May 18, 1996 in Nation/World

Tornado Delivers Blow To Bangladesh Schools Prized Buildings Destroyed By Monday’s Deadly Storm

Dilip Ganguly Associated Press
 

For decades, Mirikpur High School had been the pride of this village: a place that helped lift some children out of widespread poverty and illiteracy.

The 53-year-old white brick building was a rarity in northern Bangladesh, a farming region where many people live in mud-and-straw huts and only some can afford wood and tin homes.

This is where couples got married, where classes were held on health and birth control, where VIPs were entertained. Its spacious rooms and playground served as the community center for miles around.

But when the tornado swept through the area Monday, Mirikpur’s showcase and many other schools became death traps.

On Friday, officials said the death toll from the storm in the Tangail region north of Dhaka, the capital, had risen to 600, with 34,000 people injured and 500 still missing.

The toll included 50 people who died Friday of injuries they suffered Monday as the tornado’s 125-mph winds spun tin roofs and tree limbs through the air like shrapnel.

Hundreds of survivors, many covered with white bandages, could still be heard Friday crying out for help as relief workers passed through their villages bringing rice, crackers, water purifying tablets and medicine.

Medical supplies were still running short in the many hospitals overflowing with injured people. The area was drenched with rain again Thursday night, further hampering relief efforts.

In Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, two-thirds of the population cannot read or write, and public schools such as the one in Mirikpur are a prized possession.

Bangladeshis who graduate from high schools have a higher social status and a better chance of getting coveted government jobs.

The tornado destroyed the one-story Mirikpur High School for boys after its 500 students had been dismissed for the day, but it killed 100 children and farmers who had sought shelter there from the tornado.

After pulling the bodies out of the rubble, the villagers sat wondering how they would ever be able to afford to rebuild it.

The situation was just as grim in Gopalpur, a village 25 miles to the north.

Before the tornado struck, Shamsul Alam was running a college with 215 students and two primary schools for 410 boys in Gopalpur. But on Monday, the tornado devastated both, killing 20 people who had taken shelter there.

“I remember the day when I started the school in 1988. It was the best day of my life,” said 35-year-old Alam. “I could never have imagined that I would see death here.”

Since 1988, at least 10,000 new schools have been built in Bangladesh and student enrollment has risen by 30,000 a year.

Even in the overcrowded capital of Dhaka, schools are held in special reverence.

“I give my sweat and blood only to see that my sons one day will wear clean clothes and be clerks in an office,” said Shamsuddin Mia, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka who earns $2.50 a day.


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