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Crocodiles, Hunger And Despair

First mammoth waves washed over their villages, leaving not a single hut standing. Then the survivors' ordeal began: days of thirst, hunger and miles of walking until - just at the point of rescue - a hungry pack of crocodiles tried to snap them up.

The refugees lived to tell the tale, thanks to Indian seamen who shot at the menacing crocodiles as the fleeing refugees made their way to a rescue ship.

"As we were returning, two or three crocodiles started coming toward us," Sister Charity, a 32-year-old nun, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "The Navy officers had to fire their revolvers to ward off the crocodiles to protect us."

Sister Charity, who was rescued from Hut Bay island, was among survivors who told harrowing stories as they emerged from the isolated Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Crocodiles are common across Southeast Asia and the South Pacific and are among the many dangers survivors are facing after Sunday's disaster. After a tsunami in Papua New Guinea several years ago, crocodiles feasted on corpses scattered along the beaches.

In this remote spot in India, rescuers followed the stench to find rotting corpses in jungles on the 30 or so of the territory's 500 islands that are inhabited, officials said.

Survivors brought to Port Blair, the territory's capital, said they had not eaten for two days and also had to fend off the crocodiles that were swept ashore by the huge waves.

Mohammad Yusef, a 60-year-old fisherman from Tea Top village on Car Nicobar island, told AP his village was wiped out. "There's not a single hut which is standing," he said.

Yusef said he and his extended family of 20 walked a dozen miles to reach a devastated, but functioning airfield on the island where thousands of people were being evacuated by India's air force. His family was brought to a Roman Catholic Church in Port Blair.

Yusef said there were about 15 villages around Car Nicobar's shore and all were destroyed.

"Everything is gone. Most of the people have gone up to the hills and are afraid to come down," he said.

Despite their travails, some people vowed to return home and start again.

"We are broken, but this is not the end of life," said George Aberdeen, a 25-year-old coconut farmer whose village on Car Nicobar was washed away Sunday. "We will rebuild our lives. It will be difficult - but the whole family will do it together."

Just how many villages and families remain was unclear.

The International Red Cross said 30,000 people might be missing on the island chains, which are more than 700 miles southeast of India's mainland and have a population of 350,000. The islands' administrator, Lt. Gov. Ram Kapse, said about 400 bodies had been cremated or buried and 3,000 were missing.

Authorities prevented journalists and representatives of international aid groups such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and CARE from visiting the islands to assess the damage and death toll.

At a makeshift refugee center at the Nirmala Convent School, decorated with paper stars put up for Christmas, hundreds of people sat under blue plastic tarps while women in white saris served bowls of rice and lentils.

Langley Matenga, George Aberdeen's brother-in-law, told of how he and his family of 10 fled the waves that engulfed their village, Mallaca, where some 500 Hindu, Muslim and Christian families lived.

"We were trying to run ahead of the water. When we turned around, all the houses were gone," said Matenga, an indigenous Nicobarese. "Within five minutes, everything was gone. It was Sunday morning and we were planning to go to church - and suddenly there was no church."

But there were few tears or hysterics among the thousands of survivors being ferried by boat and helicopter to Port Blair.

"The Nicobarese are very calm people. They have taken this with a tremendous sense of maturity," said Deputy Inspector-General A.N. Basudev Rao.

The 30,000 Nicobarese are the largest group among the tribal peoples that account for about one-tenth of the islands' population.

Some of the smaller indigenous groups, numbering only a few hundred each and mostly dwindling, maintain little contact with outsiders. They disappear into the forest when strangers approach and authorities hope that is the case now as they search for survivors.

"They might be hiding in forests and taking shelter in places where we haven't reached yet," Rao said.

Helicopters flying from 10 ships flew over the islands looking for signs of life, or mounds of dead.

Rao said finding and disposing of bodies on the islands was a daunting task. "A huge number of trees have fallen. There is a lot of slush," he told AP.

Nearly all the jetties on the islands were smashed by the waves, so search parties are using small wooden and rubber boats to land on beaches.

"The rescue parties are approaching inch by inch," Rao said. "There is also a lot of stench. From the stench, they are trying to follow the direction to the bodies."

Six Indian air force AN-32 cargo planes made dozens of flights from Port Blair to the air base on Car Nicobar, bringing back 80 to 90 villagers on each run.

About 580 survivors from the island of Hud Bay arrived by ship before dawn Thursday. The waves were so fierce that most of those who got aboard were men, who had to swim from shore. They said more than 800 people were dead or missing on the island.

"We just managed to save our lives," said Dana Amma, 60. "All our houses, our cattle, everything is gone. We don't know what to do."

By Neelesh Misra and Manish Swarup

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