Khatachira, Bangladesh: The wind whipped through the sky. The river swelled above the tree line. And in a flash, Mamataz Begum’s youngest child, barely two years old, was swept from her arms, as a tidal wave smashed through the fragile mud homes of this village and scooped up everything in its watery arms.
In this hamlet, on the southernmost fringe of Bangladesh, cut by rivers that empty into the Bay of Bengal, nothing was spared by the cyclone that ripped through here last Thursday.
Villagers walk on the heavily eroded coastline near the village of Khatachira, Tuesday, 20 November 2007, which was heavily damaged by Cyclone Sidr last week. The storm claimed relatively few lives in Khatachira but it left villagers in utter ruin. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
Barely a single house was standing. The meagre food stocks of the village were washed away.
Fishing boats and nets, a principal source of income, were gone. The paddy fields had filled up with brackish water.
On Tuesday, animal carcasses, stinking and bloated, lay scattered along the river bank. There was no drinking water left. A small bag of food from the government, the sole aid so far for this village of about 1,000 families, had run out.
The people of Khatachira were a testament to the bittersweet blessings of the latest natural calamity to befall Bangladesh. Relatively speaking, the death toll from the cyclone was small—nearly 3,500, according to latest official count, roughly double the death toll of Hurricane Katrina, but far less than the 140,000 killed in 1991 after the last cyclone hit Bangladesh.
Water woes: A woman walks through the mud on Tuesday 20 November, in Khatachira village which was heavily damaged by Cyclone Sidr last week. In this watery land, clean drinking water is in short supply. (Ruth Fredmon/NYT)
A main reason the toll was smaller was an early warning system that had urged people to head to shelters. But the cyclone left many more people in utter ruin. The government estimates that about four million people have been affected.
“The crisis is just beginning,” said Suman Islam, humanitarian assistance coordinator with the aid agency Care, which had sent its first relief assessment team here on Tuesday afternoon. “We have saved lives. But now, the challenge is the same.”
In Khatachira, near the edge of the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, villagers have so far buried 57 of their own, nearly half of them children under 10.
Many could not swim or cling to trees. On Tuesday morning, another body, that of a local woman, was found in the bush of a neighbouring village. All but seven people had been accounted for.
A boy surveys the wreckage on Tuesday, 20 November 2007, in the village of Khatachira which was heavily damaged by Cyclone Sidr last week. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
An old man, who lost his entire family, was still searching for the bodies of his two grandchildren. Another old man said his granddaughter, age eight, was still missing. A woman with a hideous gash on her right foot said four in her family had been killed, and five were left to carry on.
The nearest cyclone shelter was about two-and-a-half miles (about 4km) away, and had swelled well past capacity by the time most people in this village were ready to evacuate.
“See over there, that was our house,” said Muhammad Himayat, pointing at an open stretch of paddy. The house is gone, along with two dozen goats, two cows and three fishing boats that together were the family’s livelihood.
People walk through what is left of the market in the town of Sarankhola, Tuesday, 20 November 2007. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
Dysentery was the next demon aid workers were guarding against. In this watery land, clean drinking water is in short supply.
The ponds, from which many villagers get drinking water, are contaminated with rotting leaves and carcasses.
Toilets are rare, and the practice of defecating in the fields makes it easier for disease to spread.
A man tries to repair his fishing boat in the village of Khatachira, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
Food supplies remained woefully inadequate. “Hundreds of hands go up to grab just one food packet,” said a relief worker in the Patuakhali district.
The United Nations World Food Program has distributed nearly 100 tonnes of high-energy biscuits and is to begin delivering rice. The US has offered two C-130 transport planes and two amphibious naval vessels with helicopters to help the relief mission.
But delivering aid to places like Khatachira is not easy. Getting here means a long drive, crossing a narrow river whose only ferry has been destroyed, driving through a fetid market town that smells of dead flesh, and taking a two-hour boat ride along the Baleshwar river, afloat with dead goats and ducks.
Along the journey, one can see evidence of life limping back.
A Bangladeshi army engineer fills a drum with clean drinking water for residents in the Matbaria District of southern Bangladesh, Tuesday, 20 Nov 2007. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
A village government office, relatively untouched, has placed its documents on the front porch to dry.
A remote college has had its roof and walls blown off, but someone has neatly arranged the desks under the sun. The roads have been cleared of fallen logs.
The day after the cyclone, villagers here had hoisted red flags at the edge of the hamlet.
Abdul Rovmaster, 92, sits in the dirt among the wreckage of his destroyed village of Khatachira, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007, which was heavily damaged by Cyclone Sidr last week. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
On the edge of the water, near a tree whose roots were barely hanging onto the earth, stood a couple of cooking pots —remnants of Mamataz’s kitchen.
Her son’s body had washed up in another village, and they brought his corpse here. Her other children survived by clinging to trees. Her husband broke his leg as he swam through the waves.
On Tuesday, she was still dazed, and had no idea where the family’s next meal would come from.
“If God will feed us, we will eat,” she said.
©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES