Cyclone survivors try to pick up pieces: Luck and wise precautions saved Bangladesh from worse disaster, writes Tim McGirk in Teknaf

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BEFORE Sona Ahmed bolted the shutters and cowered with his family in his hut against the oncoming cyclone, he looked out at the sky. It was a hellish colour, red and black and pitchforked with lightning.

Then the winds came. The Bangladeshi meteorologists clocked them at over 150mph, but all Mr Ahmed knew was that the wind was strong enough to knock down big trees that fell with a cracking boom around the hut. The next time he saw the sky was when the cyclone blew his tin roof off.

'It was dark. We grabbed the children and ran aimlessly, here and there, in the storm,' said Mr Ahmed, 43. 'There was no shelter. We couldn't see. Things were flying all around us in the air.' His 10- year-old son, Mohammed Yunis, was pinned to the earth by a falling tree. Others were killed by tin-roof sheeting, as lethal as flying guillotines.

Yesterday, three days after the cyclone which smashed into southern Bangladesh, roads were clear enough for Mr Ahmed to carry his son 12 miles to hospital in Teknaf, the town on Bangladesh's southern tip, which was hardest hit by the storm.

The temperature is in the high nineties in Bangladesh, but from a helicopter the landscape looks like it is mid-winter. The trees are white and bony, for every leaf was blasted away. That is on the edge of the cyclone's path. In the places which received its full ferocity, it looks as though a drunken joker had tried to pull the earth out from under the palm groves, mosques and villages. The few huts I saw still standing have been stripped down to their bamboo frames like bird cages. The men, women and children pecked around for their possessions in the mud.

By Bangladesh's standards, this cyclone was trifling. Officially, the death-toll stands at around 150. Past cyclones in 1991 and in 1970 have killed hundreds of thousands. What saved Bangladesh this time was good fortune - at the last moment, the cyclone spun away from the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong - and wise precautions.

After the 1991 cyclone, which struck with a tidal wave, killing over 135,000 people, the government and foreign relief agencies built hundreds of storm shelters, like army pillboxes on high stilts, to survive the tidal waves. In the Bay of Bengal, cyclones tend to whirl around unpredictably. With Bangladesh's improved early-warning system, the authorities had time to evacuate over 350,000 people from low-lying coastal areas to these shelters. In spite of this, over 15,000 people were injured; the storm lasted only three and a half hours, but struck with the force of a small A- bomb. Tens of thousands were left homeless.

The worst-hit were not Bangladeshis but some 200,000 refugees from neighbouring Burma, called Rohingyas.

The Rohingyas' only crime is that they are Muslims, and for that reason are persecuted by Burma's thuggish military regime. Over the past three years, the Rohingyas have been press-ganged into forced labour; their women have been kidnapped and raped, and their farms burnt. Life was so fraught that even Bangladesh looked like paradise in comparison.

Despite their poverty, the Bangladeshis took pity on their fellow Muslims. Over 200,000 Rohingyas now crowd into refugee camps which look like anthills in the southern Teknaf area. These camps took the brunt of the cyclone. No storm shelters were built for them. Sona Ahmed had no choice but to huddle in his shack when the cyclone hit.

Relief workers claim that 15 out of the 18 camps were completely demolished. Convoys carrying food, medicine and blankets yesterday were only starting to reach the battered camps.

At Teknaf hospital, a gaunt Rohingya refugee named Jahed Hussain, 45, sat on a dirty bed comforting his injured son. I asked him how he explained the suffering he had faced, first in Burma and now with the cyclone. The question struck him as absurd. 'It's Allah's will,' he explained.

The cyclone season is just starting in Bangladesh, and the Rohingyas have no choice but to endure it. Allah's wrathful storms are more acceptable to them than the Burmese army's atrocities.

'The damage is much worse than I expected,' said Dan Prewitt, the Dhaka-based Head of Delegation for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 'In effect, the camps are almost completely wiped out,' he said yesterday after visiting some of the camps. 'But, despite the devastation, loss of life in the camps has been low.' Mr Prewitt praised the Bangladesh government for its quick relief efforts, saying it had been 'effectively co- ordinated with the efforts by non- government organisations and aid agencies.'

(Photograph omitted)