Friday, 16 May 2008

Behind the Story in Laputta

The Irrawaddy News

The following is an Internet conversation between an Irrawaddy editor and an Irrawaddy correspondent in Rangoon, who had just returned from Laputta Township in the Irrawaddy delta.

Correspondent: I’m back.

Irrawaddy office: Welcome back. How was your trip?

Correspondent: I thought I was going to die there. I’m lucky to be talking to you here. I was in deep trouble, but I got what I wanted.

Office: So you can write what you have seen there?

Correspondent: When I went to the villages, I was caught in heavy rain and strong winds. We were in the middle of the river. When I was on the way back to Rangoon, the car almost turned over. In my whole life, I have never had such a rough trip.

Office: I am proud of you.

Correspondent: I am still scared when I recall the trip, rather than taking pride. If I died in the river, I would have been fish bait. I was afraid that my body would be floating in the river, and no one would come to rescue me. Now, when I think of this I feel funny and want to laugh. I am also ashamed.

Office: I understand your feeling.

Correspondent: The situation in Laputta is worse than in Bogalay. But now, according to a local staffer with the Red Cross in Laputta, 120,000 have died. It is terrible.

Office: Tell me about the relief missions.

Correspondent: Bad! I can’t describe how bad it is.

Office: Go on…

Correspondent: People are suffering from pneumonia and other diseases. There hasn’t been an outbreak of cholera yet. But if it goes at this rate, it surely will.

Office: Because of rain and not enough shelter, right?

Correspondent: The UN can only provide rice. It cannot take care of the other things that are needed yet. There are some other organizations. But the relief effort is not effective yet.

Office: How are the refugees surviving? Who is helping them?

Correspondent: You will know when you see my photos—how serious it is. The situation is very serious in villages. Not all refugees are getting to the shelter camps in towns. Rescue teams no longer conduct search and rescue operations. I don’t know who to blame. Donors [Domestic] can donate directly [to cyclone survivors]. They come from Rangoon and other parts of Burma. But it is not enough.

Office: What about the news that said rice from the UN is now sold by some authorities?

Correspondent: I haven’t seen that yet. The current problem is to get enough food to feed refugees. It is not enough to give rice alone. Rice is the main food, but rice alone cannot make them well and healthy. They haven’t received clothes, either.

Office: What about shelters?

Correspondent: I was really disheartened to see refugees who have no shelter and were shivering in the rain. It is tragic. It is high time to question the UN’s actions. What are they doing? Where is the aid?

Office: They must get permission to help the refugees from the government.

Correspondent: Can we call this assistance, since they are offering only a little bit of rice and a few medicines? How can we understand this? Before UN relief agencies came, people there had rice soup. Now they are eating low-quality rice and drinking water that has chlorine in it. Maybe one or two biscuits.

Is this assistance?

Mee Done [low quality rice] rice is what they are eating. Some rice was bought from the surrounding area. I was really pissed off and scolded some people.

Office: We heard that energy biscuits are not reaching the refugees. Rumor has it that authorities take them away…

Correspondent: It has been 13 days since the storm struck. The survivors are really unlucky.

Office: Haven’t they [refugees] received some blue colored tents? I saw some photos.

Correspondent: I have seen the tents, about 100. It was in Laputta. It was just for show. You would understand, if you see with your own eyes how they really live.

Office: Really?

Correspondent: You can’t know the real situation until you come and see. You need to talk to people. I have been thinking how to help these people. Now I feel sad while I’m explaining it to you.

Office: Don’t expect too much. We’re journalists who need to tell and report what is really happening on the ground. This is very important. It is enough if you can write a good story about your trip.

Correspondent: That’s right. But I will confess. In my writing, there may be some things where I may take sides with the refugees. If it means I break our [journalism] ethic of objectivity, I will. You will understand how bad the situation there is by just reading my story.

Office: You are free to write.

Correspondent: I have spoken to some UN officials, and they are blaming the refugees. They said, “Though we give them rice, the refugees tell visitors they don’t get the rice.” Damn bad guys! They are Burmese (UN) staff.

Office: Really. That’s bad.

Correspondent: I felt like punching them. Damn fools! A Burmese official in charge of the UN relief committee in Laputta came in a big car when there was trouble and gave instructions.

Office: Write about it in your article.

Correspondent: The rest are on the same page: “Refugees are bad.” Whoever comes, they don’t believe the stories from refuges about losing families and homes. But the refugees don’t lie. Their faces are filled with sadness and tears.

Office: I sympathize with you and your feelings.

Correspondent: In fact, the refugees don’t even have energy to lie or pretend. They need people to come and console them. Don’t the aid workers understand that food and drinking water alone is not enough?

Let me tell you one more thing. Some relief organizations also complained that if the refugees keep receiving free food, they will become lazy.

Office: Was that a UN staffer?

Correspondent: No. I’m too angry to remember which group he belonged to. I have to check [my notes]. I will write the details in my story.

The correspondent is ill. The Irrawaddy will publish his story and photographs in the coming days.

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