Friday, 23 May 2008

Face of tragedy in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis

Rangoon (Mizzima) - While various reports have emerged on the situation in the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon division, the true extent of devastation and human loss still remains unconfirmed as the government continues to impose restrictions on entry into the region.

Several reports of the terrible hardships of refugees and cyclone victims have come in from the few aid workers, who were allowed by the government to go in and from local and international media persons, who sneaked into the region.

Mizzima's correspondent in Rangoon, who despite various restrictions and courting great risk, sneaked into the delta region, narrates what he saw and heard.

Over two weeks since Cyclone Nargis wrought havoc in Burma's delta region, the stories and images in villages, removed from now largely sanitized population centers, are a composite of increasing hardship and heightened despair.

Approximately two hours south of Laputta by boat, Betuit Village has confirmed 911 deaths out of a pre-cyclone population of 9,169; Myitpauk 4,649 out of 10,682; and Maungnge 1,247 out of 6,210 - including every primary school student.

A local volunteer observing a smaller tributary to the Irrawaddy on May 16, counted 27 bodies floating past in only three minutes. Five children and seven monks were among the victims. In Zeehyu Village, of a pre-cyclone kindergarten to grade 7 enrollments of 197 students, only 50 survived. Meanwhile in Siskone, 12 rotting bodies dotted the paddy fields inundated in saline water in the immediate vicinity of bamboo homes now scattered across the ground.

Another local, who managed to visit villages between Kunchankone and Dae Da Ye, reports similar tales of death, destruction and prolonged suffering. Visiting Kyetsinphyu on May 11, the person found only eight of over 100 residents had survived the killer cyclone. Remarkably, four of those spared were infants. They had been placed in one of the giant pots prevalent throughout the region; a pot that floated and kept them alive. They are now orphaned.

Continuing from Kyetsinphyu, the man proceeded to visit a remote school where he formerly taught, in "a village with no name." What he found was: "Nothing. No village, no houses." All that he encountered were "ghost voices" of former students rising from the debris. History will leave no remembrance for those that once lived in this remote location with no name.

These are the scenes in communities that international observers and organisations are not allowed to see, restricted only to main towns such as Dae Da Ye and Laputta. Meanwhile, the plight of the survivors of rural communities continues to grow.

Inexplicably, local volunteers speak of only being allowed access to such villages following the government's announcement that its May 10 (a week after the cyclone) constitutional referendum had passed - an event the communities in question did not even participate in and are widely said to have never even taken an interest. Now, iroically, there are reports of refugees in monasteries being told to return to their destroyed villages to cast votes in the May 24 polling for the cyclone hit regions - again, for a motion that has already announced to have passed the test.

Back in Betuit, increasing desperation combined with profiteering led three persons to start cutting off the fingers and ears of corpses for their jewelry. Two of them, subsequently reported to the authorities, were summarily executed. There is talk of the entire region being under undeclared martial law.

Without tablets to clean water, diarrhea is beginning to take on epidemic proportions in some parts, with villagers forced to drink out of the same stagnant pools of water in which carcasses lie rotting.

The absence of potable water is indicative of what is transpiring to be a grossly inadequate and incompetent distribution of relief material that is largely reliant upon patronage and private aid. The Oil and Gas Minister, having come from Kyoneda Village in the delta, has seen to it that Kyoneda is well taken care of. Yet just a short distance away, in a village with 194 of 200 village homes destroyed, but having suffered only 20 casualties, residents were granted enough construction material to assemble a single new home - without the tools to do so.

While potato crops damaged in Pyapon, due to the negligence of a navy sergeant, in Laputta, locals are paid to carry aid to a government storeroom - from where it may or may not move. Local representatives of the UN, WFP, JICA, MSF, MERLIN and Melteser International are said to be withholding aid from a desperate population as they instead involve themselves with meticulous and redundant documentation. In Laputta, individual observers place the number of internal refugees that have flocked to the town at a much higher number to that of the UNDP estimate.

And what of the long-term future for these hard hit farming communities? The people are said to want to return to their land, a land they say they love. But with damaged fields and, significantly, a devastated buffalo and cattle population, how can this be accomplished? The Minister of Agriculture has since given notice that by the end of the year there would be ample machines to replace animals lost, machines able to overcome all that has been swept away by Nargis' fury, and machines that no villager knows how to operate. For their part, farmers talk of the need for buffaloes.

What is also becoming increasingly clear is that there is very little central control over the entire process, with local officers concealing the true extent of the damage to senior officials as is exemplified in the clearing of private donor cars along the delta's main access road ahead of Senior General Than Shwe's visit this week - over two weeks after the disaster. Additionally, aid workers and media report that the situation on the ground varies greatly with the posturing of the individual or individuals in charge - reporting favourable views in some areas as to assistance with their work and stark obstructionism in other cases.

Much of delta village life currently stands obliterated. And without a drastic increase in aid and efficiency to match it, the situation is likely to worsen. The new fear now is that in three months time the region could be hit with widespread famine, piling ever more misery onto a decimated population.

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