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Human Rights

Healing the Battered

Dilruba Haidera

The devastating cyclone that hit Bangladesh on November 15 2007 left behind thousands of dead and survivors who are still grappling with the trauma.

Mohammad Shahidul is an 18-year-old boy from Patharghata Upazila of Borguna District, one of the worst affected areas from the super Cyclone Sidr. Shahidul, his elder brother, and their father went into thesea as they did every other day, on 12 November. Deep in the sea, the radio frequency doesn’t work properly; so although they had a radio with them, they didn’t get the cyclone warning messages. However, seeing the sky turn dark they became alarmed and tried coming back towards the shore. But before they could land, Sidr caught them and their trawler capsized. The three along with other fishermen swam, drifted and floated with floaters for almost two days on the Bay of Bengal and finally managed to land in the Sundarbans, which had born the brunt of Sidr; 25% of the forest was devastated. For two days they treaded the forest, with torn limbs, weak with hunger, eating kewra. The father fell sick and was completely drained of the strength and spirit to fight for his life. The two sons also had lost the necessary life in them to carry the father with them. Shahidul and his brother was numb with all the struggles, hunger and endless walking; they left their weak and ailing father behind in the Sidr-torn deep forest amidst the wild animals and went on walking ahead like two lifeless phantoms, without knowing which direction to go. Finally they reached the Indian part of the Sundarbans where two honey collectors from Bangladesh found them, took them to their place, fed them and gave them some money to come back home.

Mohommmad Shahidul, Patharghata, Borguna
Shahidul was narrating the whole thing like a story-teller and his face bore no emotion. Here was this young man who had to leave his weak, helpless father behind in the forest, and when he was telling me all this, his face was numb, eyes utterly blank! I asked him in my desperate but futile attempt to peep into his soul: is your father alive? Do you know where he is? He replied: ‘we don’t know’- with the same vacant look!

Aklima, a young housewife from Golachipa upazila of Patuakhali District was talking in a slightly high pitch faster than any other rural woman of her age. She too was depicting the frightful night of 15 November: since signal number ten was announced on 14 November, and the dreadful weather got slightly better in the morning of the 15th, her brother-in-law reassured her that no tidal bore would come this time. Her uncle-in-law consoled her saying that he had seen many cyclones, nothing would happen. So she kept on blubbering the whole day but didn’t go to any safer place to take shelter. The cyclone shelter was almost two kilometers away. At night when the storm took a horrific face with deafening sounds, Aklima set out for the embankment with her husband, son and daughter. As soon as they stepped out of their house the giant wave hit them and the husband with their son was snatched away from them. Aklima and her 3-year-old daughter Jannatul Ferdous were swept away by the wave in the dark. Aklima cannot remember how long she swam for, but after sometime, her body gave up, and she couldn’t hold on to her daughter, and let go of her: ‘having to hold on to her, I couldn’t swim any more’. Jannatul however, wouldn’t let go of her mother, she kept on hanging to her mother’s hair: ‘ma don’t let go of me, take me to abba (father)’. Finally the two could clutch the top of a date tree. Mother and daughter had innumerable needles pierced through their bodies from the date and kewra trees as the waves thrashed them against the trees.

When the water subsided, the husband, who made it to the embankment swimming with the son, came crying and shouting, looking for his wife and daughter. When Aklima saw the rescuers looking around for the survivors, she shouted as loud as she could from the tree top (which was weak from the struggle with the waves) crying for help, pleading to save her daughter, but they would not hear her due to the deafening sound of the ferocious wind storm. After hours they were rescued; and the next day at the Upazila health complex 130 thorns were taken out of her body.

Aklima, Golachipa, Patuakhali
Aklima said, she felt restless all the time: "I don’t know where to go, what to do, to get back my peace of mind." When she was speaking she looked like a woman in a trance, as if under a spell, as if she was compelled to speak about that horrific night of her life. Aklima seemed like she was under a compulsion to divulge her guilt of letting go of her baby to save her own life! "When I am left alone, all those memories of pain and horror haunt me." When I finally had to stop Aklima talking, in order to take another woman’s interview, Aklima sat in one corner speechless, with empty eyes! Jannatul doesn’t talk much and clings on to her mother all the time. The son has lost his appetite and doesn’t talk much.

