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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

John Allen Chau: 1 year on, time adds intrigue to Andaman mystery

Chau, who worked for All Nations, an evangelical group based in Kansas City that introduces Christianity in the remote corners of the world, was so obsessed with the island that he broke a series of laws and did not hesitate in putting his own life in danger.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2019 00:55 IST
Prawesh Lama
Prawesh Lama
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The 27-year-old American citizen John Allen Chau was feared killed by the islanders and buried at the shore on November 17, 2018.
The 27-year-old American citizen John Allen Chau was feared killed by the islanders and buried at the shore on November 17, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)
         

One year ago, American citizen John Allen Chau was last seen approaching the prohibited North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. The 27-year-old was feared killed by the islanders and buried at the shore on November 17, 2018.

Police have been unable to recover his body because Indian laws prohibit anyone from entering within 500m of water near the forbidden island, and even while the case is being probed as one of murder, some in the force believe that the US citizen may be alive — living with the islanders.

North Sentinel Island — about a five-hour boat ride in the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal from Port Blair — is a restricted area for everyone because it is home to the Sentinelese, one of the last uncontacted tribes of the world. Little is known about their language, food habits, population, or how they have survived all these years while shunning the outside world.

Chau, who worked for All Nations, an evangelical group based in Kansas City that introduces Christianity in the remote corners of the world, was so obsessed with the island that he broke a series of laws and did not hesitate in putting his own life in danger.

“Nobody knows exactly what happened to Chau. Our guess is as best as anyone’s,” an officer posted in Andaman police until a few months ago told HT on condition of anonymity.

“He was trained to live on the island for months according to reports from the US media. That he entered the forbidden island is based on eyewitness accounts and Chau’s handwritten notes. But nobody actually saw the islanders burying him. The fishermen who took him saw some islanders standing next to what appeared like a body, half buried in the sand,” a second police officer, who is still posted in Andaman, said on condition of anonymity.

Even as time adds intrigue to the mystery, here is what we do know for sure, according to the police files.

On November 15, Chau, disguised as a fisherman, accompanied the local fishermen and rode into the Bay of Bengal. About 500m before the shores of the island, he jumped off the ship and swam across the island with a Bible in his hand.

In the weeks leading up to his disappearance, Chau lived in a hotel in Port Blair. He was met on the island by other foreigners Bobby Marion,54, and Christian, 26. The three stayed at a Port Blair resident’s house for five days until November 10 ,a day before Chau was to make his first attempt at going to the North Sentinel island.

Chau,however, could not go to the island on November 11 because of a cyclone in Bay of Bengal. Bobby and Marion, also allegedly members of All Nations, left Andaman on November 10, hold the key to the investigation.

For the last several months, the Andaman police are awaiting clearance from the Union ministry of home affairs, to send a formal request to a court in the United States that has authority to send Marion and Christian back to India for investigation.

Hindustan Times contacted All Nations but there was no response till late on Sunday. Last year, the group had declined to speak on Chau’s disappearance or the reason why he was in Andaman.

Police say the reports and eyewitness accounts of Chau’s friend Alexander, a local who helped in his journey to the prohibited island, has fuelled their suspicion that Chau may be alive.

“Chau trained for months to live on that island. He was conditioned mentally and physically to live with them. Until we find his body there is a remote possibility that he may be alive,” a third officer said, adding that the evangelical group’s leader was quoted by The Guardian as saying that Chau had received 13 kinds of immunisation to prevent him from contradicting any disease to the islanders.

Other foreign newspapers, such as The New York Times, described how Chau “aced” training at a boot camp run by All Nations to help him prepare to live and interact with the Sentinel islanders. He took scissors, safety pins and a football as gifts for the tribe. In his handwritten notes that Chau left with the fishermen who took him to the prohibited, he had a message to his parents. It read — “You guys might think I am crazy in all this but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.”

Dependra Pathak, director-general of the Andaman and Nicobar Island police, says though police have not recovered Chau’s body, they are still probing the case related to Chau’s illegal foray into the island.

“We have sent a request to the government to allow us to summon to American nationals to India and join the investigation. It is called an MLAT (Mutual Assistance Treaty) request. It takes time,” he said.

Anthropologist TN Pandit, 84, one of the few government officials who have in the past managed to establish contact with the Sentinelese in 1967, says Chau is probably dead. Pandit was also contacted by the Andaman police last year to help the island police figure out a way to retrieve Chau’s body from the shores or start a communication channel with the Sentinelese people.

“It is unlikely that he may be alive. He would have surely found a way to come out of the island. It was foolish adventurism on that boy’s part (Chau). I advised the government not to make contact in trying to retrieve his body. The Sentinelese people do not need us. They have lived on that island for thousands of years. The islanders must be allowed to live their life without any interference from outside,” he said.

Over the last few decades, the Sentinel island residents — they could be 50 to 200 in number — have refused any form of contact with the outside world. Up until three decades ago, when the government sent experts such as Pandit to try to set up contact with the islanders, they have met with hostility.

In 2006, the islanders shot arrows at a Coast Guard helicopter when the team tried to retrieve the bodies of two fishermen who were killed by the tribals. Unlike Chau, the two fishermen were sleeping when the tides of the sea accidentally took their boat to the prohibited island.

Exactly a year has passed since Chau was last seen at the shores of the island. The police, senior government experts, taxi drivers, and almost everyone in the Andaman islands have their theory on what may have happened to the 27-year-old American who dared to swim across the prohibited waters. But they have something in common — They do not fault the Sentinelese tribals for the murder.

This was Chau’s wish too. In his last handwritten note, he wrote: “Do not blame the natives if I am killed.”