Chittagong, second largest city and port of Bangladesh was affected by several devastating landslides on June 11, 2007. According to estimates around 95 people were killed and missing as torrential rains sparked a series of devastating landslides. The heaviest rainfall in a quarter of a century saturated the hillsides in and around the city giving residents no chance to escape when a tide of mud and water swept down on their homes in the early hours of the morning, burying whole families under mud and debris while they slept.
ActionAid volunteers, recruited and trained under the European Commission Humanitarian Aid disaster preparedness project (DIPECHO), played a vital role in search and rescue operations right from the start of the landslides. They were the first to respond because most were living in the affected areas themselves. They were able to rescue people and recover bodies even before government rescue workers arrived on the scene.
One of the volunteers recalls: “We learned during our training that heavy rainfall can cause landslides. Due to the non-stop rain, we knew that a landslide could happen soon. We started evacuating people from their houses. Suddenly we heard a big bang, followed by people crying. We quickly rushed to place where there had been houses but there was only mud. It looked like the hilly area had become barren land.”
The volunteers worked alongside the fire and civil defence services. One volunteer, Imam Hussain, said “The training we received in search and rescue, first-aid, etc; and the discussions we had, enabled me to respond quickly”.
The community volunteers directly contacted the Chittagong Medical College Hospital where a mass casualty management exercise had been carried out during the DIPECHO project. Before the arrival of the government rescue teams, five injured patients were taken to the hospital by the volunteers, and several dead bodies were recovered. According to Sujon: “We were lacking equipment to dig into the mud, but due to the skills we gained in our training, we had the courage to respond and started the work with our bare hands.” The bulldozers, provided by The Chittagong City Corporation and the Chittagong Development Authority, were later able to assist the rescue workers.
At the end of the operation, this group of volunteers had saved eight people, as all were prepared and trained to face such a disaster. Under the ActionAid project, 450 community volunteers have been trained in Chittagong and in Kurigram. Most of the volunteers are still students, but they already feel the urge to serve their communities by becoming ‘disaster volunteers’. Training has provided them with the skills and the confidence to react immediately, enabling them to save lives.
Action Aid Bangladesh