Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Myanmar evicts cyclone victims from schools

HLAING THAYAR, Myanmar - After Cyclone Nargis destroyed their home, Htay Win and her two daughters found shelter in the classrooms of a nearby school on the outskirts of Myanmar's former capital Yangon.

But late last week, authorities forced them to move back to the ruins of their home, and then said the two daughters should return on Monday for classes.

Her daughters, longing for some semblance of normalcy in the routine of a school day, begged her to let them go.

So she went to a money lender to borrow the 5.50 dollars she needs for school fees. Htay Win is supposed to pay him back at the end of the month, plus 20 percent interest.

"I have no choice. I have to find a way to give my daughters an education," she said.

"But I have nothing. I am a widow, and my house was destroyed by the storm. I already had to get a loan to build a bamboo tent where my house used to be," the 42-year-old vegetable seller told AFP.

"We just got two tins of rice from the township authorities today. Apart from that, the authorities have not given anything to us.

"Some private donors came to donate things to storm victims, but the authorities stopped them," she said.

Htay Win's family were among 400 hungry and homeless storm victims forced to leave the No.2 Basic Education Middle School on Friday, according to a teacher here.

The lucky ones had a bit of tarpaulin to make a tent, but most had nothing, she said.

The authorities insisted that schools around Yangon open on schedule on Monday after a long holiday, despite the cyclone that left 133,600 dead or missing, with 2.4 million people in need of food, shelter and medicine.

Schools in the hardest-hit regions of the Irrawaddy Delta have been given another month to open, but UNICEF says 3,000 schools were wiped out by the cyclone. About 500,000 children have no classrooms at all.

At this middle school, flies now swarm through the three-storey building, with classrooms reeking of human waste. There has been no sanitation since the cyclone hit one month ago.

Teachers fear for their students' health, but their fear of defying the military authorities is even greater.

"My school isn't clean enough. I worry for the children's health. We need to spray disinfectant around the school. We hope the Doctors Without Borders or World Vision will help," the teacher said.

Only about half of the school's 870 students showed up for class this week.

"Many parents can't afford to send their children to school, because they don't have enough money. I feel so sad for my pupils," another teacher said.

"Many parents told me that they went to money-lenders for their school fees, even with the very high interest rates. I told the children they can come to school even if they don't have the right uniforms," she said.

Some of the children have been sent to work instead.

San San Khaing, a 30-year-old fish seller, said she has sent her 14-year-old daughter to work in a factory after their home was destroyed in the storm.

"I can't afford to educate my eldest daughter any more. I am sending the younger one to school, by borrowing the money at 20 percent interest. We are surviving on my eldest daughter's wages," she said.

"I hope she will go back to school next year," she said. "But I'm lucky enough to send one daughter to school," she added.

Cyclone victims around Hlaing Thayar, a crippling poor neighbourhood on Yangon's outskirts, said the military has stopped private donors from delivering supplies here, even though state media loudly proclaim every day that anyone is free to make donations everywhere.

"The local authorities have given us seven potatoes. Three were already rotten. I have seven family members. What I am supposed to do with that?" said Khin Cho, a 43-year-old mother living in a homemade tent.

"They always try to stop the private donors," she said. "What's the result? We get nothing." - AFP/ir

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