I arrived in Dhaka when the cyclone was barely 36 hours old and the official government death toll was a little over a thousand. My first appointment was a news conference given by the relief and rehabilitation minister, and I went along armed with what then seemed like a totally unbelievable rumour – that five thousand people had died on the island of Sandwip. I mentioned this rumour to the minister, who laughed at me. We now know that thirty thousand people died on Sandwip. For a long time no one – not just government ministers – could believe that the devastation was on such a scale I began to realise the following day. I flew over some of the worst-affected areas with a helicopter load of diplomats and photographers. We circled high above the islands and I could see waterlogged fields and fallen trees and some dead cattle. Then we descended in order to land in Chittagong, and I began to see what had really happened. Along the beach, in the fields, tangled up in trees, were human bodies. I counted almost a hundred that day. At Chittagong the military commander said he thought that as many as fifty thousand people might have died. A terrifying figure. I returned to Dhaka to find it had almost doubled. And I felt I could be shocked no longer.
On the Saturday I set out for the coastal belt again. I walked around Chittagong, where dead cattle still lay on the streets, and open trucks were still carrying off the human bodies. I was taken to a slum area where eight hundred out of a population of four thousand had perished. Almost every house had been flattened and the entire place smelled of rotting flesh. The morning after, I went to see the military commander I’d met earlier with the diplomats:he agreed to take me on his helicopter to the island of Kutubdia, where more than a quarter of the population had died. It was a small helicopter which stayed close to the ground. In one totally devastated area human corpses and animal carcasses were strewn everywhere; groups of survivors waved desperately at the helicopter. Some of these survivors had collected the dead bodies and piled them up together with the animals. Most of the corpses were children; in one place more than a hundred of them rotting in a field. I could not imagine that there was worse to come, but meeting the survivors was more painful than gazing in disbelief at the unburied dead. As the helicopter landed, thousands of people surrounded it. We had no food, only medicines. And for a moment that seemed for ever the crowd appeared menacing. They were people on the edge of death.
That was not the only time when, as a journalist, I felt compromised. On that first helicopter trip to Chittagong there were 12 of us, seven diplomats, a representative of Unicef, three photographers and myself. After flying over the worst-hit areas, we sat down to soft drinks and cake in the military control-room in the Army cantonment in Chittagong. Major-General Mahmudul Hassan was explaining what had happened. ‘More than fifty thousand people have been drowned in a tidal wave. There are dead bodies everywhere.’ Turning to the diplomats, he said: ‘We need your help.’ A photographer butted in: ‘We need to see for ourselves.’ The general looked confused. ‘But you have just flown over the area – you’ve seen everything.’ ‘No,’ said the photographer: ‘we need to get closer.’ For a while I didn’t understand what he meant. The photographer persisted: ‘Can’t you take us somewhere on land, not in a helicopter?’ What he wanted was corpses, for the front pages of the next day’s newspapers. The general said: ‘Certainly we will take you around Chittagong, but I must warn you the smell is terrible – of rotting flesh. There are many carcasses, but don’t worry, we have removed the corpses.’ A scoff came from the photographer, who had earlier told me he was the first man to get to poisoned Bhopal, a professional who knew all there was to know about dead bodies. The atmosphere became uncomfortable, everyone except the general knew what the first man into Bhopal wanted. But no one dared to say. Eventually the Unicef representative spoke out. He apologised and then explained: ‘The photographers need to be taken to dead bodies so they can show the world what happened – only then will governments respond with aid.’ The general replied: ‘Oh why didn’t you say so? We thought to save you foreigners from these sights. If that is what you want, let us go now.’
There is nothing abnormal or unexpected about death in Bangladesh. Every year three hundred thousand children die of diarrhoea-related diseases. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of the most densely populated. Bad weather kills huge numbers. Quite apart from the cyclone, more than two hundred people died in tornadoes and floods elsewhere in Bangladesh during the 12 days I spent in the country. And that was normal. Meanwhile others were dying of cholera and dysentery. In the days after the cyclone, the daily papers competed to show the most gruesome pictures. Men impaled by trees. Dead bloated babies clinging on to dead bloated mothers. And huge piles of human bodies mixed up with animal carcasses. Death was talked about, was not shameful or embarrassing or mysterious. No attempt was made to hide from it, or to give it much of a metaphysical meaning. A contrast with the West, where, says Octavio Paz, the word ‘death’ burns the lips.
On my second visit to Chittagong, I drove past the slum where eight hundred people had died to a place on the beach where dead bodies were still being washed up. The police kept burying them but more kept coming. And crowds of sightseers, from the city, were walking up and down – gawping at the dead. Small children were staring at bodies bloated by sea-water and disfigured beyond recognition, with twisted limbs like branches of a tree. I wanted to scream at the onlookers pointing and joking among the unburied dead. I asked someone what all these people were doing there. ‘Curiosity,’ he said. I began to understand just how much less frightening death and devastation were for them than for me. It was hard to take in, not only the sudden ending of as many as two hundred thousand lives, but the sudden disappearance of the entire paraphernalia of their lives. It was almost as if they had never existed. We are used in the West to disasters being censored and bowdlerised – despite the desire of the photographers to be shown corpses, we don’t normally see them. Most of us in normal circumstances will see only one or two in the course of a lifetime.
