1 June 2009

Hungry, they wait for help

An elderly woman waiting in line for relief materials at Sripur
of Pratapnagar in Assasuni upazila of Satkhira yesterday tries
to have a better look at how long the queue is...
"My time has come, perhaps I will die this time round.” Sixty-five-year-old Santosh Mondol let out a sigh as he spoke the words. In the tiny makeshift shack he has managed to put up on the damaged embankment in Jhapa village, his future didn't look good. Like other Aila affected people in the village, Santosh too has lost his house and entire life's belongings. With the few kilograms of rice he could salvage, a few utensils and his cattle, he has followed the other survivors to shelter on the embankment -- the only place not submerged under water. Staring blankly at the Kholpetua river-- once the lifeline of the village -- and now the reason behind their fate, Santosh doesn't know if he can start all over again. The old man is not alone in his miseries. But that is no consolation for him, or any other survivor of Cyclone Aila. They barely have anything to eat and almost nothing to look forward to. A small village with around 2,675 people, Jhapa under Shyamnagar upazila, stands on the banks of river Kholpetua. The villagers are poor people who earned a living working as labourers at the shrimp enclosures in the area. The entire village is now under waist deep water, survivors from Jhapa, as well as villages as far as Pakhimara to Choddoroshi, have sought shelter on the 12 km long embankment stretch. Some help has arrived for the villagers in the form of food but the lack of safe drinking water in this heat, and sanitation facilities have led to worse crises. On top of this, robbers come in boats at night to snatch away their few remaining belongings. “We work the whole day, trying to keep up this makeshift shacks and get food and water for our families. Then at night we cannot sleep in fear of robbers, what will become of us?" asked Kalipada Mondol. Robbers have already looted on Chittaranjan Mridha's house on Saturday night and taken away his last possessions. They also looted the houses of Bikash Chandra Mridha in Jhapa village and Nurul Islam in Patakhali a day ago. Anju Rani Mridha, 16, said she hasn't slept in days from fear of the robbers. “The fear sets in as soon as the sun goes down,” the young girl said in quiet voice. "Where can we go?" The men have taken to guarding the embankment in turns at night. “We would be grateful if the law enforcing agencies patrol the river at night,” they said. Swapna Rani Mondol has little time to worry as she has young ones to feed. She showed this correspondent the rotten rice she was trying to dry on the embankment for her children. "The rotten rice stinks. Tell me brother, can anyone eat this rotten lot? And with just salt to go with it? " she asked. She forced her younger child to eat this rice, though he refused because of the stench, and he ended up with severe diarrhoea. The survivors say they urgently need drinking water and security. Kishore Raptan, an advocate with the Khulna Bar, said the tubewells in the cyclone shelter are not working and the villagers are forced to drink dirty water. Only one of the tubewells in the villages works but it pumps out salty water as the village is still partially under salty water. The water levels rise with the high tide and enter the villages through the five broken points in the embankment. Prashanta Kumar, head master of Uttar Jhapa Registered Primary school, said many people took shelter at the school and cyclone shelter as they fear the damaged embankment might collapse if another storm lashes. Many people have left the area for the same, he said. The embankment was badly damaged at five separate points during the cyclone and now is overcrowded with hundreds of people. Jhapa Union Parishad Member Swapan Kumar Gain said every one of the inhabitants of this union was affected by the cyclone. He said the helpless villagers were trying to repair the smaller cracks on the embankment but repairing the larger ones was beyond them. He said the helpless survivors have no option but to wait for the government to come to their rescue. They just hope it will come before more parts of the embankment give away.