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Bangladesh cyclone death toll hits 3,000

Three days after the disaster, caused by Cyclone Sidr, rescue workers still fight their way to remote areas where entire villages on the coast of Bay of Bengal have been devastated. Traumatised survivors are hoping for help.

world Updated: Nov 19, 2007 09:58 IST

The death toll from a massive cyclone that smashed through impoverished Bangladesh was 3,000 and continuing to rise Sunday with millions left homeless, hungry and without medical help.

Three days after the disaster, rescue workers were still fighting their way to remote areas where entire villages on the coast of the Bay of Bengal were flattened by the fury of Cyclone Sidr.

Traumatised survivors said they too would soon die unless help arrived. "I lost six of my family members in the cyclone. I am afraid that the rest three of us will die of hunger. We are without food and water for the last few days," said a 55-year-old farmer, Sattar Gazi.

"For the corpses, we don't even have clothes to wrap them in for burial... we are wrapping the bodies in leaves," he told AFP in a village situated on the Bay of Bengal coast and smashed by a six-metre (20 foot) high tidal wave.

Abdul Zabbar, a 50-year-old teacher, said the situation in the area -- already one of the poorest places on earth -- was unbearable.

"There is no food and drinking water. The whole village is unlivable. Bodies are still floating in the rivers and paddy fields," he said, adding the rice harvest -- or four months of food -- had also been washed away.

Victims told an AFP correspondent who managed to reach this coastal area that they had not seen any aid workers -- let alone even seen or heard a plane or helicopter.

Officials said the humanitarian situation in coastal districts like Barguna, 200 kilometres (130 miles) south of the capital Dhaka, is the worst in decades.

"I have never seen such a catastrophe in my 20 years as a government administrator," said district official Harisprasad Pal, adding that millions were living in the open and aid was reaching only a tiny number of people.

The private ATN Bangla television network put the toll at 3,000 confirmed dead. The relief and disaster management ministry put the figure 2,217 and rising.

There has also been no word from a string of islands off the coast, which would have suffered the full wrath of Thursday night's storm.

Aid efforts were being hampered by roads blocked by fallen trees and the sheer scale of the devastation. "In the remote areas it is slow-going, they are almost chopping trees as they go along," said Douglas Casson Coutts of the World Food Programme, adding that officials were working with the military to organise air drops to the most inaccessible districts. Red Cross and Red Crescent workers said they were using their network of volunteers to distribute dried food and plastic sheeting for temporary shelters, but that many helpers were themselves victims.

Assessment teams were also yet to piece together a wider picture of the devastation that is needed to coordinate a major relief effort.

Army helicopters were also dropping supplies from the air while five navy ships were distributing food, medicine and relief materials, the government said.

"Our estimate is that 900,000 families are affected," said Red Cross official Shafiquzzaman Rabbani. That figure amounts to roughly seven million people in a country where families tend to be large.

In many places, villagers said, the dead were quickly being buried in mass graves. Most of the deaths were caused by the tidal wave which engulfed coastal villages, as well as flying debris and falling trees that crushed flimsy bamboo and tin homes -- all that most people in Bangladesh can afford.

A stunned 25-year-old woman, Jahanara, recounted to AFP how she managed to cling to a tree as the storm ripped away everything around her, including her husband, two sons and mother, and even the clothes on her back.

Experts, meanwhile, said they feared for the wildlife and ecology of the world's biggest mangrove forest, home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.

"The cyclone has inflicted an ecological disaster," said Shanti Ranjan Das of the government's livestock department.
The vast mangrove forest, listed as a World Heritage Site by the UN cultural organisation UNESCO, is a natural barrier that stands between much of southern Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal and offers some protection for the low-lying country from the bay's many less-serious tidal waves and cyclones.