Children of Kosi: orphaned, homeless, waiting for help
The Kosi, Bihar's river of sorrow, has lived up to its name. On the morning of August 18, the river breached its embankments at Kusawa near the India-Nepal border and swept through Bihar's northeastern plains.
Villages, farmlands, homes were flooded in one of India's worst natural disasters ever. More than 3 lakh people are now living in relief camps and 30 lakh people have been affected. Many of these people don't have homes to go back to and are those too young to protect themselves.
At this camp in Saharsa, many of the children who escaped the floods have already found new friends. But for children like Ranjeev, the past is not that easily forgotten.
Ranjeev, 13, doesn't know where his parents are. He's not even sure if they are alive. The only family he has now is his 65-year-old grandmother, with whom he escaped when the Kosi entered his village in Sonebarsa. Ranjeev managed to save his most valuable possessions, his textbooks, but he doesn't know when he'll be able to go to school again.
Most schools across this part of Bihar are now inaccessible. The enrolment rate in flood-hit districts is much below the national average. And the flood has ensured that far fewer children will complete primary school now. Many fear that these children, with nowhere to go, will end up being trafficked, like others in the Kosi-Kamla belt.
"Women and children are the most vulnerable. We have to ensure any abuse of child in the (flooded) areas," says Bijay Raj Bhandari, the PRO for UNICEF.
Sonu, 7, is lucky he is still with his family. He went missing on August 9 from his village in Ghumharia. After a day of frantic searching, his father found Sonu near the Madhepura railway station, far away from his village, with bruises on his hands and shoulders.
�Sonu was being taken away in a boat. I fear he would have been sold,� say his father Gajender Prasad Yadav.
Young girls are even more at risk. Kalpana, 15, is not allowed to leave her house for more than an hour a day. She spends most of her time doing household chores at her home in Kumarkhand, under her mother's protective eye.
�All kinds of people have come to the village after the floods. That is why I keep my children near me,� says Urmila Devi, Kalpana's mother.
Vashikanth Choudhary, a senior journalist in Saharsa, contracted polio as a child after a flood prevented his mother from getting him immunised. Years later, the high waters are again spreading disease and Choudhary fears children will suffer like he had.
Zaimun Khatoon's son Ulfat has been ill for ten days, and his fever is rising. Khatoon managed to get Rs 20 together to pay for a boat ride to an Army clinic in Bhasti. Doctors here say cases of high fever and pneumonia among children have been steadily rising, particularly in marooned villages, but they don't have the resources to tackle the problem.
�A specialist medical team is required here which can point out the cases and do investigations,� says Major Debashish Paul, an Army doctor from the base hospital in Barakpore.
Government agencies claim that there is adequate medicine, and the spread of disease is under control. But international aid agencies say over twenty children may have died of diarrohea in Supaul and Saharsa alone.
Amidst the despair, though, hope still floats. Pratibha, 13, is preparing for another long night on the rooftop of her house in Bhasti: the rooftop she's shared with villagers for over 12 days.
�I saw a boy being carried away by the river and I pulled him out. I don�t know what his name was but he was a Dalit," says Pratibha.