Tragedy unfolds in Bangladesh

Four days after super cyclone Sidr killed more than 2 500 people in Bangladesh, rescuers were struggling to reach isolated areas along the country’s devastated coast and give aid to millions of survivors.

“The tragedy unfolds as we walk through one after another devastated village,” said relief worker Mohammad Selim in Bagerhat, one of the worst-hit areas. “Often it looks like we are in a valley of death.”

Media reports and the chairperson of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, Mohammad Abdur Rob, said the death toll had already surpassed 3 000, and was likely to go up. The government put the official toll at 2 506 confirmed dead.

“We are trying to reach all the affected areas on the vast coastline as soon as possible, then we will know how many people exactly have died,” one government official said.

While it will take several days to determine the number of dead and missing, about three million survivors who were either evacuated from the low-lying southern coast or whose homes and villages were destroyed will need support, the government said.

Aid workers fear inadequate supplies of food, drinking water and medicine could lead to outbreaks of disease.

Grieving families begged for clothes to wrap around the bodies of dead relatives for burial.
In some areas, they put corpses in mass graves.

Reuters reporters said bodies were being discovered by the hour in the rivers and paddy fields and under piles of debris.

Climbing trees to escape waves

Military ships and helicopters were trying to reach thousands of people believed stranded on islands in the Bay of Bengal and in coastal areas still cut off by the devastating storm.

World Vision, one of many non-governmental groups working to help the cyclone survivors, said on Monday about 1 000 fishermen were still unaccounted for.

“Many of us climbed up on trees in the Sundarban forest, but I fell down in panic when I saw a tiger below,” said a fisherman on Dublarchar island. “The waves then swept me further into the mangrove and I found myself alive when the cyclone was over.”

The Sundarban forest, home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and a world heritage site, was badly hit. A forest official said the cyclone damaged trees over about 30 000 hectares, but could not say how many animals were killed.

Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, foreign affairs adviser to the country’s army-backed interim government, said on Monday the authorities had taken all measures to prepare for the cyclone.

“Despite these steps, appalling damage has occurred, the assessment of which is still on-going,” he said in a statement. “We will welcome support from the international community.”

India said it would send a comprehensive relief package.

“This package will consist of medicine, food items, milk powder, tents and blankets, first-aid kits and other relief items,” Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament.

No proper funeral

Cyclone Sidr smashed into the coast of southern Bangladesh late on Thursday with 250km/h winds that whipped up a 5m tidal surge.

In its wake, bodies of people and animals floated down rivers and the stench of death filled the air. Relatives tried to identify and bring them ashore, before burying them hurriedly without proper ceremonies.

Officials in affected areas say the death toll given by the ministry is far below the real numbers. Aid agencies have said the toll could rise beyond 10 000.

“Some 2 000 people have died in my area alone,” said Anwar Panchayet in Bagerhat district. The storm was the worst to hit disaster-prone Bangladesh since 1991 when nearly 143 000 people died in a cyclone and the tidal surge it triggered.

A much improved disaster preparedness plan, including storm shelters built all along the coastline, has been credited with saving hundreds of lives.

“The extent of destruction is unimaginable,” Reuters cameraman Rafiqur Rahman reported from a coastal village.

“In the 7km I trekked this morning, I saw not a single house standing,” he said. “Only a few leafless trees and a couple of dogs reminded me it was once a village”

Unicef said cyclone Sidr had affected 3,2-million people and put one million in shelters.

“Many children are finding themselves in difficult circumstances without food, shelter and safety—they have suffered loss or separation from their parents (following the cyclone),” Louis-Georges Arsenault, Unicef representative in Bangladesh, said in a statement.

Two United States navy amphibious assault ships with helicopters, the USS Essex and the USS Kearsarge, were sailing to Bangladesh to help in relief and rescue operations. - Reuters

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