“We can’t even find the space to bury the dead. We have never seen so much water before,” the stranded residents of Nolia village informed us. Nolia is located in the southern coast of Bangladesh in Sutarkhali union, under Dacope sub-district of Khulna division.
Whole villages have been lost to the flood. From the trawler that carried us to the interior of the delta, southwards towards Sutarkhali and Komorkhola unions of Dacope, all we could see was water. Sutarkhali was about five hours away from Khulna city and among the worst-hit unions. It seemed the rivers had devoured everything that had stood in their paths. The river embankments had collapsed, making it difficult to tell flood-water and river-water apart. In some places, you couldn’t tell that a village, with the people, homes, schools, rice-fields, crops, children and their games had ever existed there because the river had submerged everything. We could just see the thatched roofs of sunken houses in some places, looking as though they were floating. Lone school buildings stood tall in the middle of the waters looking forlorn. Since the storm hit, all of the schools have been shut.
The children are suffering from diarrhoea and skin diseases because of the salinity of the flood water. Their playgrounds are submerged in water that is almost five feet high in some places. They now spend their time on the remains of the embankment waiting for relief or at least a distraction from their struggles. They like being photographed and love it when you tell them that you will publish the photos somewhere. They looked inside my purse to see what I was carrying. Even my note-taking fascinated them. They have not had the chance to be near books or pencils in at least ten days.
I spoke to Laboni, a traumatised eleven-year old whose entire family had to hold on to a tree for over four hours when the embankment collapsed and the flood gushed in, destroying all the things that of were of any value to her. “All my school material is gone. I have no clothes but the ones I am wearing,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Did you bring anything for us?” another villager interjected as I spoke to Laboni. I had to think before I answered. “We’re surrounded by so much water, but we can’t drink any of it,” they told us, reminding me of the ancient mariner.
We hadn’t brought food or medicines. We had come to see if they had a secure area where we could set up a child friendly safe place so that the children could return to some normalcy and there could be some stability and security in their lives.We engage the children in lessons and games, and provide meals for them so that at least their basic needs are taken care of even during this crisis period.
We told them that we had come to see and figure out how we could help them. When we were about to leave, we heard them tell each other that we had come to help their children. It was then that we realized that we had brought them hope. They no longer know where their futures lie, whether they will be able to eat a meal tomorrow or if the water will recede. But now they know that we are here and that we will try to help their children get back on their feet.
When we were getting back on the trawler, the children lined up on the embankment and were jumping over each other for a chance to be photographed. At least we had brought the smiles on their faces.