From the archives
Circle of death
We have been here before, most recently in 1991, when the last cyclone to hit Bangladesh left 150,000 dead. And in 1970, thirty-seven years ago, almost to the day, a deadly cyclone smashed into the southern coast of the country, eventually leaving more than half a million dead in its wake. Here we reproduce the shocking eye-witness accounts of the 1970 cyclone's destruction, printed in the original Forum issue of November 28, 1970. We have come a long way since 1970, the much smaller death toll today being the most eloquent testimony to this, but the story of those stricken remains, heart-breakingly, the same, and should serve as a reminder that, as much as we have done to improve things, it has not been nearly enough.
Patuakhali: the struggle to survive
Approaching Patuakhali, the air lies heavy with the stench of death. As you proceed South into Amtali Thana, the river banks are covered with thousands of cattle carcasses interspersed with clusters of human corpses, taut, tense from the last desperate struggle which must have been waged before the fury of the tidal bore claimed another victim.
No less desperate is the struggle of the living merely to survive. In the village of Gazipura in Amtali Thana, the only tube-well which supplied drinking water was destroyed along with everything else. The people have since been forced to drink water drawn from a pond, in which carcasses have been rotting since the night of the cyclone.
The villagers reported that drinking this water, even after boiling, caused sores to form in the month. Almost every other person complained of stomach upsets. No government relief had yet reached, although seven days had elapsed since the occurrence of the cyclone.
The day of the cyclone was market day in Gazipura. Persons from surrounding villages had come to the bazaar, only to be entrapped by the sudden onset of the cyclone and tidal bore. There was no community centre in this village; no place of refuge. The embankment which had been built had broken in several places, and therefore, offered no protection. A large number of bodies remained unburied along the river banks.
As we proceeded further down the river, we encountered Anwer, who was recognised as the district Student League president. He appeared to be in great distress. His house in the neighbouring village of Krishnanagar had also been washed away, and he had lost a number of relatives and all his worldly belongings.
Art Work By Zainul Abedin
Every family had lost on an average five to ten members of their family. Here, too, no government relief had yet reached. The villagers complained that although they had heard that some relief had been left with the chairman of the union council, they had not received it. They feared that he had diverted it to his own village. Similar fears were expressed in other villages over the next few days. The chairmen and union council members -- the Basic Democrats of the Ayub era -- appeared to be widely distrusted.
Kacchabunia is a village in the island of Rangabali, which reaches out towards the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the islands of the Golachipa Archipelago, which lies between the mainland and the Bay. In this village, Tofayel Hossain, a student of class ten, whose house was just a few hundred yards from a two-storied cement school building, had lost 31 members of his family. None of them had sought refuge in this school building -- the Noah's Ark for 200 or so villagers, who had crowded into its upper-storey.
When asked why they had failed to follow the others, he said that they had been misled by the warning signal. Last October, too, there had been a similar signal in which no numbers had been mentioned, but only a "Great Danger" warning had been given. Nothing had happened then. It had, therefore, been presumed that a "Great Danger" signal, without any number being assigned need not be taken too seriously. The chairman of that union council had lost his entire family except for a daughter.
In neighbouring Kazirhola, the bread which we distributed was immediately swallowed down by adults and children alike. They had not had anything to eat, except the roots of banana trees for eight days.
Pussurbunia is at one extremity of Rangabali island. Here we counted no less than 50 carcasses, and found two heaps of corpses. Before leaving, we had buried 19 corpses in this village. The villagers harboured an irrational fear about approaching these corpses. When, however, we began burying them, some of them came forward to help. It was here that we first sighted a launch. It was flying a blue United Nations flag. On enquiry we learnt that it was carrying a Unicef-sponsored medical relief team.
In four days of movement in this area, we sighted only three other river craft. The IWTA ferry, Jumna, carrying a Pakistan Medical Association (Narayanganj branch) team, which we had first sighted near Chandpur was following almost the same route as we were. Another IWTA vessel carrying a Red Cross team was sighted twice. The third was a small passenger launch. We saw no other craft, civil or military. There were no signs of the movement of any relief materials to these ravaged islands.
On the way to these islands, we had seen a crowd of people standing around a pole to which a red-flag was attached. This people, we were told, had assembled as they expected to receive relief, perhaps, by means of air-drops. On our return, we found the people still craning their neck upwards waiting for something to fall from the skies. But a whole day’s waiting had been in vain. No relief came.
Back in Patuakhali, our launch broke down. No other launch could be found, until one arrived with passengers from Barisal. It was scheduled to go back to Barisal. It required a deeply emotive appeal to the humanitarian instincts of the the humanitarian instincts of the Sarang, coupled with assurances of adequate recompense, to persuade him to change course and to take us to the coastal areas. The absolute shortage of launches at Patuakhali and the total failure of the district administration to cope with it was evident from the fact that a medical team from Mymensingh had remained stranded for almost two days because of lack of transport. We ourselves found a relief team consisting of EPIDC employees stranded for lack of transport. Ultimately, they could only get to the affected areas by crowding into our "hijacked" launch.
The island of Maudobi also stretches out into the Bay of Bengal. We were told that about 75% of the island's population had been swept into the sea. All the houses in the area had been flattened. We noticed an elderly gentleman joining the queue for cheera. Some of the local boys accompanying us recognised him as the head moulvi of the Maudobi high school. He has a son in the university at Dacca. He had lost several family member. He had also lost all his worldly belongings, including his life's savings, which he had drawn two days before the cyclone to purchase land. Reduced to destitution over-night, he was still in a state of shock, unable to speak, unable to share his sorrow. The only relief which had reached this area was one pack of atta per head. The wounds, which many bore across the chest and arms caused by the sharp needles of the khajoor trees to which they had clung for safety had already begun to fester. Almost all the children were stark naked.
