A woman drowned while giving birth, her dead child half-born
A woman drowned while giving birth, her dead child half-born
As Burma’s junta blocks aid for the cyclone victims, one dreadful sight captures their suffering for Harry McKenzie in Bogale
Burma’s great Irrawaddy river runs flat and muddy. It twines and forks through miles of rich delta and has always given nurture and good fortune to the people of southern Burma.
But in the wake of last weekend’s cyclone, death and sickness have replaced the captivating beauty of this triangle of fertile land. A terrible sadness has settled in. In many places nothing moves, not a living thing – not even a thread of smoke from a village fire. It is deathly still.
The pinnacles of the pagodas that dot the landscape have toppled in the wind. Bodies float in the water like chunks of wood. Trees are down, houses are flattened and everywhere in the inundated rice fields of this devoutly Buddhist land there is an unbearable sense of loss.
With every hour that passes without the secretive Burmese military junta opening its doors to western aid workers, more people are dying. The junta has long been suspicious of the West, which enforces sanctions against it, and has snubbed American and other offers of help to avert further deaths.
Amid mounting international criticism of the rulers, there were stark warnings by such figures as Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, of a disaster of “apocalyptic proportions” if water, food, shelter and medical care for the estimated 1.5m people hardest hit by the storm are blocked.
The suffering of the survivors is growing ever more acute as grief for vanished loved ones is compounded by desperation in the long wait for vital supplies.
“I have been looking for my wife and three daughters for six days,” said Tei Lin, a farmer in Bo Thin hamlet, moving ponderously through the stinking mud, a photograph of two of his daughters in his breast pocket.
Not far away San Po Thin described how before he blacked out he had seen a wave “as tall as a mountain” sweeping towards his village. Recovering consciousness later, he found his wife, son and two daughters had been snatched away. There was nothing left of his village except uprooted trees, heaps of rubble and swarms of hungry people.
“I have lost everything,” he repeated over and over. “There was nothing I could do. There was no warning.”
All week the toll was rising. Yesterday it was authoritatively estimated to have reached 116,000, making Cyclone Nargis the worst natural disaster to strike Burma in modern times, far worse than the 2004 tsunami, which by some miracle was said to have killed only 68 people in Burma, in contrast to the tens of thousands of deaths in neighbouring countries.
“I will be very surprised if it does not rise higher,” said Andrew Kirkwood, who has spent 13 years working for Save the Children in Burma. “The numbers are quite numbing.”
Yesterday Kirkwood set off by helicopter for a town on the coast south of Laputta to see if anyone was alive. Aerial photographs he had studied the night before showed it to be underwater, with some trees sticking out, but with no sign of life.
But there was also some good news. The first Save the Children boat, carrying 100 tons of fresh water, rice, sugar, salt, dried noodles and oral rehydration powder, was due to arrive at Haing Gyi, an island on the coast where at one point the United Nations feared 50,000 people had died. It later revised that figure downwards to 4,000 dead and 10,000 missing.
However, dysentery was reported to be taking a grip in parts of the delta and Costello and other aid specialists voiced fears that outbreaks of the disease were on the doorstep of Rangoon, the largest city.
A week after the cyclone, there was still no aid effort to match the scale of the disaster. Burma’s rulers made clear that, while they would accept international assistance, they would run the relief operation on their own, whatever the West said about their lack of logistical skills and resources.
To cap it all, they were pressing ahead yesterday with a referendum on an army-drafted charter for a new constitution, which critics dismissed as a device that would allow the junta to maintain the lion’s share of power.
The polling stations in Rangoon, where voters were said to 80% to 90% in favour of the army’s charter, seemed a world away from the villages I passed through on a journey to the delta, where people made the same persistent plea: “We have no rice. We have no fresh water. We have no medical supplies. Who is going to help us?”
Almost a week after the cyclone, villages in the stricken areas of Kungyangon and Dedaye said they had received just one government delivery, of a bag of rice per family and some soup. A single fresh-water truck arrived on Thursday; until then, most people had survived on coconut milk or whatever rain-water they could collect.
Leaving Rangoon on the road to Bogale, one of the worst-affected towns, soon revealed to me the scale of the crisis: petrol queues stretching for more than half a mile, with roadside touts charging up to US$12 (£6) a litre; huge trees upended like saplings; electricity and telephone wires hanging uselessly from their broken columns; advertising billboards, their placards ripped off, twisted like wire coat hangers; and huge piles of rubbish lining every street. A golf course was submerged and the driving range’s nets shredded.
Nearby, a well-built army base stood in almost pristine condition, with its corrugated iron roof only partially damaged.
“Everywhere is broken. But the army is not broken,” said my guide, a young man whose own home had been crushed.
