/ 22 November 2007

Devoured by the sea: Victims share their stories

As waves engulfed her shanty home, Rahima Begum struggled desperately to keep her two-year-old son’s head above the water. Then she told her husband she could not hold on any longer.

”She was wearing a sari which made swimming difficult. She was drowning under the huge waves. She said she was going and asked me to take care of our son,” said Khalilur Rahman Hawlader, now a widower.

As well as his wife, the 30-year-old fisherman lost 10 more family members, including his parents, all his siblings and a daughter in last Thursday’s cyclone.

His surviving daughter sits crying on his lap as he recounts his story.

”She vanished in a minute,” he said of his wife. ”I almost drowned trying to look for her. But then I started swimming, taking my daughter on my back and my son in one hand.”

Hawlader, carrying the children with him, swam for more than three hours before all three found themselves tossed into mangrove forest.

”It was the strongest current I’ve ever known. It was dark and there was no sign of any house in our village,” he said.

”Twice my son slipped away from my hand, but I caught him before the waves could devour him.”

One of the worst cyclones in disaster-prone Bangladesh’s history was accompanied by a 6m tidal wave.

Nearly 3 500 people are confirmed dead and thousands more remain missing. Millions have been left homeless and in urgent need of food and clean water.

Like much of Bangladesh’s southern coast, Ashar Char, an impoverished island in the Bay of Bengal, was flattened by cyclone Sidr.

About 241 islanders died and 500 are unaccounted for.

Nearly a week after the cyclone hit, bodies are still being found.

The sandy banks and beaches of the island are where thousands of migrant workers come every year to find low-paid work drying fish.

”I was inside the house when the wind began. I looked at the sky and saw a huge fire heading towards us,” said Ramdas Sarker (50).

”But as I ran towards the village, the waves caught me and threw me into a tree. I was hurt badly in the chest, but survived the dreadful night without any clothes on the tree-top,” said Sarker.

The fate of hundreds of other migrant fish dryers might never be known as the local government authorities do not register people who come to the island to work.

”We don’t know how many of them were here when the cyclone hit. Their number may be hundreds or thousands. Their bodies could be buried in the jungles or washed away into the sea,” said Dulal Farazi, the chairman of the local council.

Hawlader said he took some comfort from being able to bury his family.

”At least I know that they are resting in peace,” he said.

”But the relatives of my colleagues who came here from all over the country will never know what happened to their dear ones,” he said. – AFP