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Remembering the great Bhola cyclone

  • Published at 12:03 am November 8th, 2019
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The devastation caused by the cyclone is recounted in vivid detail in a book by Cornelia Rohde

November 12 is the 49th anniversary of the cyclone of 1970, which took the lives of at least 500,000 people of the coastal areas of Bangladesh. In October of that year, there had been a smaller cyclone which cost 300 lives and by November 8, 1970, a cyclone was being tracked in the Bay of Bengal and the authorities assumed that people, in anticipation, would move to safer places. 

However, nobody expected winds of up to 225km/h which occurred at the same time as the highest tides, and the information of the level of destruction took a few days to get to Dhaka and the outside world. 

On November 13, the Pakistan Observer had a headline: “50 feared lost in coastal cyclone.” However, on November 15, the Daily Mirror in London received a garbled message from their East Pakistan stringer, Fakhruddin, which read: “Five lacs gone. Definite. No souls sighted Patuakhali. Wave 30 feet. Minimum one crore cattle gone Noakhali.” 

It was only on November 15 that Oxfam asked its field director for Eastern India and East Pakistan, Richard Taylor (a distant cousin of mine), to go to Dhaka as soon as possible, and I was among other Oxfam personnel in Bihar, India, who were asked to stand by. 

The response of the Pakistan government itself was very slow, mainly because the largely Punjabi-run administration did not mind if Bengalis suffered and perished. Even the international response by donor countries was very slow too. They did not want to rush in for fear of upsetting the Pakistan government. 

Eventually, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was running for office in the national election that had been scheduled for early December that year, toured the devastated region.  When he returned to Dhaka, he said at a press conference: “I cannot find words adequate to describe the holocaust which the cyclone and tidal bore have left in their trail. Nor can I adequately convey in words the suffering and the misery of those who have survived. Whole areas have been totally depopulated. In many areas of Patuakhali, Bhola, and Noakhali, barely 20% to 25% of the total population has survived.”

A remarkable book, Catalyst: In the Wake of the Great Bhola Cyclone, written by Cornelia Rohde, was published in 2014, and a Bangladesh edition was published in 2016. She and her husband, Dr Jon Rohde, had been living in Dhaka for over two years when the cyclone struck on November 12, 1970. 

Jon was working as the forerunner of icddr,b, the Cholera Research Laboratory, and within the two years they had been in Dhaka, the Rohdes and some of their colleagues and friends had a very good network of Bengali friends too. 

Catalyst is an account of how these friends jointly launched a relief operation which later developed into a longer-term rehabilitation and development operation in the island of Manpura. Their experiences, in many cases, changed their lives. 

The book is full of the carefully preserved diaries and notes which they made at that time and a very large number of black and white photos. They have also been able to benefit from the memories of those who were with them at that time. 

One indomitable and towering personality in the work at that time was Father Richard Timm, who, until recently, had lived and worked in East Pakistan/Bangladesh since 1952. Someone else who assisted the relief operations in a magnificent way was Sir Fazle Hasan Abed who was then working with Pakistan-Shell and based in Chittagong. 

Cornelia Rohde’s book also covers the political tension that built up after the National Election in December 1970 which placed Sheikh Mujib in line to be the prime minister of Pakistan. She details how she and Jon visited the Dhaka University area after the genocide of March 25/26, 1971 because they wanted to record evidence as they had heard that all international journalists had been expelled. 

They passed on a lot of information to the American Consul-General Archer Blood and, later on, both Cornelia and Jon wrote to their senators in the US about the situation. They left Dhaka in early April and the evidence they were able to give in the US was very powerful and effective. 

By September 1971, the Rohdes were working in the refugee camps in West Bengal with the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam (where I was working). Jon popularized what we now know as OR-Saline and set up special nutrition centres for malnourished children, while Cornelia helped set up as many as 1,000 schools for small children in the refugee camps.

Abed Bhai, as I have always known him, had in 1971 managed to flee Pakistan and was a key person in the UK, raising awareness and raising funds. He returned to independent Bangladesh in early 1972 and I am very proud and glad that Oxfam was one of the first organizations to support the formation of BRAC. 

I first met Abed Bhai when he came to Kolkata in early 1972 to arrange the purchase of tools and agricultural implements and nylon twine for fishermen and I was able to hand over Rs300,000 as Oxfam’s first grant to BRAC.

I strongly recommend people to find ways to read this wonderful and very moving book, a Bangladesh edition of which has been published in 2016 by Mofidul Hoque of Sahitya Prakash and is available at Aarong and through Rokomari.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.