Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Evading the junta to witness Myanmar disaster

In the Field

(CNN) — There are your tough assignments and then there are those that border on the impossible. Myanmar is one of the world’s most secretive nations for a reason.

Foreign journalists are banned from the country. Tourists are even finding it difficult to get a visa, especially Americans. So the odds were already stacked against us.

I can’t say how we got in the country but that was only half the battle. Devising a plan to get down to the area devastated by Cyclone Nargis in May would be much harder.

The junta government has sealed off all entrances to the Irrawaddy delta. Checkpoints are set up in nearly every town. For days we pored over maps and scouted out the safest routes.

Spinning with frustration, we finally came up with an idea. It was risky. If caught, we could be deported and the locals helping us faced prison time. We had to move quickly and carefully.

By nightfall, we were stowing away like fugitives and hopping from one mode of transportation to the next. It took us 21 hours to reach the delta — a trip that typically takes 4 hours by car.

A quick glance is all it took to see why the Myanmar government wants to keep the rest of the world out. Devastation was everywhere.

Bodies were still scattered along the delta two months after the cyclone. I knew we’d see them, I just didn’t know how haunting it would be. There was no avoiding the stench of death. It’s an odor that sends chills through the soul.

All I could do was say a silent prayer. These were people who deserved better. It was shameful to see them rotting like their lives didn’t matter.

I kept thinking somewhere their families were grieving, wondering what happened to them. Or maybe the bodies of other family members were scattered elsewhere, and there was no-one left to bury the dead. Perhaps, it’s best these remains can’t be identified. This horrific discovery would only compound the pain.

And pain was the only thing in abundance along the delta. I met a tearful woman who sat clutching a picture of her only child.

The smiling 17-year-old was this poor farming family’s best shot at a bright future. They spent all their extra money making sure she got an education. Two weeks before graduating high school, she died in the storm. Her body was never found.

Yet, others had no time for tears. A young farmer briefly stopped working in the rice paddies to describe how the tidal surge swept his baby boy right out of his hands. There was no emotion on his face or in his voice. I couldn’t help but wonder if the cyclone had robbed him of that too.

We worked quickly trying to capture these stories, never knowing when we would get caught by the junta. As night fell on the delta, it was time to set up camp. We slept in stifling conditions, didn’t shower for days and lived off little more than bottled water and energy bars. I kept reminding myself that our misery was temporary; for the people of the Delta it was a constant reality.

Still, I was struck by how few complained about the lack of aid since the cyclone. It was as if they didn’t expect much in the first place.

Some of the villages we visited were given bags of rice, while others got some tarp and roofing material. I saw a total of two tents. None of it was nearly enough. Most of the relief supplies came from aid organizations or small groups of locals banning together to help. There was little sign of any significant assistance from the government.

It’s a place where you could get lost in your anger and sorrow. Too many questions and not enough answers. Maybe that’s why survivors don’t waste their time stewing in frustration.

As we headed out of the delta, I made a point to take one last look.

The cyclone’s destruction seemed to fade away into the palm trees that lined the shore. From afar, it becomes easy to ignore what you cannot see. And that’s the very reason this assignment was worth the risk.

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