Shattered Lives for Bangladeshis Behind the Shattered Sea Wall With PM-Bangladesh-The
May. 11, 1991
Shattered Lives for Bangladeshis Behind the Shattered Sea Wall With PM-Bangladesh-The Survivors
CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (AP) _ A half-mile inland from what used to be this city's embankment, Piyer Hamed smoothed a carpet of muddy grains of rice on a dry patch of ground next to where his house used to stand.
His family had retrieved the rice, handful by handful, even grain by grain, from pools of sea water swept inland by last week's cyclone.
The embankment that was supposed to protect the 3 million people of this bustling river port from tidal waves is now a heap of mud, level with the sea in dozens of places. The 18-foot-high wall was simply too short: the tidal wave from the furious cyclone was 20 feet high.
Hamed said the salty water and mud had probably ruined the rice, but it was all that was available to replace the food the family lost in the storm.
''We don't know if we can eat it or not, but we're trying. We'll dry it, then we'll wash the mud in clear water and see if it's edible,'' the 32-year- old Hamed said.
Clasping his 2-year-old son, Mohammad Elias, to his chest, Hamed said his immediate family had been lucky - they were alive.
''We floated on the roof of our house for maybe a half-mile and then it got stuck in the top of a coconut tree, and we stayed there all night until the water went down,'' he said. The roof, made of bamboo thatch, was an excellent raft, he added. ''If we'd had a tin roof, we'd be dead.''
Riding a wave of water about 10 feet high, Hamed and his wife clung to Mohammad and their 4-year-old daughter, Shahanaz. But somewhere along the way they lost a 5-month-old nephew, so young he hadn't even been named, as sometimes happens with poor families who wait for an auspicious time to formally bestow a name.
Most of the 125,000 people who died in the April 30 cyclone and tidal wave lived on or near a 150-mile stretch of seacoast west and south of Chittagong, which sits in a corner at the top of the Bay of Bengal.
On happier Fridays, the Islamic day of rest, the shore teemed with thousands of people in what seemed a carnival atmosphere.
The embankment was an improbable picnic spot. There was no sandy beach, just a reinforcement of slag from a nearby steel mill, but it was the best Chittagong had to offer for a seashore outing. The salty breezes provided a refreshing break from the steamy heat that envelopes Chittagong most of the year.
The wall also boosted the life of the villagers just behind it.
The middle-class families who perched in their Friday finery on the slag -porous gray rock-like lumps the size of basketballs - bought soft drinks, snacks and trinkets peddled by small boys and young men from the thatched-hut villages.
The vendors' meager profits usually assured their families of two meals of rice and vegetables a day, maybe even a little fish.
This Friday, 18-year-old Ataur Rahman was selling Coca-Cola and cigarettes from a table at the same spot he has held for six years. But he said his sales seemed unlikely to top $8, compared to the usual Friday sales of $42.
Only a few dollars will remain for profit after he subtracts the cost of his merchandise, the bus ticket he needed to buy it and the three-wheel motor scooter taxi he had to hire to haul it to the shore.
But Rahman said he was lucky. All 14 members of his family survived the tidal wave, even though their village of Fulchipara is barely 500 yards beyond the breached embankment.
''We're all OK,'' he said. ''I don't know how. The water came. It took everything. So many of my neighbors died.''
Indeed, the amazing thing about the cyclone, which raged ashore at 140 mph, seems to be not that so many people died and so many buildings fell, but that so many survived.
Among the dozens of people who trooped down to the muddy, storm-roiled coastal waters on Friday was Anwara Choudhury, a 21-year-old student nurse, and seven of her nursing school friends.
''It seems like the demise of civilization,'' she said as she picked her way through the mud in her best sandals, then turned to stare at the flooded fields and squashed huts of the villages behind her.
''We heard about the horror, so we came to see it,'' Miss Choudhury said. In the government circuit house on a hill that stayed above the tidal wave, Oli Ahmed, the Cabinet minister in charge of government coordination efforts for Chittagong, recalled the horrors - natural and manmade - that he has witnessed.
Ahmed, the minister of communications, said the cyclone was the worst he had ever seen.
''Even 100 atom bombs could not have done this damage to Bangladesh,'' said Ahmed, a former colonel who spent 22 years in the army and fought in Bangladesh's 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan.
''In war, possibly you see 100 people dying at a time. But here, more than 100,000 died in a few seconds,'' he said.