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Dreams of Better Life Lead People to Storm-Endangered Islands

May 4, 1991

CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (AP) _ Dreams of owning a patch of land and the hope of eating at least one meal a day drive thousands of impoverished people to lead precarious lives on the vulnerable islands of Bangladesh.

Most of the silt islands off the east coast are just a few feet above sea level and become submerged in a normal monsoon tide in the Bay of Bengal. Every few years, a colossal cyclone or tropical storm kills thousands of people.

″To a foreigner, it almost looks like a death wish,″ said Mohammad Akram Bhuiyan, a government official in the port city of Chittagong. ″You need to live in Bangladesh to feel how difficult it is for the poor to survive, even in best of times.″

Tuesday’s devastating cyclone claimed at least 125,000 lives, by official count. More than 635,000 people have died in storms in the last 21 years alone.

The pressure on land is enormous in Bangladesh, a nation of 110 million people the size of Wisconsin. An average of about 2,000 people pack each square mile, the third-highest density in the world after Hong Kong and Singapore.

Sixty percent of the people are landless, hungry for even a tiny patch of territory. Reliable estimates say four of every five Bangladeshis live below the poverty line, meaning they cannot afford two meals a day of rice with some vegetables or a piece of fish. The per capita income is just $170 a year.

The islands, which are less crowded, seem an attractive alternative.

Rich landlords in Chittagong organize and encourage new settlers on remote islands. In return, the settlers are bound to give them a percentage from the fish catch.

Often the settlers turn into virtual slaves, through a bonded labor system where the debt to the landlord goes on increasing and becomes unpayable.

″So you see it is not just nature that plays with the lives of these poor people, but their fellow man also is cruel to them,″ said a government relief official in Chittagong, who asked not to be identified.

The islands’ romantic names belie the hardship and death many settlers find there. Nijhumdeep means Island of Silence, Sonadeep is Island of Gold, and Sonaimuri means Gold Cove.

″Tens of thousands of people migrate to the areas every year in search of a little land,″ said Karim Dad, one of the directors of the government’s Relief Ministry.

The government estimates that 200,000 poor people are displaced by floods in the Meghna, Yamuna and Padma rivers every year. Some come to cities and live in slums, but most go to the islands in search of new homes.

Especially attractive to settlers are smaller islands newly created by the silt from the three mighty Himalayan rivers that empty into the bay.

Settlers make huts from palm leaves, stitch together a fishing net and ferry fresh water from other islands.

″Many of them know the danger, but still they migrate in thousands,″ Dad said. ″Some die horrible deaths, as they did this week.″

″Before we came here life was very very difficult,″ said Mohammad Kabir,″ a 30-year-old settler on Sonadeep, one of the worst affected islands along the 250-mile-long coastal belt that was hit by the storm. ″Since we came here three years ago we often had fish and we had rice.″

But his family paid a terrible price. Kabir, who had come to the island from Dhaka, lost his two daughters in the catastrophe.

The storms are not the only peril in the islands. In 1980, relations between India and Bangladesh were strained when they both claimed a newly emerged island. New islands often witness bloody clashes when rival groups fight for possession.

″Here we live with death,″ sighed a resident of Kutubdia island. ″There is no escape.″

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