Western media mentioned Sidr as a severe cyclonic storm with core of hurricane winds to explain the scale of its danger. We were lucky as Sidr did not hit the coast during high tide, causing less surge of water. Otherwise, it might cause more fatalities.
The then-chief of the international humanitarian organisation Red Crescent Bangladesh said Sidr left 10,000 people dead while the government said the tally was about 6,000. It is nothing new to have debate and difference on death toll. Everyone’s assessment did not come out same due to various reasons and pressures.
Sidr left a huge toll on infrastructures. Homes were washed away by tidal surge. Cattle were dead. Crops were destroyed. A humanitarian crisis occurred.
Trail of Sidr, its devastating impact
The sky was cloudy across the country on 13 November 2007. The Met Office at first issued signal no. 5 and raised it to danger signal no. 8 by the night of 14 November. Wind might blow at a speed of 89 kilometres or more an hour, the Met Office said.
A signal no. 8 indicates the severe storm would cross the port from right side. Ports, ships and Met Offices easily understand the meaning of this signal, people do not. However, shelter centres become full by the evening of 14 November 2007.
There was no rain in the next morning. Many people returned home. Meantime, Sidr weakened for a while and then started crossing again. And if a cyclone stops at midway it is a sign of great danger. It accumulates more power and then wreaks havoc.
It was announced after the morning of 15 November that cyclone Sidr was approaching Bangladesh and would cross the coastal area by the noon. People who returned home in the morning did not pay heed to the announcement. So, many of them stayed home and did not take refuge at shelter centres again.
The wind speed started rising after the evening. Sidr first hit Dublar Char near Sundarbans around 9:00 pm. It then crossed the coast near Baleshwari river in Barguna’s Patharghata. Sidr wreaked havoc at the coastal area of Barishal and Khulna divisions. It ripped through 31 districts of the country including Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Patuakhali, Bhola, Satkhira, Lakhsimpur and Jhalakathi.
Heavy rainfalls and gusts occurred across the country in the impact of Sidr. Trees were uprooted. Since power system collapsed in the country, water supply system broke in cities.
Bagerhat and Barguna districts were the worst hit due to Sidr. Records of the government show Sidr left 908 dead and 11,428 injured in Bagerhat and 1,345 dead and 156 missing in Barguna.
Sarankhola of Baghergat was the worst hit upazila while Southkhali union of Sarankhola was the worst hit union. Besides, there was an acute crisis of drinking water in most of the area of Bagerhat’s Morelganj and Mongla upazilas.
People were buried at mass graves due to lack of land in the Sidr-hit area. Many dead bodies were unidentified. Bodies were buried wrapping with polythene due to lack of shrouds. Human skeletons and remains were recovered from jungles, paddy fields, chars, embankments, tree roots even after a month. Many people came to their relatives after many days. Many people lost memories and could not return home.
Tale of missing persons
Records of the government show 1,001 people had been missing after Sidr but coastal people said the actual number was double or even more.
If the body of a person is not found, the person is not considered a deceased in accordance with the laws. Family is not eligible to receive compensation. Wives of the missing fishermen pass rest of life as widow. 46 fishermen who had gone missing during Sidr have not been declared dead as yet. And none of them has returned home either.
Masura Begum is from Badurtala of Patharghata. Her husband fisherman Zakir Hossain had gone missing during Sidr. Masura Begum could not educate her four daughters. One of the daughters has died. She was compelled to marry off other three daughters at early age. Since her husband is missing, Masura Begum is not eligible for a widow allowance.
Mohammad Hasan is a student of class 8 at Bari Azad Secondary School in Patharghata. He lost his father during Sidr. He has no memory of his father. He learnt walking in 2007. His mother told him that his father would teach him how to walk on their home yard. He is grateful to his mother since she did not leave him and got married again. Had his father been alive he would have not lagged behind in study due to lack of a smartphone during the coronavirus pandemic. His mother Marzina receives no allowance. Being a day labourer, she bears the expense of her son’s education. Many women like Marzina are trying to survive by their own.
Hossain Ali, not his real name, went to the sea for fishing two days before Sidr. He set sail at early hours of that day while his 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son were asleep. Hossain Ali has not returned in 14 years. And his wife Aziza Begum, not her real name, started a new struggle in her life in 2007. Aziza has educated her two children. Her daughter now works at a state-owned bank and her son will enrol at honours now.
The return of the missing
Sohel Hossain, 28, son of Insan Ali is from Ghatkhali village of Amtali. He returned home nine years after he went missing during Sidr. He cannot speak now. No body know how and from where he returned home. Family treated him after the man returned home but no significant progress happened.
Fisherman Hanif Gazi from Tentulbaria of Barguna’s Taltali came back 10 years after Sidr. One day a mentally imbalanced person was roaming around in Tentulbaria and Jolayvanga area. Certain Shukkur Gazi took that person home to feed him. After that, women of the house identified Hanif Gazi as the missing person.
Hanif Gazi’s father Menser Gazi did not identified his son at first sight. Later he ensured his son’s identity after seeing the burn marks on Hanif Gazi’s abdomen and a black mark on the back. Like Sohel Hossain, Hanif Gazi cannot speak too. Now he can say his father’s name a little bit.
A family from Pirojpur took a mentally imbalanced person from Sarankhola Bazar last year. The youth had been roaming around in the roads of Sarankhola for 13 years.
Why no social protection
Various children rights organisations of the country took initiatives to keep children of the parents missing during the cyclone to their closed relatives for the growth of those children. UNICEF also stepped forward. The women affairs ministry led the programme later.
‘Amader Shishu’ (Our Children) programme assists many children of the missing fishermen to continue their education. Some of them completed their study successfully. Not all children did so. Many children were married off at early age. Many were compelled to engage in child labour. They have gone missing from the government list.
Besides cyclones, many fishermen are dying in accident while going for fishing in the sea. They are considered as missing. Is it very difficult to bring them under an insurance scheme? Why do the wives of the missing persons not receive any assistance under social protection? Why will people like Hanif, Shoel or Kasem who had gone missing during cyclone roam around on streets for eight or nine years in Bangladesh, which is a role model in disaster management?
*Gowhar Nayeem Wahra is a writer and researcher.
*This article appeared in the print and the online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Hasanul Banna