17 June 2022, Kharchar Haor, Sunamganj.
It was an ordinary Thursday night. Sakib Mahmud – proprietor of an online tour operator platform called Eyes on Bangladesh – was sleeping in Palki, his houseboat, soon to set sail for Tanguar haor, the premier tourist destination of Sunamganj.
Besides operating tours, Sakib also delivers mangoes from the orchards in Rajshahi and Chapainawabganj. He came to Sunamganj directly from the mango orchards to finish up work on his luxury houseboat, which was being designed to operate tours in the haors of Sunamganj.
Just after midnight, a sudden commotion woke him up. Residents of Rahimpur, the village where his boat was being made, were shouting all around – their homes were being flooded with water.
"The villagers woke up in knee-deep water in their houses," Sakib reminisced about the experience of that fateful night, "they started to come to the boathouse for shelter."
The residents of Kharchar haor are no strangers to floods. In fact, the incessant rain on Thursday night hinted at a flood.
But what was unusual about this flood was its speed. The water rose at a frightening pace.
Joykumar Sutrodhar, a carpenter and the chief architect of Sakib's Palki, lives near to where the boat was docked. He came to the boat first, along with his family and whatever essential possessions he could save.
"By dawn, the two houseboats being made here were full. Dozens of villagers took refuge in our boat," Sakib said.
The most challenging part of sheltering people on an unprepared boat was providing food to these hungry mouths. Everything was flooded, including the bazaars, and Sakib didn't store food or water for so many people as his boat was not ready yet.
The next day he took a boat, went to the submerged bazaar and bought some essential food supplies. Sakib and all these flood victims survived the flood together for the next few days, until water receded from the locals' houses.
While people of Rahimpur were flocking to Palki, at around the same time, Iftakhar Hamid, the proprietor of a tour operator called Shopnoghuri, was returning to Sumanganj town from Tanguar haor after hosting a group of doctors on his exotic boat named Joltarongo.
The Sunamganj town did not have electricity from the day before; hence communication had already been broken.
"When we were on the Surma River at night, we didn't realise the seriousness of this flood. But when we approached the town's Shahed Bari ghat (dock) at dawn, we realised the ghat was under five feet of water," said Iftakhar. "As soon as we docked, dozens of people, including the relatives of our staff members, began to take shelter in our boats."
Iftakhar has two houseboats. By morning, they were sheltering a combined population of 200.
"Our boats usually have food and water for 20 people," said Iftakhar. "We didn't have enough to feed so many people. So we bought things from the bazaar under chest-deep water and started cooking for the flood victims ourselves."
As news of the worsened flood situation gradually broke, more boats joined in the rescue efforts.
The exotic houseboats that require a lot of maintenance to ensure a pleasant and hygienic environment for tourists soon turned into floating rescue centres.
"It was about saving lives," Iftakhar said. "We have been connected with these people for more than three years now. We had to save them. Nothing else came to our mind."
As the day progressed, dozens of tourists got stuck on board different boats alongside hundreds of flood victims. It was challenging to live in such conditions for a long time, because of the scarcity of food and the cramped environment.
The houseboat owners, who conduct trips in Tanguar haor, have an association.
The association arranged a safe passage for the tourists to Kishoreganj. More than 70 tourists left for safety in three boats, while the other boats concentrated on saving lives instead of business, from the first hour of the crisis.
An organisation of the online tour operators called e-tab and the boat owner association, in the subsequent days, raised more than twenty lakh taka to help the flood victims. They distributed food, provided medical assistance, and shelter to the flood victims, till the flood waters receded.
Now that people are gradually going back home, these boats and the association are now operating as coordinators of the relief that is coming to the haor areas from all over the country.
They are selecting areas based on their in-depth knowledge of the haor region.
When different organisations and individuals come in with assistance, they take a basic fee to pay for the boat staff and send the aid to different areas where enough relief is yet to reach.
The day The Business Standard visited Sakib's area, two different groups of volunteers also went with us to distribute aid.
He arranged for them to sleep in the boat, cooked them food and set up facilities for them to cook food for 800 people in the flooded villages the following day.
"My boat would have been prepared by now, and we would have launched before Eid. But the final work of the boat has been delayed due to the flood and relief activities," Sakib said. "Now I plan to set sail for Tanguar haor with the first batch of tourists after this Qurbani Eid."
Iftakhar Hamid, meanwhile, operates his business out of a Facebook group, which has almost two lakh followers. While he was serving the flood victims in Sunamganj, his online group fell victim to hackers.
"I have cooked and fed thousands of people. I bought them essentials from the market, took care of them, and distributed relief for four days in a row. I did everything I could," Iftahkar Hamid posted on Facebook on 25 June. "Amid all these, three days ago, I lost the source of my livelihood, my everything – Shopnoghuri group."
"I sat on the bank of the Surma river at eight in the morning and cried for about half an hour. Someone ended my five years of hard work in an instant. Today, I have lost everything. Although my heart aches, I have to get going to work for the people of the haor," Iftakhar added.