45, sets down his sack enthusiastically, his weary face breaking
into a smile. I start a conversation with him and immediately
we are surrounded by a handful of onlookers. The 50 metre
stretch of dry land, on which we are standing, is teeming
with people. It is six in the evening. The setting sun casts
an orange glow on everybody's face. Boats are moored to the
dock and there is water all around, as far as the eye can
see, the homogeneity broken only by treetops sticking out
of the surface.
flood has made my daily life very difficult. It has become
progressively harder for me to support my family, and the
rising water level offers no respite. Until two days ago we
hade to wade in knee-deep water inside our house" declares
Razzaque, father of seven children and oarsman by profession."I
have been waiting here since 10 in the morning but I am very
happy with the way the relief operation has been organised."
The bystanders nod vigorously in concurrence. The general
consensus is that the relief operation has been very well
conducted compared to efforts to help victims in previous
like the way cards with serial numbers have been handed out.
This is the best way to ensure that those who are worst affected
are able to get help," continues Razzaque, amidst sounds
of approval. After an animated discussion with his fellow
villagers, he confirms that the last two devastating floods
had attacked them in 1988 and in 1998, but that this year
the water level had risen unusually early.
definitely knows what he is talking about. This year the flood
has struck early and with devastating consequences.
found myself befriending Razzaque and some of his neighbours
in a marooned village in Munshiganj when I took up the offer
to accompany a team from Impact Foundation Bangladesh (an
NGO with the country headquarters in Dhaka), which is touring
some of the worst affected areas to distribute aid. We reached
our destination, accessible only by boat, on a chartered launch
loaded with sacks ready for distribution among the flood victims.
On the way, I was able to witness first hand the havoc wreaked
by the raging rivers: entire villages have been cut off from
civilisation, people are wading helplessly through waist-deep
water just to get from Point A to Point B, and commercial
life has come to a standstill.
launch docked after the two-hour journey, we were welcomed
by a swarm of people and small boats converging on us from
all sides. It took the better part of an hour to achieve some
semblance of order and begin distributing the relief packages.
Names of victims were announced through a loudspeaker.
recipient has been handed a card with a serial number on it
in advance," explained a locally recruited volunteer.
"But it is still difficult for us to organise everyone
into a queue because they are impatient and are afraid that
they will miss out if they don't come first to take their
packages. So there is this sense of urgency. You will see
a lot of jostling in the crowd." I could understand that.
After all, those caught napping by the rapidly advancing floodwaters
have had to pay dearly.
lowest deck of the launch, the sacks containing relief were
piled up and were being steadily transferred to the dock outside
by a chain of volunteers. I tried lifting a sack but struggled
with the 20 kilograms that each bag was supposed to weigh.
Following this failed attempt, I gazed with renewed amazement
at the children and elderly women outside who were carrying
these same sacks on their heads, walking towards boats moored
some distance away. Endurance is strength.
each of these precious sacks contain? This is naturally the
next question that springs to mind. "I don't know,"
confessed Abul Miah, a bearded 60 year-old, balancing the
sack he had just received on his head. He lived a mile from
the distribution site, and when I asked him if he was going
to walk all the way back home, he ridiculed my naive suggestion.
of the houses here are no longer accessible by foot. If you
don't have a boat you cannot communicate with the outside
world. From my house to here, it's a 30 minute journey."
Before I leave him to continue his journey back home he ventures
to add, "I am very happy with the way people have been
made aware of today's programme. All my neighbours have been
contacted by the local community leaders and have been handed
cards. The poor have really benefited."
did finally manage to procure a list of the contents of each
package: rice, lentils, potatoes, cooking oil, flour, flattened
rice. molasses, biscuits, oral saline, water purification
tablets, antiseptic lotion, bandage, candles and matchsticks.
It must have been hard work sorting all this material into
the 2500 or so separate sacks prepared for distribution. "Yes,"
affirms Montu Perise, staff member of Impact Foundation Bangladesh,
whose own home has been washed away by the relentless floodwaters.
"My colleagues have been working all night. We received
funding for the project from our partner organisation, UK
Impact Foundation, only a couple of days ago."
As I paced
back and forth on the 50-metre strip of dry land just beside
the dock, trying to get used to the stench of poverty and
dried fish as the night descended, I was approached by a pair
of women who had not been called up to receive aid. They told
me that it was very difficult for them to sustain their daily
life and begged for help. I realised then that it is impossible,
despite all efforts, to rescue each and every person affected
by the flood. The victims easily outnumber the sacks available
for distribution. Moreover, a package of foodstuffs and necessities
is just that : a package. It is not inexhaustible. It will
be used up after 20 days. Then what? What will happen when
the floodwaters recede and disease breaks out? Already there
has been a dramatic increase in the number of diarrhoea cases
in flood-affected areas. What will happen when the crop fails
and farmers lose their livelihoods? Endless questions popped
up in my head.
are no easy answers; only damning statistics. Statistics that
show how floods have periodically and systematically ravaged
our country over the last few decades. Statistics in the news
everyday tell us what percentage of the country is under water
and how much worth of aid has been distributed.
don't know what will happen to me," says Amina, a 35-year-old
widow. "My home is under water and I need to look after
my son and daughter." As she jostles her way through
the crowd, she tells me, "I have been waiting here for
seven hours. I need to get back to my children. I need to
find someone to help me." Amina, obviously, does not
care for statistics. She needs answers. And fast.
around with a relief distribution team was a real eye-opener.
The flood does not directly affect me. But even if some of
us don't experience a tangible predicament, we should continue
trying to find answers to this terrible calamity that revisits
Bangladesh every year. Let us not forget that the lives and
livelihoods of millions are at stake.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004