Badol Howladar of Garjanbunia Sadar Upazila of Borguna District was trying to put up a shanty on his washed away homestead. He was constantly talking to himself. I went near and tried to listen to him. He was narrating a similar horror story of that frightful night. He had married off his daughter Shahinoor a few months back. The wave had washed her away with her all her in-laws. Many of her in laws died. She is alive and was found at the bottom of the bridge, half naked, trembling with fear. She is now admitted in the Upazila health complex. The medicines aren’t doing her any good. Her condition is deteriorating. Badol, the distressed father was bemoaning his daughter's plight.

Shahidul, Aklima, Jannatul, Shahinoor are the faces of the innumerable traumatised people in the coastal Districts of Bangladesh, ravaged in that fateful night by Sidr, the super cyclone.

According to the World Health Organistaion (WHO) ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’, while ‘mental health is the balance between all aspects of life-social, physical, spiritual and emotional. It impacts on how we manage our surroundings and make choices in our lives-clearly it is an integral part of our overall health’.

After the 2004 Tsunami, which took the lives of many in the South Asian coast, the issue of trauma was included into the main discourse of disaster management. Trauma is almost inevitable in high impact sudden onset disasters like cyclones and tidal bores. In the 1970 cyclone 500,000 lives were lost while in 1991, 130,000 people perished overnight. The families who had to bear the loss were immensely traumatised. Disaster managers, at that point didn’t think about the issue. After the1991 cyclone a handful of organisations did some isolated small studies on the impact of the cyclone on the affected people’s psyche. In 2005 Care Bangladesh published a manual on ‘post disaster psycho-social care’. Quite clearly not enough has been done till date in this area.

At times of disasters different people are affected differently, and their level of trauma varies depending on their level of mental strength, family support, and level of exposure to the disasters. As time passes, most of the people seem to go back to normalcy. Of them some truly recover from the trauma, while some only seem normal outwardly, but inside the affliction persists, often in their subconscious causing mal- functioning of their familial and social behaviour. This is called ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ (PTSD)

In Bangladesh psychological or mental health is usually neglected. Rather mental illness is suppressed and concealed, instead of trying to heal it. People still think that mental illness means insanity. The reality is, just as our body can become sick, our psychology can become sick too. Therefore just as health problems need to be treated, similarly the mental ailments also need treating. In our society a common alibi to downplay mental health is the social network. We in vain think that we do not need professional support to heal our mental illness because we have our relatives and friends to share our problems and get their advice, which would resolve our mental problems. The reality is far from this.

Some of the common symptoms of traumatised individuals are: fear; becoming introverts; feeling of guilt; feeling frustrated, and depressed; sobbing now and then; feeling lonely; wanting to be left alone; not feeling like doing any work; becoming suicidal; anxiety; addiction to liquors; insomnia; aggressive behaviour; restlessness; having nightmares, etc. Often these phenomena lead to physical illness like, loss of appetite; feeling tired and weak; palpitation; headache; unusual perspiration; feeling excessively warm or cold; difficulty breathing; trembling; urinating too frequently; feeling pain in different parts of the body.

Shahinoor, the daughter of Badol Howladar was fighting for her life in the Upazila health complex, just with fever, because her real illness was trauma, and the doctors and other care givers in Patharghata Health complex did not have the skills to deal with it.

Trauma counseling is a task for skilled people, people who can identify the trauma victims and do the psychological counseling. In Bangladesh however, we do not have many experts or trained trauma counselors. We need to develop or train counselors and create a pool of skilled counselors who can provide the service at the time of disasters. Preferably, these trauma counselors should be from the local community: school teachers, NGO workers, TBA, religious leaders, Union Parishad members, health workers, agricultural extension workers and others. This preference for local people is to ensure credibility of the counselors and their acceptance to the trauma victims. Rapport building should be faster that way. When the disaster managers were told about this issue this time, after Sidr, the immediate response was: ‘we are struggling to provide enough relief for their survival, how can we think about their mental health’. They have a point. However, to care for the mental health, to help them deal with their mental crisis/ trauma, we don’t need money, all we need is the awareness and recognising that it is an issue needing support. Trauma has a long term impact in the minds and behaviour of the victims which have the potential to upset the social fabric and equilibrium..

Trauma counselling needs to be an integral part of our disaster preparedness, part of our contingency plan, so that the next time the disaster managers will not need to be persuaded to provide the little resource required to save Shahinoor, Aklima, Jannatul and hundreds and thousands of others like them, who are suffering day after day, night after night, groping in the darkness to find the way out, to find solace, to get back their ‘peace of mind’.

Dilruba Haider, Disaster Reduction Specialist

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007