BOGALAY, Burma (SMH): Two months after a cyclone savaged the fertile Irrawaddy Delta, in Burma's south-west, the bones of drowned victims still clutter the muddy banks of waterways.
One bamboo stick at a time, survivors in hundreds of flattened villages are struggling to rebuild their homes. For shelter, they squeeze several families into a single tent. For drinking water, they collect monsoon rainwater that trickles off tarpaulin roof coverings into buckets or salvaged ceramic vases. For food, they cook communal meals with rice, beans and oil from hand-outs. Sometimes it is spoiled.
In one village, survivors kept up a steady pace of sawing and hammering at planks salvaged from the wreckage.
"To work is to be busy, and to be busy helps them forget," said Soe, the village leader.
He said 943 people used to live here. In the storm that came ashore the night of May 2, 660 of them disappeared. Across the vast, maze-like delta, an estimated 130,000 people were killed and 2.4 million affected.
Persistent obstruction by Burma's military rulers has kept aid at tragically meagre levels. International efforts to quickly dispatch emergency assistance were delayed as the xenophobic junta rebuffed offers of help, denied visas to foreign aid workers and required permits for travel within the country.
Aid workers say most survivors of tropical cyclone Nargis have received at least some help but few are even remotely equipped to make their way in coming months. Some communities have only recently been reached by aid teams, who had journeyed for hours on foot, by motorcycle and by boat.
Many of the restrictions have been eased but relief workers say they still operate under erratic, constantly shifting constraints. The logistical challenges remain formidable as they scramble to dispatch seed, tractors and tillers to farmers before the rice-planting season ends this month.
"We have time to farm, but no tractors, no buffaloes and no seed," Mr Soe said.
Tents in the village and passing boats bore the logo of the Htoo trading company, which is owned by Tay Za, a businessman targeted by US sanctions because of his closeness to the junta.
At least 30 big Burmese companies that locals refer to as "cronies" of the junta were assigned to the reconstruction and relief efforts in the delta's townships, raising concerns the companies would collect payback in the form of land concessions.
But Western diplomats and aid workers say that so far, the companies have often proved helpful. Some aid agencies, including Save the Children, have turned to businessmen such as Serge Pun, whose holdings include Yoma Bank, to obtain boats and warehouse space and to speed deliveries to the affected areas.
Working with the company has "absolutely helped cut through the red tape," said Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children's Burma director.
"I think all of us were frustrated with not being able to do more sooner."
But access to the delta remains a concern. In past weeks, aid agencies have had to seek approval for their activities from an ever-changing combination of ministries and local authorities. Trips into the field are systematically monitored. A World Food Program helicopter shipment was cancelled by an on-board military agent because flight co-ordinates submitted by UN workers were not clear, according to a staffer.
Last week, one ministry cancelled a program by the agency to give cash to survivors around Rangoon, even though another ministry had approved the plan days earlier.
Aid workers and diplomats say the problem at the lower levels is sometimes less wilful neglect than incompetence. But in some places, local authorities have defied their superiors to help in the relief efforts. One Western diplomat said officials in the remote rural hub of Pathein had built a road for supplies, defying senior military officers.
Aid workers praise villagers' resilience. In one village, farmers who own two to four hectares apiece said they united to buy a tractor from officials in Bogalay. They will have to pay in instalments over three years, using rice seed and funds they do not yet have, they said.
The Washington Post