Every few hours I would send my latest report by telephone to London, to be broadcast on the radio. In some of these reports I was audibly upset. I didn’t want to be – but it was beyond my control. In London they’d sometimes say, politely: ‘Nice piece, Sam.’ ‘Nice piece?’ ‘Oh, sorry, you know what I mean.’ Then came a piece in which I no longer desired or was able to pull any punches. The piece was full of bloated corpses and dead babies. London said: ‘I’m not sure about some of the wording.’ ‘What in particular?’ I asked, fully prepared to remove some of the cadavers. ‘You call this place where the people died a slum. Isn’t that a bit derogatory.’ I laughed for the first time in a few days. ‘I suppose so,’ I said, as my mind went back to the place. Yes, I thought, ‘slum’ did convey the wrong impression. ‘Large pond with a few personal possessions and corpses floating in it’ might have been better.
On the fourth day after the cyclone, the heavens opened and out poured more than a hundred eager Western journalists, eager to see the bodies, eager to find another corrupt and inept Third World government. And full of their own feats in previous famines and floods. All trying to convince the Army that it was more important to get eighty kilos of Scandinavian or Spanish journalist onto a helicopter than eighty kilos of emergency food for the survivors. Many of them behaved disgracefully, screaming their circulation figures at Air Force officers. I overheard one bizarre conversation where a journalist promised the immediate despatch of huge quantities of water purification tablets and plastic sheeting by his country’s government in return for being shown some corpses. Most of the journalists eventually got helicopter flights to see the corpses and to witness the wholly inadequate emergency airlift of supplies to the worst-hit areas.
Many journalists sent home articles accusing the Government of Bangladesh of running the relief effort in an incompetent manner. Certainly there was a degree of incompetence, but ultimately the disaster was on a scale which would daunt any nation – let alone one of the poorest in the world. Bangladesh has only just returned to democracy after a long spell of autocratic rule. The new and inexperienced government had only been in power two months and its minimal resources bore no relation to the needs of the survivors. More than ten million people were seriously affected by the cyclone and many were totally cut off by unnavigable seawater. And to deliver emergency aid to these survivors of one of the world’s greatest natural disasters precisely six helicopters were available – when they weren’t being commandeered by journalists, diplomats and concerned foreign dignitaries.
It’s perhaps a mistake to see the disaster as totally natural. The land most devastated by the cyclone is marginal land, where fifty years ago hardly anyone lived. But poverty and overpopulation have driven the poor to places so inhospitable that anywhere else in the world they would be considered unfit for human habitation: when there aren’t cyclones there are floods, or cholera epidemics. The survivors of this latest cataclysm are already rebuilding. The dead will be replaced by impoverished migrants from elsewhere in the country. They have nowhere else to go. And then one day there will be another cyclone.
I returned home to Delhi. Within a week Rajiv Gandhi had died. He was enjoying politics for the first time in many years and had a better than even chance of becoming prime minister again. One day of voting had already taken place. Mr Gandhi was campaigning in the southern state of Tamil Nadu when an explosion ripped his body to shreds. Once more corpses appeared on the front pages of the morning papers: not just Rajiv Gandhi but the chief suspect, a woman thought to be a Sri Lankan Tamil. And the photos of her were ‘before-and-after’ photos of the kind normally associated with cures for baldness or obesity. Before: a neat dark bespectacled woman holding a garland. After: a totally intact disembodied head with a slight cut on the chin and two lower legs arranged as if the rest of the body was also there. Those pictures were published on the morning of Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral and everyone I spoke to could talk of nothing else. ‘They’re not the same person’; ‘the hairline is different’; ‘she looks West Indian, not Tamil’; ‘I seem to know her from somewhere.’
The pictures set the mood for a day of ghastly visions. At Teen Murti House where Rajiv Gandhi lay in state, I saw a crowd of crazed young men shouting in Hindi, ‘Rajiv Gandhi is immortal,’ as they moved closer to where the body lay covered in the Indian flag. They wanted to remove the flag, to see what was left of him. As I closed my eyes, the police intervened. Later at the funeral pyre the pallbearers stripped off the flag. I expected to see the body, but there was no body, only a bloodstained sheet. Then I saw there was no blood, only rose petals. His family put firewood on top of the sheet and his son Rahul lit the pyre. Several times that day I thought I would have to see the body – the normal custom with Hindu funerals. I kept remembering a scene from one of the greatest of all Hindi films, Sholay, in which a police chief comes home to find most of his family killed by dacoits. The bodies lie wrapped in sheets. But when a wind starts to blow, the sheets begin to flutter and they become loose and in a few moments that linger and linger the bodies are gradually bared to the world. The star of that film, Amitabh Bachchan, was there the other day adding logs to Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral pyre, and generally adding to the unreality of the occasion.
Hindi films are laughed at for their minimal relation to reality. But then who would believe the tale of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? Who would believe that the daughter and grandson of the man who led India to independence would also be elected prime minister, and then both die at the hands of assassins? Who would believe that the grandson’s closest associates would then try to install his Christian, Italian-born, politics-hating wife as their new leader in a country undergoing a Hindu revival? Is all this mythology or is it real life? In the days following the death of Rajiv Gandhi I am not sure the distinction has been relevant.