Cyclone in Bangladesh left tragedy in its wake

May 05, 1991|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,Los Angeles Times

RAHAMATPUR, Bangladesh -- Rahamatpur means "blessin

of God" in Arabic, but for Minul Islam Belal and his neighbors, this impoverished hamlet now seems cursed from hell. Mr. Belal's entire extended family -- 35 people in all -- was washed out to sea or crushed under falling buildings when Tuesday's cyclone smashed ashore here with unimaginable force.

"Why do I live and they all die?" Mr. Belal, a 28-year-old farmer, asked yesterday. "What do I have to live for? This is my question. This is my tragedy."

The tragedy is far worse. The government now says at least 125,000 people were killed in the savage storm and fierce 18-foot-high tidal surge. Estimates are as high as 300,000 dead on the crowded southeast coastal delta and islands.

Here on Sandwip Island, which bore the brunt of the storm's fury as it roared across the Bay of Bengal, a strange calm pervades a muddy, water-soaked land of death and destruction. Local officials say at least 25,000 people are dead or missing. Four out of five homes -- mostly mud and thatch huts -- are flattened, with most other buildings badly damaged. Fertile fields are flooded with salt water; thousands of cattle are dead. Most food stocks, water wells, communications and even drugs in the simple hospital were destroyed.

"Already there is cholera," said Dr. Shishir Ranjan Das. "My hospital is already full with cholera. And so many people are suffering diarrhea. But no medicine. Just mental prescriptions -- suggestions and advice."

Despite mass graves dug in the mud, bloated bodies still litter the flooded fields. On one stream, a fisherman cast his net and a womanfilled a tin pot with muddy water 20 yards from where a woman and two children lay sprawled on the bank,their naked corpses yellow and black in the steamy tropical heat. Nearby, Abdul Hanan, 50 and nearly toothless, grabbed a visitor's arm and pleaded softly for help. He had lost 10 family members, including seven children, in the swirling seas.

"I cannot even cry," he said.

A seven-mile hike through three villages showed most huts were turned to matchsticks. Thousands of homeless are crammed into a three-story concrete college building, cooking food in the classrooms.

Others used long bamboo poles to pull scores of decomposing cattle carcasses from the fields. A salty breeze carried the stench of death.

Two hundred tons of rice stored in a local government warehouse has been distributed. But 500 tons was destroyed, and relief operations have barely begun.

The military has only two helicopters and two small cargo planes to ferry supplies to more than 5 million people believed homeless in the 100-mile stretch of coastline from Feni to Chittagong and down to Cox's Bazar, said Maj. Gen. Mahmudul Hasan, head of the Chittagong cantonment. And barely half the area has been surveyed so far.

"I am feeling so guilty, I don't feel like showing my face to people," General Hasan said.

He said large-scale distribution of food and water is impossible in vast areas where floodwaters cover the land, and countless raging rivers braid the brown mud. The water is too shallow for boats and too deep for trucks.

"It is not only the persons who have died," Hasan said. "For them we can do nothing. It is the persons who are living. Now they are dying of starvation and diarrhea."

At least 1,000 people died in Rahamatpur, one-sixth of the population. Musadik Ul Mowla, 22, lost seven family members.

"I was washed away by the water," he said, staring blankly ahead. "And I landed on a building. That saved my life."

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