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Victims of the forgotten 'tsunami'

  • Story Highlights
  • Cyclone Sidr killed more than 3,000 people and affected millions more
  • Survivors recount seeing tsunami-like tidal waves destroying villages
  • Weeks after disaster many still need urgent assistance
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By John Cobb for CNN
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RAJESHWER, Bangladesh (CNN) -- More than a month after Cyclone Sidr tore across Bangladesh killing more than 3,000 people and affecting at least 8.7 million, photojournalist John Cobb visited badly hit areas and contributed this story for CNN.

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A woman stands amid the destruction caused by Cyclone Sidr in southern Bangladesh.

As I walked into Rajashwer village in southern Bangladesh, the only sign of human habitation was tarpaulins strung up along the river bank. The heart of the village looked as though it had been through a tumble dryer.

Possessions were knotted into the branches of fallen trees, corrugated metal roofs and wooden walls were scattered and smashed beyond repair.

The last time I saw such scenes was three years ago, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami. Accounts of survivors from Cyclone Sidr bear striking similarity to those of the tsunami survivors.

Searching amongst the debris in Rajashwer village was an older man, sifting though a pile of twisted metal roofing. Kanchan Ali Khan, 70, spent the night of November 15, 2007 clinging to a tree, having been swept up by a tidal surge of water that was 15 feet (4.5 meters) high.

"It was dark and pouring with rain. I feared for my life. I heard people crying for help everywhere," he whispered.

Typical of many coastal villagers, Kanchan has lost not only his home, but also his livelihood. He is a fisherman, but most boats and nets were destroyed during the cyclone.

Although he now has no income or resources with which to replace his boat and nets, Kanchan considers himself one of the lucky survivors. Photo See dramatic photos of cyclone survivors. »

His neighbor, Soleman Khan, lost seven members of his family during the cyclone. The body of Soleman's eldest son was found, still clinging to his two dead children.

As a photojournalist working with charity Help the Aged and their international partner, HelpAge International, it is my job to document in the impact of such disasters affected older people.

It is an emotionally grueling experience. People are traumatized, memories are fresh, and healing processes have yet to begin.

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However, I am often surprised by the openness of conversation and humbled by the hospitality offered by people who have literally lost everything.

I was particularly struck by Kanchan Khan's description of the tidal surge and the subsequent impact upon his livelihood. His story was almost identical to that of a fisherman I interviewed in Nagappattinam, southern India, after the tsunami in 2004.

Unlike the intense media coverage during the months that followed the tsunami, there was not an international film crew in sight just a few weeks after Cyclone Sidr.

The cyclone resulted in far fewer fatalities than the 2004 tsunami. In large part this was due to an effective early warning system and training for people in disaster risk reduction.

But the United Nations estimated It has nevertheless affected 8.7 million people and damaged or destroyed a quarter of a million homes.

Bangladesh, the fourth largest rice producer in the world, has also had its rice harvest severely damaged, with major implications for both the economy and food security.

Local organizations such as the Resource Integration Center have been at the forefront of the relief effort targeting older people in southern Bangladesh. Using its network of Older People's Associations it has identified the most urgent cases for support, and distributed blankets and foodstuffs.

Bill Gray, HelpAge International's Emergency Manager says: "It is essential that older survivors get the support they need themselves to recover and to play their vital part in the recovery of their communities."

The next stage of rehabilitation from dependency to independence is crucial.

Some cyclone survivors have no possessions left, or the means with which to earn their living.

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The Bangladesh Cyclone Appeal, launched by the Disasters and Emergency Committee on November 22, is trying to mobilize support and funding for affected populations.

Having witnessed the devastation that Cyclone Sidr has caused, and the human suffering that continues, I can only hope that the Appeal will reach its target and that people such as Kanchan and Soleman will be able to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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