GARGARI UNION, Bangladesh (BP)–If anyone understands the pain survivors of Hurricane Mitch are suffering in Central America, it’s Nazim Uddin of Bangladesh.
The gray-bearded, 60-year-old Muslim day laborer saw his home and livelihood washed away — not for the first time, possibly not for the last — by the worst flooding in the history of this flood-prone land.
Uddin now toils nine hours a day to help build a five-kilometer road in northwest Bangladesh, where months of flooding started in July. With several hundred other workers, he hauls basket after 80-pound basket of sandy soil on his head and dumps them onto the new road site.
The effort is one of many food-for-work projects being funded by Southern Baptists to help 16 districts of Bangladesh rebuild.
It’s hard work for the aging Uddin, but he’s glad to get it — and the five kilos of rice a day that come with it. The project is helping keep him and his 10-member family from starving.
“We lost everything,” says Uddin, wiping his face with a grimy, sweat-stained cloth. “I don’t know what we would have done without this work. We need more food, but where would we get it? We will make do with what we have.”
For Uddin’s family and millions of others like them, “the next six months will be critical,” says Southern Baptist missionary James Young. “For two months they were knee-deep, waist-deep, chest-deep in water” — and it destroyed their homes, their jobs and much of their farmland. It will be spring before a new rice crop can be harvested.
The crucial question, according to Young: How do they survive until the harvest?
If they had the funds, Baptists could easily help 1,000 eager, hungry workers every day on the Gargari road project alone. Crew chiefs have to turn away hundreds who line up daily. At least 50,000 mostly homeless and jobless people are in the area of Rajshahi district surrounding the road.
“The problem is selecting who will work,” says Southern Baptist missionary R T Buckley. “We try to hire one for two days, then another for two days, so food gets around to more families.”
The highway’s construction path inches slowly across a vast channel cut during late summer by the overflowing Padma River. The now-barren landscape should be covered with rich green rice this time of year. Instead, it looks like a beach without an ocean. The floodwater finally has receded and taken almost everything with it — except for a thick layer of gooey silt.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board sent more than $600,000 in hunger and disaster relief funds to Bangladesh in late September. Missionaries are using the money to aid thousands of families in 16 districts through:
— Food-for-work projects where possible. The projects feed people as they help rebuild roads and bridges, clean silt from farm fields and fishponds and repair other infrastructure. The food-for-work trade preserves the dignity of the people and gives them the chance to participate in their own recovery.
— Distributing food where necessary, along with seeds, medicine and oral rehydration packets. The Christian medical organization MAP International bolstered the Southern Baptist effort with nearly $500,000 worth of medicine and rehydration supplies.
— Installing sanitary latrines to prevent the spread of disease.
— Sinking hundreds of emergency tube wells to provide clean drinking water, and testing hundreds of existing wells for bacterial and arsenic contamination. Five Kentucky Baptist volunteers fanned out across the country in October to test wells and train Bengali Baptist workers how to continue testing. Southern Baptists also donated two water purification units to the government, which can provide clean water for up to 30,000 people a day.
The slow-rising floodwaters didn’t sweep away thousands of people as past floods have done. But over the course of two months, the flooding drowned almost an entire rice crop and prevented the planting of another. It left up to 30 million people homeless, jobless and hungry. It destroyed an estimated 16,000 kilometers of roads, 6,000 bridges and 10 percent of the nation’s gross national product. It ruined or polluted up to 50,000 water wells. The United Nations called it a “slowly developing disaster.”
“A major portion of two rice crops has been totally lost,” Buckley explains. “The next rice harvest will be affected by the amount of silt deposited in farm areas by the floods. A tremendous number of people are without jobs. There’s not going to be any need for day laborers to cultivate land until March and April of next year.”
During his three decades in Bangladesh, Buckley has seen millions of people killed by floods, cyclones, hunger and war. But without continuing massive aid, he warns, “you’ve got the makings of a potential humanitarian crisis that this country has never seen before. Bangladesh is in for a long, hard winter. The international community responds to a crisis like this for maybe two to three months. When the waters go down, all they see is traffic in the cities moving well. But village people are far removed from city scenes.”
That’s why missionaries and Bengali Baptists are focusing their relief efforts on rural areas at the request of Bangladesh government officials. From the prime minister’s office to the local level, officials have extended cooperation and expressed appreciation.
“It’s unbelievable that someone like you would do something like this in a place so far from Dhaka,” said Rezaun Nasar, daughter of Bangladesh’s waterworks minister and head of a national development organization, as she viewed the Gargari road project and a nearby Baptist medical clinic.
Compared to the staggering needs, Baptist efforts are “a drop in the bucket,” Buckley admits. “But at least it’s a drop and at least it’s in the bucket. It’s meeting the needs of some people” — Christians, Hindus and Muslims.
A food-for-work road project in another village illustrates his point.
Everyone living on the left side of the new road is Hindu. Everyone on the right is Muslim — except for a single Baptist family that sought the road project to help the village people, mostly poor farmers and fishermen.
“We ask blessings from God to those who gave money for this effort,” said Haji Noor Islam, the Muslim chairman of the village, during a ceremony of appreciation. “We could not do it alone. We will remember this.”
Bengali Baptists in charge of the project formally named the road after Buckley. Informally, they call it the “road of peace.”
“Muslims often think Christians are their enemies,” says Baptist leader Peter Halder. “We want to say, ‘No. We love you. We want to help you.'”
Southern Baptists who want to contribute to the Bangladesh relief effort can send gifts designated for “general relief” to: Southern Baptist World Relief, Office of Finance, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.