Monday, 14 July 2008

First the storm, then the plague

Relief Web

The flies are unbearable.’ When asked how things are in the Cylone-affected Irrawaddy delta of Myanmar, the first thing that they describe is the flies. Thick clouds of biting flies fill the air around the villages, having bred in the bloated carcasses of the buffalo killed by the storm. ‘There are so many, that some of the remaining buffaloes have even been killed from the bites.’

For foreign aid workers access to the delta remains challenging, but two of DCA's partner staffs who had just returned from the storm-ravaged communities told that it’s crucial that the farmers in the affected villages plant their rice now if they’re to get any harvest, and for many that means cleaning and preparing paddies filled with fallen trees and debris from the storm, often without the help of buffaloes. There is at most only a week left in the planting season, and time is running out.

‘Only about 50 percent of the people have been able to plant so far,’ they said. ‘Luckily, the monsoon rains have cleared out the salt water that inundated the paddies after the Cyclone. But the buffaloes that remain are either younger ones from the North of the country, or animals weakened from the storm, and they are difficult to plow with.’

‘The flies are coming from the bodies of all of the buffaloes killed by the storm. But the farmers have no choice; they are soaking their faces and arms in diesel fuel to keep the flies away.’

The relief workers had just returned from Laputa township where they were able to distribute 300 fifty-kilogram bags of rice for about 700 people, and plan another distribution in about one and a half months. Whilst some villages have received food from the UN World Food Program through DCA’s local partner, those served by DCA’s smaller partners live on the banks of small streams or far from the river banks, and many have not received any assistance at all since the Cyclone hit and they lost everything.

Incomprehensible Suffering

The story of the death and destruction in these villages is overwhelming; some villages lost up to half their populations in a single night. And the individual stories of loss echo in my mind in the days that follow. The man I spoke with saw 100 bodies buried earlier that morning.

‘Some people have lost 8 family members from a single family. But even then, they try to rebuild.

Some of the children have lost both parents and have no one else to take care of them in their villages. Nargis orphans fill the institutions in the town centers. DCA’s partner staffs help to run one orphanage with 46 children, and another with 153.

The manager of the orphanage says the kids don’t want to go to school, and while they try to impose some routine, they don’t push the children too much.

‘There are some who say that they want to commit suicide, because they have lost their families,’ they tell me. ‘There is one girl twelve year old girl who runs off very often. When I ask her why, she says that she is afraid, that she is seeing dead bodies all the time.’

‘Another girl in the 3rd grade keeps screaming that she misses her mom, crying out loud.’

The pastor of one village lost his wife and 4 of his five children, including the son who was going to take over the parish as well as a twenty month old daughter. ‘He says he has completely lost his faith, that he just doesn’t feel it any more. He continues working for the village, but not for God. He says he just can’t believe anything after what has happened to him. He will stay in the village, but only until the harvest.’

The cyclone struck in the evening time. Now when the evening sky darkens with monsoon clouds people huddle together in the church, or what remains of it, just to keep each other company. In the last village they visited yesterday, the church had been utterly destroyed by the wind and water – only the pulpit and the bell tower remained, as if a broom had swept the rest clean. For the parishioners, the memory is still fresh, and the scar is deep. One of the most frequent requests is to rebuild the church.

Life goes on

But the relief officers also talk about how inspiring it is to see the villages coming together, how surprised they are by people’s ability to move on.

‘After the Cyclone many people are sharing resources, right down to spoons and pots. Many of them normally don’t have land plots to work on, work as daily wage laborers. They work others, try to catch a few fish, and eke out a living.

‘These people are used to doing everything for themselves.’ They are a proud people who are not used to accepting charity. I told them that DCA is not there to give handouts, but to help the Burmese people help themselves. Building local capacity is a core objective of DCA’s response.

As a whole, the relief officers see no signs of famine, but there are pockets of hunger. While there is no acute malnutrition, the kids are looking thin. ‘They don’t have as much to worry about any more. In the beginning, they had no contact with the other people. They felt helpless. But now they are regaining their confidence and their community fabric. People have been able to use their small building materials to rebuild their houses.’

Like many Danes, most Burmese people do not express their sorrow openly. ‘It’s strange to see that people feel pain, but they don’t bury their thoughts in sorrow,’ they told me. ‘They try hard to forget, to go back into their communities and want to focus on rebuilding, on starting a new life.’

The months ahead

The next rice harvest will come in November, when the World Food Program is planning to half the numbers of people receiving food distribution. Even those not receiving WFP food will be affected by this move and the overall effect on local food availability. DCA’s staff and partners are concerned that the most marginalized – those living in remote villages, daily laborers and the landless – will see their nutritional status worsen in these months, and will therefore keep a close watch on the harvest, and advocate with WFP if necessary.

Water will be another big problem for the villagers in the next six months. They need to clean the ponds 1 or 2 more times, as they are still dirty. This will be an increasing problem in the dry season (March April), when they will be without drinking water.

For the survivors, the road to recovery is long.

By Erik Johnson, Burma

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