Earlier, we had driven past the Rangoon correction centre where, in a show of the ruthlessness that characterised the crackdown on dissident monks last autumn, the army is said to have opened fire with machineguns on hundreds of prisoners who tried to escape when the cyclone blew holes in the roof and walls. According to local accounts, 30 were killed, including 25 monks.
In a disused gymnasium in Hlaing Taya township, 150 destitute people huddled in patient misery and asked searching questions of a government that has often cowed its critics into silence during 46 years of repressive rule.
“The government has done nothing to help us. We were given no warning of the cyclone,” said one angry community leader whose people had gone for five days without food or fresh water.
As we headed farther south and the road became a dirt track snaking through flooded paddy fields that extended as far as the horizon, the farmhouses teetered at impossible angles. They had been wrenched sideways on their little stilts by the storm surge. Every village yielded the stories of survival, loss and anger.
The most poignant sight was that of a young woman who had drowned during labour. Her dead child was with her, half-born. Beside her lay the corpse of a man, left arm outstretched, pointing to the heavens – her husband, perhaps. Nobody had come to claim her.
“Who’s supposed to bury her if her family are all dead?” I asked.
“That’s the question we’re all asking,” the guide replied.
More than 200 people in the woman’s village had been killed and a team of gravediggers was too busy to deal with her.
The prospect of urgently needed outside help diminished further yesterday when visa offices were closed for a three-day holiday, to the frustration of officials from international relief organisations vainly pressing to be allowed in.
All this raises serious questions as to how willing the Burmese regime is to facilitate humanitarian relief for its suffering people. The junta said it would allow one US aid flight to land. But it spurned help from the US military, which has C-130 cargo planes, helicopters and ships in the vicinity.
Water is the breath of life to the 7m people dwelling in the Irrawaddy delta. It helped to make the region the “rice bowl of Asia” before independence from Britain. Now much of it is inundated with salt water and useless for growing rice.
As in previous cyclones, the weakest – children and women – make up the bulk of the dead. “Every day that goes by, certainly more children will die,” Kirkwood said.
He pointed out his concerns about water. One was that it was probably already too late to save many lives in areas that were flooded by the tidal surge of salt water. “If people have had no access to fresh drinking water they could live for only about 72 hours,” he said.
In areas where people had access to fresh water, it was probably contaminated by decomposing bodies and animal carcasses and undrinkable, he said; and where people were crowded together in temporary shelters, it was probably also polluted.
In and around Rangoon itself tens of thousands of people had no access to clean water because wells were flooded or soiled, so they were forced to drink polluted river water.
Even without the foot-dragging of Burma’s military government, recovery from such a disaster will take years and cost tens of millions of pounds. Yesterday, as the international pressure mounted on the junta to open up its aid effort, critics wondered whether it had failed its populace from the very beginning by neglecting to give adequate warning of the storm building up in the Bay of Bengal.
The government insisted that it had raised the alarm well in advance. But unlike its neighbour Bangladesh, which has 40,000 cyclone volunteers and 3,000 cyclone shelters along its coastline, Burma has none.
Ordinary citizens complained that they had been told the storm was abating, with winds of only 40 or 50mph. In fact, when the cyclone made landfall, its winds were up to 150mph and blew for six hours or more.
The deaths were caused mainly when the wind whipped up a 13ft-high wall of water that built up over the shallows of the continental shelf and smashed ashore, drowning tens of thousands of people. As it ripped apart towns, shantytowns and villages, it made hundreds of thousands homeless, destroyed livestock and boats and washed away roads.
Even a week later, it is still unclear how Burma’s leaders are directing their emergency response. The 400,000-strong army has the task of distributing the aid to stricken areas but all the signs are that it is not up to such a monumental task.
The big question in the medium term is whether the humanitarian crisis will open up cracks in the regime’s armour and ultimately bring about a change in Burma. That is clearly what many Burmese inside and outside the country are hoping.
But for the tens of thousands who died beneath the wall of water and the thousands now dying for lack of aid, it is too late for change. They will continue to be washed up for months to come, victims of a natural disaster that threatens to become a bigger catastrophe because their leaders have failed them.
THE GENERALS IN DENIAL
Deeply xenophobic hard man of the regime. Head of state since 1992, he is 75 and believed to be suffering from diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Consults a blind peasant astrologer for advice. Spent a fortune on his daughter’s 2006 wedding.
Hard-drinking second-in-command. Aged 70, he suffers from prostate cancer but remains heir-apparent. Known for his ruthlessness in war against ethnic Karen guerillas, he has vowed to “annihilate” Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, and her followers.
Career soldier and No 3 in the ruling State Peace and Development Council, he was trusted to carry Than Shwe’s orders when the leader was in hospital in December 2006. In his early sixties, he is regarded as one of the more energetic of the generals.
Prime minister since last October and fawning loyalist of Than Shwe. He has made several public appearances since the cyclone hit Burma. Travels frequently in southeast Asia and is the public face of the junta, although he exercises little power.