In the remote village of Kampung Manek Urai Lama, Kuala Krai, in the east coast state of Kelantan, hundreds of villagers had been stranded for days up on the hills, having fled for higher ground when flood waters surged into their homes without warning.
The evacuation had been frightening and sudden, with no help from the authorities, according to Hayati (not her real name), who is among those seeking shelter on the hill after the flood devastated her house.
“The time when we needed them the most, the police, the firemen failed us,” she said, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.
No one in the village expected the flood to reach their homes. So when the water came rushing in at 3am last Tuesday, families scrambled to get to safety as frantic phone calls were made to the authorities to save them.
But the rescue team wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come, and the villagers had only themselves to rely on.
“The water was coming in so fast. When the police said they couldn’t come here, I thought, ‘that’s it, we’ll just have to climb onto the roof.
“But, thank God, someone in the village had a sampan so I quickly climbed in and squeezed into it with my two-month-old baby and we fled for the homes higher up on the hills,” she said.
That night, each house on the hill had about five families crammed safely inside. Everyone had to make do with sleeping on the floor, and food was limited to whatever the homeowner had, she said.
“Even though there were so many of us seeking shelter, the homeowners welcomed us with open arms. They were very reassuring; they told us it was a good thing they had just popped over to the store that day so there was enough food to go around.”
It was only two days later that more supplies reached them, as helicopters and boats dropped food and clothing to the villagers marooned on the hill.
Finally, the flood began to recede yesterday and they were able to slowly made their way back down the hill to check on their ravaged houses.
“Nothing’s left,” said Hayati with a shake of her head.
She was cleaning her house when approached by The Malaysian Insider. Although the house itself was intact, it was uninhabitable. Every inch of surface was covered in filth and wet mud, while the furniture was ruined.
“Everything is gone. Our furniture, our clothes, our food. We have nothing left,” she said, as her brothers lifted up the muddy remains of a wardrobe and dumped it in a heap in the street.
“I can’t even imagine how my children will start school in the next few days, everything I’ve bought for them is destroyed,” she said, her voice breaking.
The lower part of her village was almost entirely wiped out. Some houses, like Hayati’s, had survived the flood’s vicious onslaught, but others had been swept away by the sheer force of the water.
One wooden house had been lifted entirely from its foundation and was found smashed into the concrete house opposite the street.
Pieces of yellow plank – what remained of the wooden house’s living room walls – almost buried the neighbour’s home, which still managed to remain upright.
A sodden, pink mattress spattered with dirt lay dangling on the roof, while a metal bedframe and a few textbooks bloated with mud were the only things left from the wooden house.
Suhaimi (not his real name), 41, was grateful that the house had been empty when the flood carried it away; it had belonged to his mother-in-law, who had been in Kuala Lumpur the past week.
“I stayed in that house for 20 years, and even though I now live in Bachok, I do come here once a week. But it’s entirely gone now and no amount of cash vouchers will be able to bring it back,” he said.
Next to him, his mother-in-law wrung her hands and stared at the devastating scene before her, too distressed to speak.
It was the first time his family had returned to Kampung Manek Urai Lama since the floods struck. For the past few days, all access by land was impossible as the village had become a tiny island cut off from the rest of the world.
The bridge leading up to the village had only resurfaced from the flood waters the previous day. It was now strewn with waterlogged cars tangled in uprooted trees, while the murky brown river flowed calmly underneath.
But even with the flood subsiding, Suhaimi said at this point, all his family could do was clear their neighbour’s house from the debris left by their own house.
“There’s nothing left for us to salvage,” he said helplessly, as his relatives painstakingly tore apart the large yellow planks with a hammer and tossed them aside.
“We’re just hoping for help from the government to rebuild this village, and maybe raise the roads leading to it so that this area won’t be inaccessible the next time there’s a flood.”
Husaini Hamzah, 40, stood by himself among the rubble several hundred metres away. He had arrived here alone from Kuala Lumpur the day before, after he heard that his family’s village was flooded.
“When I arrived yesterday, I was devastated to see all my relatives squeezed inside a mosque outside of this village with a few hundred other people. They had been without any supplies for days.
“They survived by looting other vacated shop lots. They had no other choice. It was either that or starve,” he said, adding that most of the elderly still remained in the mosque despite the floods subsiding, as they were too traumatised to go back to the village.
As we speak, a 64-year-old woman trudged past him, a donated sack of rice held on her head with one hand, a plastic bag full of medicine grasped in the other, as she returned to the dry houses on the hill.
Refusing to give her name, she told The Malaysian Insider that this was the first time since the floods swept her home away that she had left the safety of the hill, and this was only because some volunteers had come that day with medicinal supplies.
“My husband is up there, he has kidney problems and needs the medicine. Otherwise I would have just stayed up there as well.
“It was up to me to come down and get the medicine for him as it’s just the two of us. We have no money anymore, no home, and no young ones to help, not like them,” she said, pointing at a few teenagers trailing behind their mother, each balancing sacks of rice on their heads.
She paused at the sight of the limp body of a cat on the ground which was already beginning to smell of decay, before resuming her journey up the hill, navigating carefully through the wreckage and mud.
Up on the hill, a 29-year-old who only wanted to be known as Midi said he had opened the doors of his house to 25 people since Tuesday.
“I still remember how shocked I was when all the families came rushing for shelter up here. We had enough food to fill our stomachs for a few days until supplies from outside finally came through.”
Even though the floods had subsided, no one had moved out of his house yet, he said.
“We’re all still staying here – men, women, children. Even though the flood’s gone, their houses are too damaged for them to return.
“I don’t mind,” he said with a smile. “It’s what the situation calls for.”
He added that in the past few days, food had not been an issue as several Good Samaritans had brought supplies by boats.
“We don’t have enough blankets, though. We’ve been getting quite a few clothes, but no blankets.” – December 30, 2014.