Bangladesh: bringing news of those lost in the storm
Since Cyclone Sidr hit coastal areas of the country on 15 November, the death toll has risen to over 3,000. With 1,700 people still listed missing, the Bangladesh Red Crescent's tracing staff is working tirelessly to bring news of the disappeared to their families.
Who has seen Ahmed Hossain? Who knows him? In a busy street of Barguna, a small southern city in Bangladesh, the repetitive questions are attracting a little crowd. Behind a megaphone, Prodeep Shaha, a young volunteer of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), is spelling out the names of people who have disappeared since Cyclone Sidr hit the coastal areas of the country on 15 November. At the moment, nobody is reacting positively to his queries. Prodeep is not worried, he simply carries on his way.
Two days after the disaster, teams of the BDRCS, supported by ICRC experts, have begun work in earnest in order to set up a strong network for what humanitarian workers call tracing. " When natural disasters happen, as well as during conflicts, people get separated and are without news from their relatives, " explains Monowara Sarkar, deputy director of the tracing department of the BDRCS.
Missing often forgotten in first days
While the main priority for the first days remains emergency relief, the problem of missing people is often forgotten. " Once victims have coped with their basic needs, the question of the fate of their loved ones arises, " says Monowara Sarkar who started to work in this field in 1971.
Neha Begum, a 32-year-old inhabitant of Sonarbangla in Barguna district, says she is a lucky person. Even though a tree fell on her home, destroying her kitchen, no one in her family was injured. Nonetheless, she still had one big worry: she was without news of her young brother, Mohammed Alam, age 25. Before Cyclone Sidr hit, he was working on the small island of Dublarshar in a fish-drying factory. This island, along with many others on the coast of Bangladesh, was strongly hit by the wind and waves. After two days without news, she contacted the local coordinator of the Cyclone Preparedness Programme of the BDRCS, Shamsul Alam, who then tried to reach his colleagues of the BDRCS on the island.
Fortunately the wireless radio system was functioning. Shamsul passed on the information and the local volunteers identified Mohammed, who sent a short message saying that he was fine. " It was such a relief for me when I heard the news, " she says. " I will be happier when I can see him, but today I feel good, " she explains, on her way back home to try and find some material to rebuild her kitchen.
Many different methods are used to trace missing people and in Bangladesh some of the simplest means are working very well: going to communities and calling out names through megaphones; using local-language newspapers and radio stations to spread the names of those missing, using mobile phones or wireless radios.
Immediate action yields long-term results
" If we do not tackle this issue quickly we reduce our chances of solving the problem in the long-term, " explains Monowara Sarkar. An example is the identification of mortal remains. During the cyclone, bodies were carried away by rivers and came to rest several kilometres from their homes. Villagers bury these bodies, without taking details, leaving a permanent question mark over this person and an endless search for his or her family.
Imam Hossain is not as fortunate as Neha. This 40-year-old fisherman is living in Latachapli, in Patuakhali district. He and his 18-year-old son, Mohammed Faruq, are working as a team. One goes fishing for two weeks on a boat in the mangrove, while the other one stays at home and takes care of the family. One week before the cyclone, Mohammed left home to fish and since his father Imam is without news.
" On our boats, we do not have any means of communication except a small FM radio, " he explains. While giving all relevant details about his son to ICRC Field Officer Rumana Binte Masud, he admits that he is ready for the worst.
" If he is dead, I would like to at least find his body in order to give the last rites and bury him with our family, " says Imam. " However, I still have hope that his boat and colleagues found refuge on an island. "
Imam holds on to the hope that when his son's name is shouted through all the megaphones of Bangladesh, it will fall on a familiar ear.