Bamboo Bridges and Blessings
by Damaris Frick
ON the night of 15 November 2007 Cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh, leaving behind a trail of devastation. According to the Government of Bangladesh 3,347 people lost their lives, nearly 40,000 were injured and hundreds are still missing. An astonishing 8.9 million people (two million families) were affected. Nearly 564,000 houses were completely destroyed and another 885,280 partly damaged. In addition, more than two million acres of crops were damaged and at least 1.25 million livestock animals are known to have been killed.
|Damaris (in the distance) and Major Mike Caffull cross a precarious bamboo bridge|
|Maya Bala shows where her house was blown|
|Two Bangladeshi men collect sacks of food |
|Beneficiaries wait for relief aid distribution|
|Damaris talks to Aruti Osa|
|Recycling parts of damaged houses to build temporary shelters|
|The framework of a partially-rebuilt house|
|A temporary shelter|
Bangladesh is a small but densely populated country, with 147 million people living in an area of 144,000 square kilometres – that’s half the size of Italy but with almost three times as many people. It is incredibly vulnerable when it comes to natural disasters.
Immediately after Cyclone Sidr struck The Salvation Army in Bangladesh spoke to the Government and to International Emergency Services at International Headquarters to work out where it would best be used.
A project proposal was written and Salvation Army teams in Bangladesh looked to concentrate their efforts on an area where no other organisation was working. The area chosen is a remote and marshy region in the Gopalong district – a fair distance from the coast, where most aid agencies concentrated their work. The houses are built on small islands between rivers, paddy fields and ponds. To reach them there are either small raised footpaths or bamboo bridges that seem too flimsy and shaky to be safe.
Maya Bala is one of the people affected by the cyclone who is now being helped by The Salvation Army. She remembers shouting ‘Jorey dourauw!’ – Bangla for ‘Run fast!’ – before she and her family fled their house. They sought shelter where they could and waited there for the four hours it took the storm to pass. The next morning they returned to where their house had been, only to find it had been ripped up by the violence of the storm and dumped in some fields a few hundred metres away. They collected the pieces of the house and used what they could salvage to build a temporary shelter. Fortunately most of the roof is still usable but there are no pillars or walls left.
The immediate need was for food. In excess of 3,200 families have received food parcels consisting of rice, lentils, oil and salt – that is more than 16,000 people being fed by The Salvation Army regardless of their religion. Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike were affected by the disaster and received help.
Aruti Osa, a Hindu woman, lives in one of the villages that are being helped by The Salvation Army. She has an elderly husband and, as well as her own two children, she is raising five children from her husband’s first marriage – his first wife died some time ago.
Without the help of The Salvation Army she and her family would have had to face the severe threat of hunger. After a disaster like this The Salvation Army believes its responsibility is to give the most vulnerable people like Aruti and her family first priority on relief supplies.
The population in Bangladesh is generally poor and living in rural conditions. Bangladesh grows significant quantities of rice, tea and mustard. Two-thirds of Bangladeshis are farmers but most of them possess less than 0.4 hectares of land and have to work for landowners to survive. Because of the cyclone most of the rice seedling plantations have been destroyed.
The situation is grim if there is no harvest. Another disaster a few months on from the cyclone would be inevitable if no steps were taken to prevent it. The Salvation Army saw this as the second priority and almost immediately rice seeds were distributed to farmers. It will give them the possibility to plant again and, it is hoped, have a good harvest in four months.
Four weeks after the cyclone hit, Major Mike Caffull (Field Operations Officer, International Emergency Services) and I went to see the work that had already taken place and to discuss opportunities for future intervention. The food and seed distribution were completed shortly before we arrived.
When we got to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, we were briefed on the current situation by Lieut-Colonel Ethne Flintoff, The Salvation Army’s Officer Commanding in Bangladesh. It became clear that The Salvation Army in Bangladesh has been very efficient in handling the response to this disaster. The relief workers who were deployed to the region straight after the cyclone struck lived and worked alongside local corps officers who were already living and working in the cyclone-hit region. This approach emphasised again that one of The Salvation Army’s advantages over many other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is its strong local presence and knowledge in many areas.
When we joined them the local teams were conducting a survey in relation to housing. In the area where The Salvation Army is working there were around 95 houses destroyed and more than 1,000 damaged. It had to be calculated how many pillars and metal sheets each house will need.
Aruti Osa was crying when she spoke to us and we could hardly stop her from falling down in front of us and touching our feet. Her house is completely destroyed and her family has nowhere to live. She was begging us to assist them. It is heartbreaking to speak to people like her. But it also reminds us that there are things we can do, things we
When I was walking through the villages an old, white-haired man approached me. He tried to tell me something but there was no one to translate. He realised my language problem, took my hand and placed it on his hand. He obviously wanted to be blessed. He didn’t ask for money or other help. He wanted to be blessed. That I did. Not because I am someone special but because God blesses us to be a blessing for others.
As the International Emergency Services section, we are dependent on territories, organisations and people donating money for relief work. It really touched my heart to hear that the neighbouring Pakistan Territory of The Salvation Army was one of the first to give money for the relief work after Cyclone Sidr. In my opinion this is love that goes beyond the barriers that might come with history or other things that separate us. This is being a blessing to others.
Damaris Frick is a member of the International Emergency Services team