The road ahead is narrow. We parked the car and set off on foot. It is a traditional 'ganj' road, but with a view.
Straight ahead at a distance, between the weather-beaten one-and-two-storeyed buildings of the bazar, you can see a white waterfall adorning the dark green Himalayan foothills in Meghalaya.
Three months back, during the unprecedented multiple floodings of Sylhet and Sunamganj districts, there was waist-deep water on this Thana Bazar Road in Companiganj, Sylhet. Boats, instead of the usual CNG auto-rickshaws and electric three-wheelers, were plying it.
The floodwater receded and changed the situation for the better. But for the people whose lives the floods shattered, little has changed.
On the day, an INGO (Islamic Relief Bangladesh) was distributing house-building materials among some select flood-affected families of the upazila. We saw men and women waiting in a queue to receive the materials.
The INGO staffers made the list of beneficiaries with extensive care and fieldwork, so we decided to follow the recipients to see what their struggle looks like. We went to a nearby village, Chanpur, just across the Dholai, the transboundary river that flows beside the Thana Bazar in Companiganj.
Getting off the ferryboat, we walked through a slum, mostly consisting of corrugated tin or bamboo-fenced houses. Strangely, there were hardly any people.
"This family has moved to Dhaka. That one too. In this house, only the old parents are staying, others have gone to Dhaka to look for work," said Goni Mia, one of the recipients of the housing material, pointing a finger at one spot then another, as we navigated through the largely emptied, battered houses, still bearing the marks of the devastating floods.
As Goni Mia, a patient of tuberculosis, guided us to what appeared to be the remnants of his home, we discovered that his family too - wife and two daughters - had left the village for work.
Visibly weak and slightly bent, Goni Mia runs a tea stall at Thana Bazar, but the earnings are not enough to cover the cost of food for the four-member family and his medical treatment, let alone rebuild the flood-ravaged house. There aren't many customers these days. The stone quarries - which used to be a large employment sector for these people - have closed for years as the government banned stone extraction on environmental grounds. And then came the floods.
Goni Mia had no other way but to send his wife and two daughters to Narayanganj to look for work. "They had to wait two weeks before getting jobs in a dyeing factory. Now my wife and the elder daughter work in that factory. The younger one is staying with them," Goni Mia told us. His family members never worked in factories before.
As the floods destroyed the boro harvest in Sylhet and Sunamganj areas, farmers dependent on this lone crop can now hardly feed themselves. Goni Mia also cultivated some land on lease, but could not save the crop.
Just beside Goni Mia's house, we saw a corrugated tin roof lying on the ground. The owner did get some assistance, Tk10,000 from another agency to rebuild his house, but the poverty is so severe that he had to spend it to feed his family instead.
Flood-ravaged houses are the most common sight in these villages. As we walked through Chanpur, a man and a woman complained that they did not receive any donations despite being badly affected by the flood.
We soon found out that there are worse-off families. A woman with a toddler came to the NGO official and complained that her name was not listed. Turned out, her house was not just damaged, it was completely washed away and left behind no trace of her dwelling. She had to move to a relative's house, so, despite her being the most affected, she couldn't be listed for relief.
"What would I do? We lost everything"
The next day, we took a boat with other recipients of the housing materials. An otherwise pleasant boat ride through one of the most beautiful places in the country.
We could see the Himalayan foothills of Meghalaya closing in. The reed grass on the river bank, rare patches of natural Hijol-Koroch forest, the young Aman paddy fields and the beautiful blue sky with clusters of dense, towering cumulonimbus clouds said everything is okay.
But everything was not okay when it came to human suffering.
In Notun Jibonpur in East Islampur Union, Hasina Begum had returned from her new workplace in Narayanganj to receive the housing material. There, she left her two sons - as young as seven and nine years old - who also work in a yarn dyeing mill.
"What would I do? We lost everything. Now at least they are earning money, no matter how little," said Hasina, when asked why she let her small children work in a factory. "My plan is to earn some money and use that to build the house," she added.
