Indian Island Police Struggle to Get Body of American

November 22, 2018 Updated: November 23, 2018

NEW DELHI—Indian authorities were struggling on Nov. 22, with how to recover the body of an American killed after wading ashore on an isolated island cut off from the modern world.

John Allen Chau was killed last week by North Sentinel islanders who apparently shot him with arrows and then buried his body on the beach, police said.

But even officials don’t travel to North Sentinel, where people live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, and where outsiders are seen with suspicion and are attacked.

“It’s a difficult proposition,” said Dependera Pathak, director general of police on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where North Sentinel is located. “We have to see what is possible, taking utmost care of the sensitivity of the group and the legal requirements.”

Cloud over North Sentinel Island
Clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India’s southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. An American is believed to have been killed by an isolated Indian island tribe known to fire at outsiders with bows and arrows, Indian police said on Nov. 21, 2018. (Gautam Singh/AP)

Police are consulting anthropologists, tribal welfare experts, and scholars to figure out a way to recover the body, he said.

While visits to the island are heavily restricted, Chau paid fishermen last week to take him near North Sentinel, using a kayak to paddle to shore and bring gifts including a football and fish.

It was “a foolish adventure,” said P.C. Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University who has studied the islands. “He invited that aggression.”

Joshi noted that the visit not only risked Chau’s life, but also the lives of islanders who have little resistance to many diseases.

“They are not immune to anything. A simple thing like flu can kill them,” he said.

Anthropology professor at Delhi University
Anthropology professor at Delhi University P.C. Joshi speaks to The Associated Press in his office in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 22, 2018. (Manish Swarup/AP)

On his first day Chau interacted with some tribesmen—who survive by hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants—until they became angry and shot an arrow at him. The 26-year-old self-styled adventurer and Christian missionary then swam back to the fishermen’s boat waiting at a safe distance.

That night, he wrote about his visit and left his notes with the fishermen. He returned to North Sentinel the next day, Nov. 16.

What happened then isn’t known, but on the morning of the following day, the fishermen watched from the boat as tribesmen dragged Chau’s body along the beach and buried his remains.

Pathak said seven people have been arrested for helping Chau, including five fishermen, a friend of Chau’s, and a local tourist guide.

Chau was apparently shot and killed with arrows, but the cause of death can’t be confirmed until his body is recovered, Pathak said.

In an Instagram post, his family said they were mourning him as a “beloved son, brother, uncle, and best friend to us.” They also said they forgave his killers and called for the release of those who assisted him in his quest to reach the island.

“He ventured out on his own free will and his local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions,” the family said.

Authorities said Chau arrived in the area on Oct. 16 and stayed on another island while he prepared to travel to North Sentinel. It was not his first time in the region: he had visited the Andaman islands in 2015 and 2016.

Map locates North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island, India, where an American was believed killed by isolated tribe. (AP)

With help from a friend, Chau hired fishermen for $325 to take him there by boat, Pathak said.

After the fishermen realized Chau had been killed, they left for Port Blair, the capital of the island chain, where they broke the news to Chau’s friend, who in turn notified his family, Pathak said.

Police surveyed the island by air Tuesday, and a team of police and forest department officials used a Coast Guard boat to travel there Wednesday. Another trip was planned Thursday.

India has a very hands-off approach to the island’s people. Tribespeople killed two Indian fishermen in 2006 when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore, but Indian media reports said officials did not investigate or prosecute anyone in the deaths.

India recently changed some of its rules on visiting isolated regions in the Andamans. While special permits are required, scholars said visits are now theoretically allowed in some parts of the Andamans where they used to be entirely forbidden, including North Sentinel. Chau had no permit, police said.

Ever since high school, Chau had wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Christianity with the indigenous people, said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Covenant Journey, a program that takes college students on tours of Israel to affirm their Christian faith. Chau went through that program in 2015.

“He didn’t go there for just adventure. I have no question it was to bring the gospel of Jesus to them,” Staver said.

Staver said Chau’s last notes to his family on Nov. 16 told them that they might think he was crazy but that he felt it was worth it and asked that they not be angry if he was killed.

Before attending Oral Roberts University, Chau had lived in southwestern Washington state and went to Vancouver Christian High School. Phone messages left with relatives were not immediately returned Wednesday.

By Tim Sullivan

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