Monday, 19 May 2008

'It's difficult in there. It's like walking a tightrope'

Tim Costello describes the guilt he felt coming home, and the devastation he left behind in Burma. --
Photo: Melanie Faith Dove

By Julia Medew - The Age

TIM Costello has dealt with devastation before. Too many times, he has stood among the ruins of people's homes and lives, among scores of bodies rotting in the streets.

But in Burma, while human suffering in the wake of cyclone Nargis was all around, it was a sense of frustration at being unable to help, at being hampered at every turn in trying to bring in aid, that overwhelmed the World Vision Australia chief.

In his first in-depth interview since returning to Melbourne on Saturday, Mr Costello broke down yesterday as he detailed the infuriating hurdles he faced in a country that seemed more focused on its elections than saving its people's lives.

"The truth is we've never had such a limited space to mount a humanitarian effort that demanded such a commensurable response to the suffering," he said. "This cyclone is much bigger for Myanmar than the tsunami was for Sri Lanka or Thailand, much bigger."

After flying into the country's south on May 8 with one of few visas granted to foreigners, Mr Costello said he felt like Robinson Crusoe as he raced to convince the Government that his organisation was there only to help. "It's difficult in there. It's like walking a tightrope."

One government official quietly suggested Mr Costello disregard the junta and take supplies into the worst-hit areas. He was tempted. "I thought, sure, I had a green light from him, but I knew that the Government's attitude was that no expats were to go down there." Paramount was Mr Costello's knowledge that one small misstep could derail World Vision's position of trust in Burma, built up over several decades.

It was not until May 10 — a week after the cyclone — that he was allowed to meet a general in Rangoon. Mr Costello said he worked hard to persuade the general that he was not one of the "foreign saboteurs" that the junta feared so much. "I had to explain that we were not there to pull off another Banda Aceh," he said, referring to the free elections that followed journalists and aid organisations moving freely around the Indonesian province after the tsunami.

"I met with this general in an ornately carved room … We told him we had come to ask for three things: a letter to give us access through road blocks, the ability to distribute aid ourselves, rather than through the military, and permission for one of our planes to leave Dubai." He agreed to the first two.

The letter gave World Vision workers unrestricted access to deliver materials such as blankets and rice. But it was not enough.

Foreign aid workers, doctors, sanitation experts, helicopters and boats from across the world continued to be shut out, forced to stand by as contaminated water supplies threatened the health of thousands who, remarkably, have survived to this point.

More than two weeks after the cyclone, Burma has yielded only slightly to international pressure by admitting a team of 80 Asian doctors and, in a rare agreement with international aid agencies, has raised its official toll from the disaster to 77,738 dead and 55,917 missing.

With 750,000 people starving, Mr Costello broke down as he described the guilt of returning home and the cumulative grief of his work. "It's knowing what could have been done," he said. "This is the frustration. Even though it's not in your control and it's inappropriate and neurotic, you still feel it."

Mr Costello, who has been to Sudan, Congo and Indonesia during the tsunami, said he had learnt to "compartmentalise" traumatic situations but that he still came undone every now and again. "You put on a professional persona, you know that if you're going to be shocked and unable to function that it's not going to work. It's later when you get back that the compartments start leaking.

"I can find myself in tears without warning … By and large, apart from it being embarrassing to cry every now and again and have people wondering why I'm blubbering in the middle of telling a joke, I haven't been debilitated by it."

After praising the Australian Government's $25 million aid commitment to Burma, Mr Costello said he was concerned about the impact of the junta's resistance on potential donors.

"There has been no doubt. Australians have not given," he said. "There is deep, deep cynicism in the donor public here in Australia. They think there's no point trying, that it's going into the Government's pockets. In truth, not a cent of our aid is going to the military. "Getting that message through is very difficult because the public's right in saying they have only opened the door ajar for a humanitarian effort when it needs to be flung right open …

"But we must not give up on them. They did not choose their Government."

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