Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Volunteers help Myanmar cyclone victims still without foreign aid

By Moe Moe Yu

Tue Jun 17, 2008, KYON KA NAN, Myanmar (AFP) - Cyclone Nargis almost destroyed the remote village of Kyon Ka Nan, but residents are now rebuilding their homes and their food stocks, aided by a resilient group of Myanmar volunteers.

In this village of 300 homes, only six houses were left after the cyclone hit nearly seven weeks ago. Residents say 114 people died, many of their bodies washed into the freshwater ponds once used for drinking water.

Residents in Kyon Ka Nan say they have yet to receive any international aid, and official assistance has been meagre.

But they are slowly piecing together their shattered lives with the help of a resourceful network of local volunteers, who have delivered enormous amounts of aid despite their meagre resources and restrictions imposed by the military regime.

The latest shipment filled a cargo ship and a small boat, carrying 22 tonnes of rice, 100,000 tins of fish, and a team of doctors.

As the boat docked, men from the village helped unload 500 bags of rice, each weighing 100 kilos (225 pounds), and carried them to the Buddhist temple, which has become the focal point of the relief effort.

Many of the surviving villagers are living with the monks, as they rebuild their homes with bamboo and whatever they can salvage from the wreckage.

Villages like this one in the Irrawaddy delta bore the brunt of the cyclone's power, with more than 133,000 dead and 2.4 million in need of humanitarian aid.

Myanmar's regime has limited the scope of the international aid operation, and the UN says one million people have yet to receive any foreign assistance.

Even local volunteers -- often of modest means themselves -- struggle to skirt military roadblocks, and two prominent leaders of the aid movement have been arrested.

Despite the obstacles, Lae Lae, a 39-year-old helping to deliver the aid to Kyon Ka Nan, said they have reached more than 40 villages in this area southwest of Yangon.

"The donations came from several different sources -- monks, private companies or our friends working overseas," she said.

"They donated money through us and we have tried to reach villages where not much aid has arrived."

This is the group's fourth visit to Kyon Ka Nan. The volunteers hope to leave them with a month's supply of food, so the villagers can focus on reviving their rice fields.

The volunteers have organised themselves by specialty.

Five young volunteer doctors set up a temporary clinic at the monastery to treat people with injuries from the storm, as well as minor illnesses and in some cases trauma among people who watched their loved ones die.

A second group headed to the freshwater ponds that were once used for drinking, but were filled with debris and rotting corpses.

The bodies have already been cremated and the wreckage cleared, but residents are too afraid to drink from the ponds and have relied on rainwater instead.

The volunteers assure them they will take samples back to the main city of Yangon for testing, to see if the water is safe. But they will likely need to find a pump to empty the ponds and let the monsoon rains refill them.

A third group begins distributing the food, including rice, fish, cooking oil, beans and onions. The villager's leader had already made a roster of the families, and called out each family to receive their share.

"Ever since Nargis, we have lived on food donated from local groups. Otherwise we wouldn't have survived," said Win, one of the women lining up for food.

In the six weeks since the storm, Win says the only official aid she has received was 13 cups of rice and a few potatoes, plus a tarpaulin sheet from the local Red Cross Association.

Like most families in the delta, Win and her husband make their living by fishing and working as tenant farmers in the rice paddies.

She said the villagers already know how to supplement their diets with fish and wild vegetables, but she said their own supplies of rice were washed away.

"We mainly need rice. Fish and vegetables can be found easily," Win said.

The volunteers say they hope that if the village's most basic needs are cared for, the residents will be able to focus on farming

"We think that if they have enough food, then they can get back to work," said one of the volunteers. "So we are thinking about donating farming and fishing equipment next time."

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