February 13, 2005
By Raffique Shah
IF ever a year started with a bang and ended with a deafening, deadly roar, 2004 was it. The "bang" was, of course, the firepower of one man and his military prowess, used to reduce a once thriving nation to rubble. George Bush thought then, and no doubt still believes today, he is God-on-earth. He alone holds the hammer over the heads of all of us lesser mortals, and boy, did he use it. From Fallujah to Mosul, Kabul to Kandahar, Bush's boys committed atrocities that put the warring tribes of Rwanda or the "Jangaweed" of Somalia, to shame. When they were finished with Fallujah, nothing alive was left standing. And so proud were most Americans of these sub-human feats their soldiers accomplished, they voted back their Commander-in-Chief into power for another four years.
But how could they know that a force mightier than their entire nuclear arsenal would be unleashed by year-end to show man, even the mightiest of men, that we are nothing but straws in the wind when nature decides to show its force through a massive earthquake and even more destructive tsunami. Here was nature at its powerful-worst, using a simple tweaking of the earth's tectonic plates to trigger destruction and devastation of unimaginable proportions. Within hours on Boxing Day, cities and resorts and villages and forests were flattened, removed from the face of the earth. From the earthquake's epicentre off Sumatra to the East coast of Africa, and everything in-between, mankind was taught the ultimate lesson in the power of nature.
I shall not dwell on the latter since so much has been shown on television, written in newspapers, and said otherwise, about this great calamity. I should just add that when I first picked up the news on the Internet, the magnitude of the earthquake and the tsunami it triggered, I thought the 3,500-death-toll then touted was low. It must rise to at least 10,000, I thought. How wrong I was. Today, the last day of 2004, officials in all the countries hit are tallying numbers of around 120,000 dead. But Indonesia's ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, Dr H. Rusdihardjo, told the media that his government expected the toll in his country alone to rise to around 400,000! Aerial surveys conducted by the government showed complete destruction in Aceh, the city closest to the quake's epicentre. The city of Meulaboh, which had 150,000 residents, has disappeared. So too has Pulau, a town that had 76,000 residents.
What seems clear is that the true death toll will never be known. Think about it this way: does Indonesia, a nation that is made up of thousands of islands, have an accurate census, especially in its remote islands and regions? Hardly likely. So even the 400,000 figure could be well off track. Which means we who are lucky to be alive will have witnessed the greatest natural disaster to have struck Earth ever, probably since Noah's premonition prompted him to build a huge ark as the entire world was inundated by flood waters. Really, what this earthquake-cum-tsunami told us, if we care to listen, is: hey, man, you are nothing but cow dung! You think you have power? What power? I'll show you what real power is.
In other words, nature has again humbled mankind. And that was not the only demonstration it put on during 2004. Think of the many vicious hurricanes that struck us here in the Caribbean, and worse, the east coast of the USA. One after the other, at times together, they pummelled the region, flattening Grenada, crippling the Cayman Islands, dealing severe body-blows to the Bahamas, and knocking parts of the USA to the canvas repeatedly, although mercifully, not to the final count. In the Far East, cyclone after cyclone battered countries there, taking lives by the hundreds, and destroying crops and property that we cannot put a value to. Erratic weather during the year also triggered mudslides in many other countries, with similar devastation. And from what scientists say, worse is yet to come. Global warming, they have been telling us for years, will prove to be man's undoing, man creating his own doomsday.
But who is listening? Certainly not the greedy, consumer-driven societies that thrive on pollution, on denuding the earth's forests and wetlands, on emitting greenhouse gases in inordinate volumes. One has merely to look at the increased sales in SUVs, for example, to understand that governments, huge corporations and the filthy rich simply do not care about the future of Mother Earth. In fact, they are so selfish, so self-driven, they care not about their own, their children and grandchildren, or worse for future generations. They live only for themselves, for today. Let the morrow be whatever it may bring.
I am not suggesting that Bush and the American people are the only culprits in this death-wish devolution of man. They may be the most arrogant, the most uncaring. Hell, after the worst disaster ever to hit the earth in living memory, the US government proudly announced it would give $35 million to help the millions of victims. The same government, with generous help from corporate America, will spend $45 million on Bush's inauguration later this week. And every day in Iraq, it spends $200-million-plus up in smoke. But countries like Russia and most of the former Soviet Union are equally culpable when it comes to destroying the earth's ecological balance. The worst smoke-stack industries are located there. And there is an increase in this primitiveness in burgeoning economies like China and India where the bottom line is becoming more important than the legacy we leave behind for future generations.
Let me end where I started: if anything, they year 2004 proved to man that for all the technology he has, for all the might he can "flex", the forces of nature are infinitely more powerful. The tsunami that terrified us all even as we sat safely in our living rooms looking at its power was but a relatively gentle hint to us. There are infinitely more destructive powers lying there, waiting to pounce on man. Think of the submarine volcano off the Cape Verde Islands that, if it erupts violently and collapses to the seabed, would drive tsunamis as tall as 300 feet towards the USA and the Caribbean!
This latter should be a sobering thought even as we make merry ringing in the New Year, or get into the frenzy of Carnival. But if I know my Trini-countrymen well enough, they'll more than likely say: Leh mih dead drunk and feting! After all, 'man must dead'!