WORLD

WINDS OF DEATH

NATURE AGAIN OVERWHELMS BANGLADESH, AND CLAIMS THE LIVES OF AT LEAST 125,000 PEOPLE

ANDREW BILSKI May 13 1991
WORLD

WINDS OF DEATH

NATURE AGAIN OVERWHELMS BANGLADESH, AND CLAIMS THE LIVES OF AT LEAST 125,000 PEOPLE

ANDREW BILSKI May 13 1991

WINDS OF DEATH

WORLD

Thousands of bloated human bodies and animal carcasses washed up on the shore. From the safety of higher ground, millions of impoverished farmers and fishermen watched helplessly as rising floodwaters swept away their rickety shacks and meagre possessions. Even for a country accustomed to natural disasters, the cyclone that hit southeastern Bangladesh last week was an overwhelming tragedy. Around midnight on April 29, winds reaching a velocity of 145 m.p.h. lashed the densely populated coast and about a dozen islands in the Bay of Bengal, sending 20-foot-high waves crashing

NATURE AGAIN OVERWHELMS BANGLADESH, AND CLAIMS THE LIVES OF AT LEAST 125,000 PEOPLE

through towns and villages. Two days before the cyclone struck, government officials had warned people to leave their low-lying homes, and evacuated an estimated three million of them to storm shelters. But, with an estimated 20 million people living in the affected area, authorities reported at the weekend that the death toll had passed 125,000—and would no doubt continue to rise. It was the worst such tragedy since 1970, when a cyclone killed about 100,000 people in the same area. Lutfar Rahman Khan, the minister of state for relief, called the situation “a national crisis.”

The disaster indeed provided a daunting

challenge to Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, who in late March took the oath of office as the country’s first woman leader. The cyclone left an estimated 10 million people homeless— out of a total population of 110 million—and caused more than $1 billion in damage to crops and property in the desperately poor country, where the average annual income is just $195. And even survivors of the storm, lacking food and clean drinking water, could succumb to starvation or disease. “The essential risk is cholera,” said Alain Deloche, honorary president of the French medical charity Doctors of the World. Zia, making an impassioned appeal for international help, declared: “The magnitude of devastation wrought by the latest cyclone is so enormous that Bangladesh cannot face it alone.”

Western governments responded swiftly. In the capital, Dhaka, U.S. Ambassador William Milam co-ordinated his country’s contribution to the relief effort, which included $2.3 million in medical supplies and an additional $23 million worth of supplies that were expected to arrive by ship within days. The European Community promised $13.8 million for food, tents and other

essentials. Ottawa contributed more than $1.5 million through the Red Cross, the United Nations and other agencies. As well, several Canadian nongovernmental organizations in Bangladesh, including World Vision Canada and CARE, dispatched staff members to the worst-affected areas with emergency supplies.

But officials in Dhaka said that even those efforts, combined with their own, would not be nearly enough. Throughout the week, Bangladeshi helicopter crews brought aid to stranded coastal residents as rescue boats struggled to reach remote islands in the Bay of Bengal in search of survivors. But local officials were hampered by a shortage of aircraft and fast boats. In addition, many of the Bangladeshi pilots were suffering from hunger and fatigue, and their planes—loaded with rice, biscuits, bottled water and other emergency supplies— were often battered by rain and dangerous winds on their missions of mercy.

Island residents raised makeshift red flags to attract the attention of relief helicopters, and waded through deep water to grab tins of biscuits that went astray. Helicopter pilots said that they dropped supplies because, if they

attempted to land, hysterical people would swarm aboard. “We are trying our best,” said Mohammad Samsher, a Bangladeshi pilot. “But we do not have enough resources. I have never seen devastation like this—it is as if hell has travelled to our land.”

That devastation came despite an earlywarning system that was installed after the 1970 disaster. Last week, at least 60,000 people were thought to have died around the port of Chittagong alone, Bangladesh’s secondlargest city. Hundreds of fishermen were missing at sea and, by the weekend, the fate of tens of thousands of villagers remained unknown because of damage to telephone links. According to a member of parliament, Jalal Ahmed, at least 35,000 people were killed on Kutubdia, an island off the east coast that was directly in the path of the cyclone, and 15,000 more died on nearby Maheshkhali island.

The surviving people told heartbreaking stories. Mufizur Rahman said that he saw waves “as high as mountains” sweep towards his village on Kutubdia. The 55-year-old farmer said that he fainted and, when he regained consciousness, he found that his wife, son and three daughters had been swept away. “I have lost everything,” said Rahman, sobbing. Another villager, Rabeya Begum, said that her husband was bitten by a poisonous snake when he tried to grab a floating banana tree on which to perch his infant son. The bite killed Begum’s husband, and her son drowned. Said Rahamat Ali of Cox’s Bazar, 110 km south of Chittagong, who lost five members of his family in the storm: “It was not a cyclone, but the god of death who came and took away hundreds of thousands of people.”

Since the last devastating storm in 1985, which claimed about 10,000 lives, the government erected storm shelters and flood embankments in the low-lying delta region of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. Those shelters appeared to have saved thousands of lives. On Manpura island, off the southern coast, all but 12 of the 50,000 residents survived last week’s cyclone. Munshi Alauddin al-Azad, a local administration official, said that 20,000 people found sanctuary in 20 storm shelters about six hours before the storm struck. Still, nearly half of the island’s 8,000 houses were destroyed, and huge waves swept away livestock and food supplies.

Across the battered country, the death toll continued to climb on the weekend. “Every day, more and more bodies are floating up on the seashore,” said Khan. “Nobody is removing them, because they are fighting for their lives, their survival.” Added a relief official in Dhaka who requested anonymity: “We are possibly heading for a far worse time in the cyclone’s aftermath and may require the international community to launch a massive relief operation as they did for the Kurdish refugees.” In the chorus of voices clamoring for Western aid, Bangladeshis clearly hoped that their cries for help would not be drowned out.

ANDREW BILSKI

SHAMSUL ALAM BELAL