By Manish Tewani, Pyongyang
Kim Myong Ok’s eyes tear up as she declares: “I got a second life thanks to the Red Cross.”
Visibly emotional, she recounts her close brush with death during the dramatic floods that have ravaged large parts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) this week. The government says nearly 120 people have lost their lives so far, and tens of thousands are now homeless.
Heavy rain had made the ground soggy and wet by the evening of July 23, and additional heavy rainfall after midnight resulted in flooding that eventually destroyed Mrs. Kim’s house. Red Cross volunteers activated the early warning systems that are part of their pre-storm community disaster preparedness programs.
At 2 a.m., volunteers woke the Kim family, helping to evacuate Mrs. Kim, her husband and her young son. They helped her carry her young son and guided her sick husband to safety.
Mrs. Kim is among the most vulnerable members of Ampo-ri community where 146 of a total of 350 houses have been damaged by the floods. Her husband is unable to work; she takes care of her family by doing whatever work she gets in the community as well as receiving support from other community members.
House and possessions lost
Mrs. Kim’s house was completely destroyed and she lost all her meager possessions. Now, at least the couple and their 8 year old son have been able to receive a family kit from the pre-positioned disaster preparedness supplies of the Red Cross Society of the DPRK. The kits include plastic sheeting, quilts, a water container, water purification tablets and other basic relief items.
Red Cross has given kits to 6,610 families, totaling 29,950 persons. Additionally, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has allocated 300,969 CHF from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the relief operation.
“After receiving the kit, I am confident that I can build back my family and house”, Mrs. Kim says solemnly. “Though, I would want to rebuild my house at a higher place because it was located very close to the stream. In all previous monsoons, the floor used to get flooded and wet. But this year, it was so big”, she adds quickly.
Disaster-resilient shelter reconstruction will be a priority and a challenge for the people of Ampo-ri, in addition to water and sanitation and health issues. The existing water supply system of the entire county has been damaged and communities rely on natural streams for their daily needs, increasing the risk of getting waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and skin infections.
The interagency rapid assessment team with which Mrs. Kim met is traveling to some of the worst affected places. Moving north from the capital Pyongyang, the smooth drive on the broad roads gives way to an increasingly bumpy and muddy ride. Approaching the Ampo-ri community, there are signs of damaged crops, mud and stones that have careened down the deforested hills.
Ri Man Ho, Chairman of the county Party Committee briefs the rapid assessment team. Four Ampo-ri community members died, hundreds suffered injuries like fractures, bruises and cuts, and the flooding destroyed houses and infrastructure.
Red Cross only humanitarian group
Chairman Ri is thankful for the help from Red Cross, which is the only humanitarian organisation operational in many DPRK communities. But, addressing the group of aid workers on the team, including UN staff and many other aid groups, he says that such is the scale of this disaster, that “we still need support from other international organisations to provide assistance.”
As the long convoy of cars starts leaving Ampo-ri towards its next desination, gathered families in the community’s public square lift their arms and wave a friendly good-bye. Through its challenges, the Ampo-ri community is determined to rebuild. This spirit and hope keeps their spirits and smiles intact.