By Akram Hosen
On 21 May, Tropical Cyclone Roanu made landfall on the coast of southern Bangladesh, forcing half a million people to flee their homes. Twelve-year-old Swapna and her family are among the displaced. Together with their community, they are searching for remnants of their old lives while trying to piece together their future.
|Parvin Akhter, 45, looks blankly at the boats approaching the river bank near Choumohoni Bazar in Bholaikandi Village. She lost her husband in the cyclone, and her sons continue to search for him out on the river.|
BHOLAIKANDI, Bhola District, Bangladesh, 26 July 2016 – Swapna, 12, and her grandmother Bibi Hajera, 60, often come to a particular site on the bank of the Meghna River where their home used to be, searching for anything that can be used to build a new house.
When Swapna came back to her neighbourhood the day after Cyclone Roanu hit the area on 21 May, she could not believe that the entire neighbourhood – even the trees – had disappeared.
“I was completely shocked. There were torn tin sheets and pieces of wood scattered on the ground all over the area. My books, clothes and toys could not be seen anywhere in the vicinity”, she said.
Trails of devastation
The neighbourhood in Bholaikandi village in Tazumuddin upazila (sub-district) of Bhola district, located on the bank of Meghna River, had about 50 households and twice as many trees before the cyclone lashed the country’s Barisal-Khulna-Chittagong coastal region.
In this neighbourhood alone, about 300 people, more than half of whom are children, became homeless, according to the member of local Union Parishad Mizan Poddar.
In the coastal region, at least 27 people were killed, 13 others went missing, and many people were injured by the cyclone. Thousands of people left their homes for safety ahead of the storm. Houses and trees near the coastline collapsed or were swept away by waves, killing and injuring people.
Like Swapna, children from hundreds of neighbourhoods were displaced after the devastation.
Education takes a backseat
“After losing our house, my grandma took me to her house in a village far away from my school, making it quite impossible for me to attend school anymore”, Swapna said during a recent visit to her neighbourhood.
As there wasn't enough room for more people in her grandmother’s house, her parents had to move in with her father’s cousin who lives further inland.
|Villagers keen to protect the damaged road leading to the pontoon as ferries anchor. Before the cyclone, Bholaikandi Village was a predominantly fishing community.|
“I hope my parents will be able to build a new house here so that I can live with them again”, she said with rays of hope in her eyes.
At first glance, it is difficult to imagine that the area used to be home to about 60 families. On the river bank, the villagers made a pile of corrugated iron sheets and wooden pillars that can be used to rebuild houses. Fishing boats – a lifeline in this fishing village – were broken and swept inland by the floods caused by the cyclone.
“My father’s boat was broken by a tree felled by the wind. I think my parents are starving after losing the only means of earning”, Swapna said.
Appalling living conditions
While the devastation in the area may seem unsettling, a strong stench of human waste makes it almost unapproachable. The villagers who don't have any relatives to offer them shelter are forced to defecate in the open as there is a severe crisis of toilets. They sleep in tents made of clothes and pieces of tin sheets.
“We are like animals, defecating in the place where we live”, said a girl aged about 15, who preferred not to be named.
In another part of the neighborhood, Parvin Akhter, 45, is looking at the boats arriving at the harbour. Her two sons went to an island in the middle of the Meghna River estuary to search for their father, who went missing after the cyclone.
Her youngest son Hashim, 12, is a Standard V student, while the oldest son Bablu, 16, used to help his father on the fishing boat.
“I have no hope of finding their father alive. But the children don't listen to reason and go in search for him every day”, Parvin said, sobbing.
She thinks Hashim will not be able to continue his schooling as “there are more pressing needs in the family now”.
“I don't even know whether I’ll be able to feed him, let alone sending him to school”, she said.
|Swapna, 12, and her grandmother Bibi Hajera, 60, stand on the very ground where their house used to stand before it was washed away by the cyclone. They often return to this area to scavenge for materials to use for building a new house.|
Her husband Billal Miah, 50, was fishing with eight other people in the river when the storm came. After their boat capsized, all except Billal were rescued.
Scarcity of food, above anything else, is the worst crisis in the lives of people living on the river bank.
On approaching the neighbourhood, some 20 children aged between 10 and 16 gathered and said their parents weren’t able to buy enough food for them as their fishing boats were broken. All of them said they have not been going to school since the storm – either because their books had washed away or they were too upset to attend classes.
UNICEF has come forward with a wide range of mitigation measures to help overcome the perils faced by the cyclone-affected people. These include water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), nutrition, child protection and education measures implemented jointly with non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations and government counterparts.
The WASH response covers hygiene kit distribution, locally made sanitary napkins distribution among the adolescent girls and young women, disinfection of tube wells, replacement and repair of latrines, and facilitation of hygiene promotion sessions in the four most affected unions of Tajumuddin and Charfassion Upaziila in the Bhola district.
UNICEF is supporting 16 government hospitals in the affected districts and has stepped up nutrition activities to screen over 6,000 children for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in Chittagong and Bhola districts. A total of 266 under-five children are already receiving treatment for SAM.
In order to ensure a safe and protective environment for the children and adolescents, six Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs) have been established in the most affected areas. They will be available to 400 children and adolescents in the displaced or most affected families.
Many schools have been either totally or partially damaged by the cyclone. Support to approximately 160 damaged schools and 10 Early Learning Centres in affected areas will benefit a total of 30,000 children. UNICEF has already initiated repairs of 30 schools benefiting more than 5,500 children, and will provide school materials to 9,300 students who lost theirs during the disaster.