The woman, whose husband died in a landslide in a stone quarry a couple of years back, received 20 tin sheets as roofing material and a wooden door and two windows as well as metal screws, but no fencing material or struts. The organisation will also share half of the building cost.
For many recipients, even the building cost is too steep to afford, which ranges from Tk5-6,000.
Hasina's neighbour, Rahima Khatun, a single mother with three children - one of whom is handicapped - said she couldn't afford the rest of the building material and labour cost.
"I earn Tk500 from working on fishing nets, which takes three days to finish. Where would I get the money?" asked Rahima. As her house was badly damaged, she now lives in her brother's house.
Her elder daughter, aged 13, still goes to school, and Rahima wants her to continue studying. Rahima's plan is to send her daughter to some home in the town where she will stay, work as a maid, and go to school.
While some are migrating to Dhaka or other adjacent cities for employment, the situation is not the same for everyone.
In Notun Jibonpur village, we met Shamsul (31). He was sitting on the road alone, facing the cropland. So we assumed he was a farmer. As we started a conversation, he revealed that he was actually a construction worker who has been working in Dhaka for 13 years. Shamsul came back from Dhaka because there is little to no work, as construction costs have shot up.
As he came back, he is now cultivating some two kiar land (less than two bigha). Like others, he too lost his boro crop in the flood.
Effectiveness of the response programmes
The situation, obviously, is not exclusive to these villages in Companiganj, but similar miserable ground reality pervades the whole haor region.
"The success of a disaster response is measured by four indicators: 1. return of students to schools, 2. child labour, 3. child marriage, and 4. Migration," says Gawher Nayeem Wahra, Founder Member Secretary of Foundation for Disaster Forum.
"In some places in the flood-affected districts, less than 23% of students have returned to school. In the best-case scenarios, only 40% have returned. This indicates that various interventions have not been very effective," he said.
"There is no food at home, and the next crop in the haor areas is not coming before April next year. Also, to get a good yield, the farmer has to stay there [but they are migrating for work]. Moreover, the price of everything has increased, agricultural inputs included," the disaster management expert added.
Although local people have been demanding the rivers be dredged for smooth drainage of flood water, the reality is that these rivers will be silted again, as more 'development' in the Indian hills means razing of forests that could hold rainwater better than bare soil.
This warrants the implementation of the 'Build Back Better (BBB)'principle, which refers to the use of the recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction phases after a disaster to increase the resilience of communities.
But there is hardly any sign of BBB even in the rehabilitation programmes taken by the development agencies. For instance, the housing materials distributed among the flood victims are 'culturally appropriate,' which will surely wash away in the next flood.
The whole haor region is nature's playground. It is as beautiful and bountiful as it can be. People living in this area are largely dependent on nature for their livelihood. And this lands them in a vulnerable position in the fast-evolving climate change scenario.
Only a small percentage of the people we spoke to over two days were originally from the Sylhet division. It is easily recognisable from the language they speak.
The majority are from different places in the country. The names of the villages also bear witness to it. 'Rangpur Bosti,' for instance, is inhabited by people from Rangpur, who came to work in the stone quarries. 'Notun Jibonpur ', inhabited by people from Mymensingh and Narsingdi region, also suggests the name is derived from people seeking a new life in a new place.
These people migrated here for the abundance of land and other resources, such as stone. They populated areas that were always vulnerable to flooding, and naturally hosted reed grass and Hijol-Koroch forests that put up a resistance to the strong current of flash floods.
"The lands of reed are now cultivated, so the water flows without any resistance when it comes down from the hills. But then, waterlogging occurs due to the roads built here and there," Waliullah, 70, from Rajapur village in Dokkhin Ronikhai union said.
Scientists suggest that the rainfall in this area is shifting toward the April-May segment from July-August, meaning more crop damage is likely in future, caused by early floods that overlap with the boro harvesting season.
Additionally, the average rainfall is also on the rise, in the course of a changing climate. This hopeless situation surely warrants radical planning and implementation with local consultation and multisectoral involvement.