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A planned response in uncertain times

Three months ago, a cyclone hit Bangladesh killing up to 10,000 people. Fintan O'Toole visited the region to see how Concern is helping people rebuild their lives. This article is featured in today's Irish Times supplement about Concern and its work.

"I found my 12 year-old son fifteen days after the cyclone,” says Mumtza Begum. “His leg was eaten by dogs. I couldn’t tell from his face that this was Hassan. Only from his clothes. All the time he was missing, my three year-old daughter kept saying to me ‘Do not say Ina lillah’.”

Ina Lillah is what a Muslim says when they hear that someone has died. It means,

roughly, “What God has given, we have to give back. She didn’t want me to say it, because she didn’t want him to be dead.”

We are in the village of Rohita, in the far south of Bangladesh, where one fork of the Ganges, the River Boleswar, sweeps down into the Bay of Bengal.

On the night of November 15th 2007, Cyclone Sidr swept in from the bay, bringing 240km per hour winds, followed by tidal surges that rose as high as five metres.

Mumtza Begum’s son was one of an estimated 10,000 people killed. Millions of livestock were wiped out, the rice in the paddy fields was rendered inedible, the open ponds that people use for drinking water were contaminated with salt, mud and dead bodies and 1.5 million homes were wholly or partly destroyed.

The death toll would have been much worse had there not been warnings and mass evacuations. But many of the most vulnerable people in Rohita lived on the shore, beyond the protective bulwark, because they have no land of their own. They were

afraid to leave their few possessions in case they were stolen.

Also, there had been a false alarm a few weeks earlier.

Hafiz Al-Asad, who works with Concern’s local partner Sangram, showed me some video footage he made the day before the cyclone. He approaches a small

wooden shack. There are two young women with their babies, an adolescent boy, and an older woman – the women’s mother.

They tell him they won’t leave because they are afraid to go and hope God will look after them. He then cuts to footage he took the day after the cyclone. The younger women are crying. Their mother is stretched out on a narrow wooden board on the

ground, dead.

Hazera Begum and her family stayed too. “When the storm started my husband went out from the house. I looked out and I could see the tin sheets from the roof, flying around. I called him back in so the tin sheets wouldn’t injure his head. As he was coming back to the house, he heard a sound and he looked back and saw that the tidal surge was coming in. Then he called us to come out of the house, because he said ‘the water is coming in’. So we all came out and started running up towards the higher

ground.

But before we could get there, we were engulfed. The water was not just flowing in one direction. It was whirling. My husband was holding the children’s hands, but he went under the water and started drowning and he let go of their hands. We lost sight of the

children. Then a boat washed in, and a fallen tree. Then a house fell on top of us. I found that I was holding a tree with no one around me. “I have long hair, Somehow it got caught in the tree and I couldn’t move down further. When the water receded, I heard my husband calling ‘Who is there?’ I recognised his voice. He was in a palm tree. He was afraid to come down, thinking that maybe the water would come again. I told him he could come down from the tree, that the water level was going down.

Then we found my nephew – he was alive, but my son and daughter were dead. My son was 11 years old and my daughter was 14 years old. We found their dead bodies three kilometres away.”

As one woman speaks, others in the group that have gathered around listen impassively, their faces completely immobile except for the tears that trickle slowly down their cheeks.

They seem stunned still, but they have no time for quiet desperation.

The children wake, they say, in the middle of the night, screaming that ‘the water is

coming again’.

We have to hold them.” As well as their loved ones, they have lost the means of

survival for those who must go on. One woman, Laki Akhter, told me that after the storm, many women found that even their clothes had been washed away.

“Some of us had to use leaves to cover ourselves. The men were shining torches, but we had to tell them to turn them off, so we could hide our bodies.”

Concern was the first international organisation on the ground after the cyclone. It had been working in the region since 2006 on projects to build up the capacity of local organisations to prepare for disasters. With its strong local connections, it was

able to carry out a rapid assessment of the damage in the two days immediately after the cyclone.

Within a week, it was able to deliver food, blankets, soap, water purification tablets, tarpaulin and clothes to the 26,000 families it has identified as the most vulnerable. Now, the work of rehabilitation is underway – boring new wells, building houses, providing seeds for re-planting.

Concern is also working with its partners to put local disaster management committees in place to plan for the next time and try to avoid the worst effects. It is, for example, distributing radios to local leaders, so that they can keep in touch with storm warnings

and, in turn, give reliable information to their communities.

Even in the midst of this devastation, people are trying to think about the future. In another village, Padma, I saw the local school – a pile of flattened concrete and plaster slabs, shattered by the wind.

The schoolmaster Mohammed Shah Alam tells me that he had to swim down here on the morning after the cyclone to find his school gone. Of his 120 pupils, 24

were gone too, drowned in the tidal surge. He knew the school was at risk, he says, because the protective embankment had been eroded.

He had pleaded with the authorities to rebuild it, but no one listened, because the people here don’t matter very much. Now, he has reopened a temporary

school a few hundreds metres inland. But he wants a new school built on higher land

that could double as a cyclone shelter.

Hearing that Concern was visiting with a foreign journalist, the master has prepared, in painstaking English, a short essay explaining what he and the children need. It is headed “Nobody knows the sorrows of a Sidr victim school”. He gives it to me, happy, he says, that people will know now. And when people know, he feels, how could they

not help?