[su_note note_color=”#8dff66″]Published in : Monday, 30 November 1970 Place : New York , USA Publisher : Time Magazine [/su_note]
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The Article : “When The Demon Struck
Above the howling wind and the driving rain, the villagers of Manpura Island could hear an unholy roar welling up from the Bay of Bengal. “It was pitch dark,” said Abdul Jabbar last week, ”but suddenly I saw a gigantic, luminous crest heading toward our village.” Jabbar managed to survive the lethal 120-m.p.h. cyclone and the 20-ft. tidal wave that followed, but most of his neighbors were less fortunate. All but 5,000 of Manpura Island’s 30,000 people died in the surging waters. Most of the island’s cattle, sheep, goats and buffaloes were drowned, and its fishing boats were swept out to sea. Manpura is only one of scores of islands and coastal flats that found themselves in the path of the murderous storm that struck the teeming, impoverished Ganges Delta region of East Pakistan.
Staggering Sight. By the time the government finishes counting the casualties, the great Ganges cyclone may rank as the worst natural disaster of the 20th century—and one of the worst of all recorded history. The figures transcend normal comprehension and numb the mind. Officially, the toll at the end of last week stood at 150,000; the only natural catastrophe to claim more lives in this century was the 1920 earthquake that killed 180,000 in Kansu, China. Yet the government concedes that its count is far from complete and that newspaper estimates of 300,000 to 600,000 dead may well prove correct. The Pakistan Times predicted that the figure might rise to 1,000,000. That would place the East Pakistan storm second to mankind’s worst recorded natural disaster—China’s Yellow River flood of 1887, in which anywhere from 1,000,000 to 7,000,000 perished; so widespread was the destruction, covering 50,000 sq. mi., that no really accurate estimate has ever been made.
Whatever the final toll, the East Pakistan catastrophe has already reached such dimensions as to make it seem unreal. Up close, it is real enough. Cabled TIME’s Ghulam Malik after a tour of Manpura Island: “I could not walk 200 yards without passing heaps of bloated bodies. For miles, animal carcasses littered the landscape. The stench was appalling, the sight of parents hovering over their dead children staggering. My legs shook.”
Mass Graves. In the golden sunlight that followed the demonic storm, the survivors could see horrendous devastation on every side. Oceangoing ships were torn apart in the turbulent bay or driven aground and left stranded. Beaches and whole islands were strewn with bodies. On 13 small islands near Patuakhali, not a single human being was left alive. Paddies were blackened with salt water, the rice crop destroyed. “It looks like a graveyard with no sign of life,” an official reported after flying over Hatia Island. At one village, when a newsman asked why hundreds of bodies had been left unburied, a man cried: “We have buried 5,000 in mass graves. Our hands are aching. We can’t dig any more.”
In Noakhali, a woman pointed to a child’s body that had lodged in the branches of a tree and wailed, “Give me my son.” At Bhola, Hazrat Ali was counting corpses when suddenly he came upon the body of his little girl. He sobbed and buried his head on the dead child’s chest.
No Children. A large percentage of the victims were children lost in the swirling water. Relief workers who managed to reach one island with emergency supplies reported that the local population had no need for children’s clothing; no children had survived.
Some were miraculously spared. Modan Modan Shaha, 18, clung to a bamboo pole and was swept 26 miles to safety. Several survivors held tenaciously to the tails of terrified cattle. Six children were washed ashore in a wooden chest; they had been thrown into it by their grandfather, but he perished and the tiny ark bobbed precariously in the Bay of Bengal for three days.
Few others were so lucky. One reason for the huge losses is the nature of the region. East Pakistan, with a population of 72 million, is roughly the size of Arkansas but has 36 times as many people. The fertile islands and lowlands of the Ganges Delta have practically no elevation at all; Manpura Island, for instance, lies 20 feet above sea level.
Trickles of Relief. Unprotected and overpopulated, the region is a disaster waiting to happen. And disaster has struck repeatedly. An 1876 cyclone killed 200,000 in the Bay of Bengal, and no fewer than eight major cyclones hit the region in the 1960s. The Indian Ocean’s cyclones—the equivalent of the Atlantic’s hurricanes and the Pacific’s typhoons—are gigantic tropical storms that act like outsize rotary engines, sucking up and circulating the moist air that hangs over the balmy waters of the Bay of Bengal. The heat energy released in this process energizes the ferocious winds that in turn create the tidal waves.
Despite the region’s obvious vulnerability to such storms, Pakistani authorities were woefully ill prepared to cope with the newest catastrophe. No disaster plan was ready to be put into operation. Even after the Dacca Morning News carried a story headlined
TENS OF THOUSANDS KILLED, the local administration was preoccupied with such matters as a reception in honor of Asian Highway Car Rally drivers.
Almost a week passed before relief flights began to trickle food and medicine to the ravaged islands. On many islands, cholera and typhoid fever arrived several days in advance of government relief supplies.
Pray to Allah. There were suggestions that the relief operation was delayed by indifference to the fate of East Pakistanis among government officials in the capital, Islamabad, which is situated far away in the western part of the segmented nation. Bureaucratic truculence also helped. The government insisted for several days that helicopters offered by the U.S., Britain and other nations be flown by Pakistani pilots. West Germany’s offer of a fully manned 150-bed field hospital simply went unanswered; the Pakistanis later explained lamely that they would have been unable to feed the German doctors and nurses. Ordinary inefficiency exacted a toll too. It took 24 hours for a cabled message from the International Red Cross delegate in Dacca to reach the organization’s headquarters in Geneva.
In the absence of official help, the survivors launched a relief effort of their own. From the air, the”, could be seen building new huts and frying brine-soaked rice. In the past, many islanders have dreamed of building sea walls, but such vast undertakings have always been put aside as impracticable. “We can control the flood,” said Pakistan’s President Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan last week, “but what can we do against the cyclone? We can only pray to Allah for mercy.”
That advice was hardly likely to console one Kalam Mia, who roamed through Chardarvesh village last week looking into the faces of 2,000 dead children in search of his ten-year-old son. He never found the boy. “And now,” said a neighbor, “he raves like a madman, and in his eyes is an expression beyond words.”