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Bihar, 24 September 2008 : Reuniting survivors of Bihar floods

© UNICEF/ 2008
Reena Kumari who was found stranded on a hilltop in Triveniganj is now attending school

Priyanka Khanna

Supaul, Bihar, 24 September 2008: Over a month after the mighty Kosi river breached a barrage on the Indo-Nepal border and inundated vast areas in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, the search for loved ones is narrowing and survivors are getting help to cope with their new reality.

The Government of Bihar, supported by UNICEF and non-government organizations such as Save the Children, the Indian Red Cross and Jeevika (Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project) has launched a joint initiative 'Sambal' meaning support, to reunite separated families and assist communities to create a supportive and protective environment for flood victims, especially the most vulnerable children and women.

'Sambal' aims at tracing families and reuniting them, preventing trafficking and abuse and providing psychosocial support for victims in the worst-affected districts of Araria, Supaul, Saharsa, Madhepura and Purnia. "The initiative is undertaken as any large-scale displacement leads to breakdown in family and social structures all of which contribute to making the situation of women and children more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation," said UNICEF’s State Representative for Bihar, Bijaya Rajbhandari. Hundreds of flood survivors are reportedly separated from their families and incidents of child trafficking have been reported ever since people were displaced by the floods. Hundreds of flood survivors are reportedly separated from their families and incidents of child trafficking have been reported ever since people were displaced by the floods.

The unsettled river that brings silt and icy-cold waters from some of the highest and youngest mountains in the world, including the Mount Everest, has a tainted history of causing large-scale devastation. Local legend says that Kosi was Himalaya's daughter but was rejected, and spent her life in a flood of tears. Unlike most rivers, Kosi has a very high amount of silt which damages fertile land.

About 4.57 million people in 18 districts have been affected due to the inundation in the state with five districts - Supaul, Saharsa, Madhepura, Purnea and Araria being the worst affected. According to Pratyaya Amrit, Additional Commissioner, Bihar Disaster Management Department, "Over 3.21 million people of 1,021 villages have been severely affected in these districts out of which 0.80 million are children between 0-9 years."

The government has put the total human death toll at 125 but mourners narrating their tales or woe in cramped and anxiety-struck relief camps say they have seen many people swooped away by the brutal current. "I saw people of my village being carried away by the current. One woman went into labour and drowned as she could not climb any rooftop," says locally-elected village representative, Ram Harianand.

© UNICEF/ 2008
Anita Kumari who is yet to find her parents, at a government relief camp

What sets this tragedy apart from routine flooding is the suddenness and the brute force of the water resulting in separation and shock. Manu Devi, who is now in a government relief camp in Supaul, has lost her husband to Kosi's fury but is in denial. "He left me and my child at the railway station and went back to the house to retrieve our belongings. He will come back soon," she says.  Manu's relative who went in says "I have seen my brother's body but she does not believe me". Manu's baby girl has developed a serious ear infection and neighbours are concerned that the child is devoid of the attention she needs.

Just as heart wrenching is the story of eight-year-old Reena Kumari who was rescued by neighbours from a hill top in Triveniganj, Supaul, where she was stranded and alone. Reena is yet to find her parents. There are young adolescent separated girls like 12-year-old Anita Kumari who are living with relatives, themselves financially not well-off. Such girls are at high risk of being trafficked as the flooded area is traditionally a hot-bed for trafficking. Though her gratitude towards her present caretakers does not let her say much, her melancholy eyes are a giveaway of the pain she feels. "I am fine. Very well looked after but no one is looking for my parents. I don't even have their picture," says the petite girl with eyes now run dry. 

Over 400 community volunteers have been mobilized to meet with people in camps and communities, create a database of separated families and help them reunite. Counsellors and trained government teachers are also available to extend support. Experiences such as these bring to the fore the need to rebuild cohesiveness among community members which can be done through psychosocial interventions. To this end, over 400 community volunteers have been mobilized to meet with people in camps and communities, create a database of separated families and help them reunite. Counsellors and trained government teachers are also available to extend support. Special attention is paid to children who are separated or unaccompanied and where necessary the social welfare department will address their rehabilitation concerns. The overall monitoring of the project will be done by the Department of Social Welfare with support from UNICEF.
 
For people like Manu Devi, Reena Kumari, Anita Kumari, the initiative is just in time.

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