Under a Wall of Water

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First, a tsunami inhales. The water that once caressed the shore is sucked away; fish flop gasping in unexpected air; harbor boats are dashed to splinters on the sudden sand. For five minutes or perhaps 30, the sea is empty as the great wave rolls in. Out in the deep it was no more than a foot high, swift and imperceptible; now, forced into standing straight by the ascending slope of the ocean floor, it is 20 feet. Or a hundred. And it will pound down on places the gentle tides have never touched.

Three fishing villages on the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea that eked out a living from the sea have been erased by it. When all the bodies are buried and all the missing counted, the 23-foot wall of water that arrived in the night last Friday will likely have claimed some 6,000 lives and stolen nearly a whole generation of children whose small bodies stood no chance against the water's crush.

Sissano Lagoon, separated from the ocean by a fragile spit of sand where villages once grew, is now a place of the most primitive horrors. Limbs hang from the coconut trees, freshly tamped graves dot the beach, and huge saltwater crocodiles crawl from the red-tinged sea to scavenge on the unburied dead. Bodies swiftly rotted by the tropical heat come apart in emergency workers' hands. And to the surviving villagers, many of them amputees after gangrene invaded their wounds, it is a place to be ever forsaken, a steaming graveyard carved out by elemental demons. New villages, crude and unnamed, are springing up on a hill far from the betraying water. "The people will go back, but to a better place," said Fabian Tombre, whose village, Arop, is no more. "We will build new homes away from the sea. We will live up in the bush for 20 years and watch if it comes back."