government officials, Maldivians return home in remarkable numbers.
Among Europeans, the Maldives is known chiefly as a site of top-drawer lotus-eating. The country has 87 resort hotels that in the height of the season draw 17,000 or so tourists a day. The secretary-general’s delegation, which consisted of Annan, his wife, Nane, and a dozen aides and security officers (as well as CNN reporter Richard Roth, his cameraman, and me) was put up at the Kurumba Maldives, a palm-shaded utopia where guests are ferried from poolside to beach house by golf cart—not the ideal backdrop for a mission of tragic high purpose like ours. Annan asked the CNN cameraman to refrain from shooting him in the hotel.
The morning after a state dinner with Maldives’ President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, we set off in the president’s launch for the main island of Male, where we boarded two of Maldivian Air Taxi’s red and black seaplanes for a tour of the devastated islands. Two planeloads of journalists had already gone ahead of us, for the purpose of Annan’s strenuous barnstorming is not so much to let him see crises and catastrophes firsthand as to let the world see him seeing it, and thus draw attention both to misfortune and to the United Nations’ role in addressing it.
We stepped ashore on the protected lagoon side of Vilufushi, the chief island of the Thaa atoll (about 200 miles south of Male), but as soon as we began crossing toward the ocean side, we found houses with their facades torn off. The whole island was only a few hundred yards across, and on the ocean side nothing but small chunks of plaster and stone remained of the houses that had been closest to the water. A couple of hundred feet or so from the shore, the rear walls of houses were standing, but the entire front had been wrenched off. The only structures still intact were the school and the very impressive clinic, though neither had any equipment left. All two thousand citizens of this densely packed speck of sand had been evacuated to neighboring islands.
Many of the men of Vilufushi had returned to the island to work on the cleanup, and they trailed along as Annan and his wife received the royal tour of the ruins. I found a translator and struck up a conversation with Ismail Muhammad, an ancient character—he turned out to be 66—with a few remaining teeth and a distinctive fringe of unshaven white hair near the base of his throat. I asked Muhammad what he remembered of the moment the tsunami hit, and he said: “I heard a loud noise, and I came out of my house. The wave was about to hit; all I could see was water and the horizon. It came up so high that at first I thought the island was sinking. I held on to a tree, but the water took other people over the top of the houses.” I imagined a scene of human flying fish soaring over rooftops. “The people landed in the lagoon. Later, another wave came from the other side and the people were pushed back.” One of the officials in Annan’s delegation met a man who claimed, implausibly, to have been literally suspended between the two waves. Only 17 people died in Vilufushi; perhaps this strange washing back and forth accounts in part for the low number of fatalities, there and elsewhere.
Muhammad estimated that the whole sequence of events lasted six minutes, and in that brief spell, both the island and its economy were ruined. The fruit trees had provided a far more lucrative living than the fisheries had; men routinely earned $500 a month from bananas. But the island’s soil was sown with salt; within a week, the trees had died. The Indian and Sri Lankan ex-pats who served as teachers, nurses, and doctors fled and may be too spooked to return. No one knows when the houses will be rebuilt. But when I asked Muhammad if he wanted to move to a safer place, he said simply, “I love this island.”
The Maldives faces a staggering task of reconstruction. Each of the 200 inhabited islands needs to have its school, its clinic, its generator, and, of course, its houses rebuilt. The government is trying to encourage citizens to congregate on the larger islands, thus permitting a demographic version of economies of scale; but Muhammad’s response, which I heard from others as well, may doom this sensible plan. Some of the long-term problems are bewildering. The wave sucked up the sand off the ocean floor and then plastered it over the coral reefs. The reefs are not only one of the Maldives’ chief tourist attractions, they are also home to the fish used as bait in the pole-and-line tuna-fishing industry. The country is now summoning Australian coral experts to figure out just how serious the damage is. And as if that weren’t bad enough, global warming could simply swallow up the islands, whose highest elevation is 5 feet, within a few generations.
How can you not pull for plucky little Maldives? The country has conducted itself well in the face of misfortune: The government reacted swiftly and efficiently, the people pulled together, and no simmering ethnic conflict came to the fore, as has happened in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The Maldivians seem to be the least lassitudinous of island folk; they were steadily pulling themselves up by their bootstraps until the disaster struck. The United Nations had removed the country from its list of least-developed countries just six days before the tsunami hit. Although the country is said to have been set back 20 years, the minister of Finance told Annan that the Maldives could still post positive growth for 2005 if emergency aid arrives quickly.
A billion dollars does, it’s true, seem like a lot of money for a country of 290,000. But one member of Annan’s traveling party thought up a brilliant ancillary use for the funds: The United Nations could gratify its remorseless critics by moving to one of the Maldives’ more sparsely inhabited atolls. New York would rid itself of those vexing multilingual diplomats, and journalists would at long last, vie for the posting.