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As Water Recedes, Death Appears on Bangladesh’s Coast With PM-Bangladesh, Bjt

May 4, 1991

SONADEEP, Bangladesh (AP) _ A man wandered through a group of bloated, decomposing corpses strewn across a beach, peering at the faces. Then he murmured sorrowfully and moved on.

Wearing only a loose-fitting sarong, the middle-aged man covered his nose against the stench and approached another heap of bodies. But he did not find the face he was searching for.

Sonadeep, which means ″island of gold″ in Bengali, was home to 5,000 people before it was battered by Tuesday’s devastating cyclone. On Friday, only 2,000 islanders remained. The rest were dead or missing.

As water started to recede from remote islands in the Bay of Bengal, survivors began searching for missing family members.

″Most of the missing are presumed dead, since in Bangladesh’s close-knit society it is easier to account for the missing. We know each other very well,″ said Mohammad Zahir, a fisherman.

The official death toll from the cyclone neared 100,000 on Friday. Residents and local government officials predict the number could exceed 150,000 after communication is restored to all 65 stricken islands.

This reporter toured the region in a relief helicopter Friday, criss- crossing dozens of islands dotting the Bay of Bengal from Chittagong to Teknaf, near Bangladesh’s border with Burma.

Bodies lay strewn along the 110-mile coastal belt. In some places there were dozens of corpses lying in heaps, interspersed with the bloated bodies of cattle.

On Maheshkhali island, a lone woman stood amidst the rubble of her brick and cement home. No one else could be seen.

In other villages men were seen covering bodies with tree branches, apparently to hide the distressing sight from children.

No one attempted to bury the corpses, however. There was not enough dry land or equipment to dig. And Muslims, who make up about 88 percent of Bangladesh’s 110 million people, do not cremate their dead.

Men fought each other for the food dropped from the helicopter. A man on Kutubdia island clung to a large bag of unrefined sugar while about 50 others tried to wrest it from him. The man finally threw the bag on the ground and covered it with his body.

Teenagers waded through waist-deep water to gather tins of biscuits that missed their mark and fell in the water. Women waved at the helicopter, raising their hands in supplication.

On island after island, residents hoisted makeshift red flags to draw the attention of relief helicopters.

″We are trying our best, but we do not have enough resources,″ said Mohammad Samsher, the helicopter’s pilot. ″I have never seen devastation like this, it is as if hell has traveled to our land.″

Samsher attempted to land on a patch of dry land on one small island, but pulled the helicopter back into the air after hundreds of grasping men stormed it, begging for food.

The men then stood expectantly below the helicopter as rice bags weighing as much as 220 pounds came hurtling down. Dozens of plastic water bottles were also dropped, some smashing as they hit the ground.

Dozens of fishermen were seen trying to catch fish in baskets or repairing their fishing nets. Women attempted to dry whatever rice they could salvage from storage.

″Clothes are a big probolem at the moment,″ said Karim Dad, director of the relief operation in Chittagong. ″Many women have only the dress they were wearing at the time of the cyclone.″

At Chittagong port, the lifeline of Bangladesh’s foreign trade, damage has been severe. Tidal waves rising up to 20 feet hit the airport, sending helicopters hurtling 1,000 yards.

All five Soviet-supplied MI-17 helicopters at the airport were damaged. About 20 of 32 Chinese-made F-6 jet fighters were also damaged.

As an AN-32 transport plane transporting journalists from Dhaka to Chittagong prepared to take off, about a dozen children approached.

″We have not eaten for three days, except for few biscuits and puffed rice,″ said 12-year-old Mohammad Lukman, who stood with his 6-year-old brother, Imran. ″Me and my brother want something to eat.″

Update hourly