The wretched of Bangladesh

Sydney Schanberg

May 20, 1991|By Sydney Schanberg

SOMETIMES THE WORLD landscape is filled with so many man-made and natural disasters that the mind, overwhelmed, chooses to blur them together. We distant observers do this because we feel helpless, and because it is less painful to think about mass tragedy halfway around the globe than to relate to the stark and particular miseries of individuals who, but for chance, could be ourselves.

On April 30, a cyclone swept up the Bay of Bengal and pushed a tidal wave at least 20 feet high across the islands and vulnerable coastline of Bangladesh. Only the strong and the lucky survived.

This was not an average cyclone-tidal wave for the Bangladesh delta. Hardly a year passes there without a storm that takes 3,000 lives or 10,000 or sometimes 20,000 or 30,000. The storm last month killed, at last count and rising, 140,000 people. Four million were left homeless and near starvation.

Each time these natural furies strike that un-blessed region, my mind is sent churning back to an earlier time when an even more hellish storm swept across that delta and I, based in neighboring India, went in to cover the disaster.

It was November 1970, and the death toll then was at least 300,000 and possibly as high as 500,000. No official count was taken, and thousands of bodies were swept out to sea as the tidal wave receded with a roar from the mainland, just as violent on its way out as on its way in.

The images I hold in my memory are doubtless no different from the scenes of all the other storms that have struck that wretchedly poor place. Yet I have the urge to share them with others, at the risk of causing still more minds to glaze and eyes to blur.

There is the memory of Aminul Huq, 14. He was the lone survivor of a family of 20 on Shakuchia Island. His eyes stare vacantly. He walks as if in a trance. Sometimes he falls to the ground in a faint.

Aminul does not look at the foreigner who questions him. He looks into the distance and drones: "The whole world is blank. When I try to think of what lies ahead, my head spins and I cannot stand up. From inside I want to cry, but I cannot."

Aminul after the storm goes to live with an uncle. But every day he wanders to his father's grave and stands there and asks passers-by to kill him and bury him there.

Other survivors drift even more completely into madness. An old man on Jabbar Island who lost 52 of his relatives collects the bodies, digs a grave and buries them together. Now he sits on the grave and shouts over and over again, "Here is my family!"

Selfishness and greed are also memories. When the first relief workers arrive on Manpura Island, male villagers besiege them not only for food and clothing but also, after a day or so, for more women from the outside. They want to replace their lost wives immediately because a woman is a necessity here: She cooks the food, husks the harvested rice and tends the livestock and children. She is chattel.

Some survivors refuse to help bury the bodies of strangers unless they are paid. Others, after their initial hunger is satisfied, take the same mercenary attitude toward unloading the relief goods.

Beggars arrive from the outside, hoping to cash in on the relief supplies. Still other outsiders show up; their avaricious purpose is to seize the land of families who have perished.

Life goes on. Shared disasters do not automatically convert scratch-poor populations to spirituality and good deeds.

Why do I hold onto these 20-year-old images? I think because they help keep me grounded. They remind me of earthly realities we often prefer to repress.

The reality, for instance, that we are of the animal kingdom, no matter how much energy we expend cloaking over this truth with the patina of technological advancement. The reality that for all our science, we are much more advanced at destroying lives through war than at saving them by restraining the forces of nature. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves are still beyond our control. The reality that though the world has become more interconnected, the links between rich and poor nations remain tenuous.

When the developed, industrial world is being honest with itself, it knows that though it provides substantial relief aid when these disasters occur, it feels little kinship with Third World countries like Bangladesh. We in America look at the disaster photos in the newspaper and read the statistics about life in Bangladesh, and it may as well be another planet.

Statistics: In 1970, the year of the earlier tidal wave, the population of Bangladesh was 75 million. When the latest storm struck, 20 years later, it was 120 million, an increase of 60 percent. Bangladesh is about the size of Wisconsin. Less than 5 million people live in Wisconsin.

The Bangladeshis know that they might as well live on another planet. They know that other nations will not lift them from wretched poverty. That is why they have come to say fatalistically, every time a terrible storm or epidemic strikes, that it was the will of Allah, punishing them for their sins.

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