On our way back -- it was the tenth day after the cyclone when we first sighted a helicopter -- the only ones sighted in the entire week. None of the villages we visited received relief from air-drops. On our return to Golachipa Bondor, we heard of an air drop of blankets. This was the only air-drop reported.
A week in the ravaged areas of Amtali, Golachipa and Kalapara thanas of Patuakhali brought two facts into sharp focus. First: those who had survived the cyclone and the tidal bore were engaged in an almost losing battle to save themselves from death due to starvation, exposure, and disease. Second: government had failed totally to reach relief to a very large part of the affected areas. What relief had been distributed was grossly inadequate, and the machinery used for its distribution, namely the chairman and union council members, highly unsatisfactory. Lack of transport appeared to be the single most important bottleneck, which the district administration had failed to resolve. If these bottlenecks and deficiencies are not removed forthwith those who are living in these affected areas will be hard put to succeed in their struggle to survive.
Kamal Hossain was the publisher of the original Forum.
Outpost of the damned
No child cried, no dogs barked. All animals have been destroyed. This is an island without infants ... only a handful of children survived. The young, the old, the women, the weak, these were the first to go. Survival of the fittest ... though many of these lay dead. Many lie unburied. The villagers claim that they lack the implements to even dig a grave.
The waves took everything. The Aman crop had just been harvested. The grain lying around was washed away. Starvation threatens. Scavenging by the starving has yielded grain mixed with sand, which provides the diet of survival. There is no food, no matches to light the fire, no kerosene to burn, no salt, no cooking medium. An airdrop of rice two days ago has filled some bellies but the inhabitants live from one relief mission to another. The unburied dead are a serious health hazard. The only two tube-wells in the area were damaged and they have no pure water.
When we visited them, they solicited food, clothing, shelter, medicine if they are to survive. Winter is before them. If they survive the exposure they have to live. They have no cattle to plough the land; no seed to sow. The economy has returned to the stone age. Money is meaningless, because
no shops or stores are left on the island. The school has been destroyed and even the police outpost. The local watchman seemed in as much distress as his wards.
So far, relief has been late in reaching the island. An airdrop helps, though by a cruel irony the rice bags dropped by the air force reportedly produced two fatalities.
We flew back over the small island of Monpura between Bhola and Hatiya, flying low enough over the area for us to see a string of dead bodies and animal carcasses littered along the seacoast. Around them, the country-side looked peaceful, but a closer look showed the devastation.
It seemed that a giant hand had swept across the island. Few houses were standing. The landscape was desolate. Small groups waved at the plane. An occasional red cloth fluttered to attract attention. On a first count, I must have counted a hundred corpses, but who knows how many hundreds more were missed by the human eye. And this was an island from which relief operation for the area were being directed.
Dead bodies seemed located mostly on the seacoast, where they lay scattered in the distorted postures of unanticipated death.
It seems that the survivors have buried those of their family they could locate. Those who still lie there awaiting burial are those who are survived by none or part of an itinerant population come in to harvest the Aman crop. The horror of burying their own has perhaps been too much for the islanders to carry over to those unknown to them.
Rehman Sobhan was the executive editor of the original Forum.
Islands of Death
One night's furious devastation has brought Bengal into world focus.
Just two days before the violent storm, Bengal lay unnoticed. Warnings of a brewing cyclone disturbed few people. Commissioners and DCs summoned to Dhaka for a conference on the 11th and 12th stayed on. Uptil Sunday a festive air prevailed in Dacca, where a reception had been planned for the Asian Highway Rally participants.
It was not before Sunday or Monday that news finally broke. The shattered world of a fragile delta began to impinge upon a somnolent Dhaka and an ignorant world beyond the island.
On the 12th night, the islands witnessed a dance of death. On the 13th morning, all lay still -- the shadow of death spawned across the delta. A whimsical change in the warning system had left the islanders confused and unsuspecting of the deluge ahead of them.
Thursday 19th -- eight days later we flew overt the devastated areas. Sweeping over the islands at treetop level the perspective was essentially impressionistic. The main islands Bhola, Hatiya, Sandwip, Patuakhali were within visual range. But the many other unknown chars in the Bay -- spots of silted alluvia which surface after each tide to produce rich harvests, and where the destruction is said to have been total -- remained elusive even for a bare glimpse as the plane swept in a rapid circle. Today the names of the chars have become legendary, but only after they have been flushed white by saline water.
In 1960 a cyclone and tidal bore had ripped open the Gangetic belly and thrown these vulnerable chars and islands into indifferent care. Since then, much had been heard of grand Ayubian promises of stream-lining the warning system, of building large community shelters precisely for such calamities. Over the years, much had been made of Ayub's development plans, of the transformation in the countryside. But as we flew over these islands all that was visible of any permanent shelters was one two-storied pucca structure in the middle of Sandwip, two such structures in Bhola, and some brick rubble in Hatiya. Once again, it seemed that man's negligence had competed with nature's fury to deprive an entire area of the mere chance for survival.
The vast shambles presented a grim landscape indeed. Half a million lay dead in eloquent homage to the last 10 years of political stability and economic progress.
Hameeda Hossain was the editor of the original Forum.