Friday, 6 June 2008

In Rural Villages, Life is Desperate

The Irrawaddy News

The shoreline of this island in the Bogalay River is filled with cyclone debris—fallen trees, pieces of houses, thatch and other household rubble.

I saw a yellow shape and then recognized it—the body of a man—devastated by sun and water: yellowish-white and bloated, hands across the branches of a bush.

When a gentle breeze whirls over the river, a putrid odor wafts along in the wind from other decomposed bodies.

Residents squat by a river at their village near Bogalay.
Villagers continue to fish, wash and bathe in the river
where rotting corpses can still be sighted tangled in the scrubs.
(Photo: Reuters)

The local name for this area is Pait Taw (Thick Forest). The island, called Mein Ma Hla Kyun (Pretty Lady Island), is littered with cyclone wreckage and decomposing bodies. The odor of death hangs over the island.

This is one island of death and destruction among hundreds in the delta.

The debris covering the island was deposited here from villages as much as five miles away by the tidal surge and violent winds. People in small boats moved along the shoreline searching for anything usable: pieces of wood, furniture, clothes or household items, anything that could be used to rebuild their lives. Two hungry dogs scavenged for something to eat.

One of the men searching the debris was Myint Than Oo, in his thirties, a resident of Outer Mayan village in the Kyein Chaung Gyi village tract on the western shore of the island. The cyclone killed 13 of his family members and relatives. He was one of 22 people who survived out of more than 400 in his village.

Myint Than Oo said that there were 4,000 people living in the Kyein Chaung Gyi village tract. Of those, about 500 survived.

"Nobody will return to their home village,” he said, taking a break from scavenging. In his boat, he had a gathered a small Nat statute (a spiritual figure) and a few pieces of wood.

“People from four or five villages in the tract will join together into a resettlement village,” he said. “I am looking for house poles and wood to build a house." Before the cyclone, he had worked as a laborer on a farm. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to work again.

My mind was filled with different images, such as pictures of Than Shwe and other generals handing out aid on television. The generals said the first phase of the relief effort was completed and that reconstruction would now begin. The people on this island would say otherwise.

I know millions of dollars have been donated to help the survivors and thousands of tons of food and other material has poured into Rangoon in the past weeks, but so far little of it has trickled down to village tracts like Myint Than Oo’s.

Military trucks and privately owned vehicles pass daily on the roads leading to Laputta, Bogalay, Kwan Chan Kone, Pyar Pon and Mawlamyaing Gyun townships. Relief aid piles up in compounds in Laputta, Dedaye and Bogalay. Will the next phase include a major effort to get reconstruction and aid to the villagers who live far away from the big cities? If so, when?

UN statistics say assistance has reached 1.3 million people out of 2.5 million affected by the cyclone. However, there are several million people here in the delta who seem to desperately need on-going assistance.

One example: Hla Win of Taw Kyaung village in Kwan Chan Kone Township. She said: "My entire betel vine plantation was destroyed in the cyclone. I have nothing left to replant. Some say I could buy betel vine sprouts, but the price has gone sky high. A thousand sprouts of betel vine now costs 55,000 kyats (US $40). It is incredible, and I can't afford to buy at that price. Now I can do nothing but rely on rice assistance from donors. The hardest time was a week after the cyclone. I cooked rain-soaked rice and at it with green mangoes. I thought it would have been better to die. Then, all my troubles would be over."

Many refugees in this area spend hours trying to receive food from donors who drive into the delta from Rangoon, some even reaching remoter areas like this. Some people all their time near the roads. The authorities have assigned military and police to patrol the roads leading into the major cities and village areas. The guards at the checkpoints try to prevent refugees from lining up to receive food.

In many villages, the majority of the residents are Buddhist Karen who work rice paddy, betel vine or betel nut farms.

They have only a few days to plant crops before the monsoon begins. Only a few lucky ones will be able to farm this growing season.

One of the unlucky ones is Hlaing Tun, 24, of Hayman Latar village, about a one hour boat trip from Bogalay.

"My family owns 10 acres of paddy,” he said, “and I used to work it with four buffalo. Now all our buffaloes are dead. All our seeds are gone. I can't afford to buy a mechanical plow, and I can’t afford diesel and seeds. I have no help from anywhere. If I can't start right now, it’s too late."

The burden of many people who have lost their loved ones and their livelihood in the cyclone is hard to bear. Maybe more aid will eventually reach into the distant villages, but it will take time.

Meanwhile, the struggle to eat and to stay healthy grows more difficult for many people who have lived under unimaginable conditions for more than one month.

During the night as I drove between Bogalay and Pyapon, I saw families huddled under under bamboo mats on the side of the road. Others sat under plastic sheets and pieces of corrugated metal.

Many people also stood silently next to the road in the dark, their eyes searching the cars for signs that they might stop and offer a little food.

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