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Cyclone survivors say life only gets harder

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Regime forces some to return to ruined homes, others to labor

Many survivors of the cyclone have built temporary shelters like this one in Pyapon town, in Myanmar’s delta. But some say the military is forcing them to return to flooded homes with no hope of rebuilding them.

updated 1:28 p.m. PT, Wed., May. 28, 2008

PYAPON, Myanmar – It’s not much, but the flimsy bamboo lean-to on the side of the road is all Aye Shwe has to keep his family dry. They lost their home to the cyclone and may soon be uprooted again — this time by soldiers ordering them to leave.

Three weeks after the storm, survivors say they are being victimized again, by a military regime that has forced some to return to flooded, collapsed homes and others to labor on reconstruction projects.

Even Myanmar volunteers making the difficult trip into the Irrawaddy delta to deliver food and supplies to survivors are being stopped and detained for hours, and the government has started impounding cars.

“Where my house used to be is still filled with water up to my waist,” said Aye Shwe, pointing to fields of rice paddies in the distance, under water as far as the eye could see. “How can I build a new house there?”

The 52-year-old rice farmer’s mother was killed in the cyclone that left more than 134,000 people dead or missing, and the water buffaloes that were a mainstay of his livelihood drowned in the fierce storm surges.

Still, until this week he had more than many: He managed to fashion a shelter from bamboo poles lashed together with palm fronds laid over one side as a crude roof. His wife and six children huddled together Monday on its raised bamboo floor, sheltering from the searing heat and the downpours that now come daily as monsoon season gets under way.

It’s location on the roadside outside the hard-hit delta town of Pyapon, a four-hour drive from Yangon, had given his family access to the Myanmar volunteers ferrying donated food, water and other aid from the country’s biggest city.

Then the soldiers came and ordered the family and the hundreds of others camped out on the roadside to leave.

Sea of despair
Myanmar’s reclusive government has opened up slightly to the world in the past week, allowing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to meet with some survivors living in tents in a refugee camp the military showed off as a model of its efficient handling of the relief effort.

But the U.N. says as many as 2.5 million people are homeless, facing hunger and potential outbreaks of disease, especially in the low-lying areas of the Irrawaddy delta close to the sea, and only a fraction of them have received any aid.

Hundreds lined the road outside Pyapon this week, squatting in the midday heat with only propped-up palm leaves or tree branches with pieces of cloth flung over them as shelter, hoping for handouts from the occasional passing car.

The government has ordered them not to beg, the refugees said, so only children rushed up to a stopped car with their hands out; the adults just waited, looking beseechingly. Military trucks passed by daily shouting orders over bull horns to leave the road and return home, these people said, though they have nowhere else to go.

“We live from hand to mouth. We have no buffaloes,” said Aye Shwe, adding that he hoped to get permission to remain with his family in their lean-to for the next three months until the monsoon rains end. Asked if he thought that was likely, he looked down and did not reply.

Survivors put to work
The military junta has declared the emergency relief phase of the disaster over and announced reconstruction has begun, ordering able-bodied cyclone survivors to work details, according to aid workers and delta residents.

In the nearby town of Bogalay, where 120 refugees were crammed into the Sankyaung monastery, filled with the sound of rattling coughs and wailing children, the abbot said some survivors had been ordered to construction sites by soldiers.

“Some of the survivors were sent to Ma-ubin last week to build roads now that reconstruction has started,” said the monk, Kawvida, adding he’d heard they were being paid a day wage of about 1,000 kyats — or $1. “They have told me that they are being exploited by some generals.”

He said survivors were given picks and ordered to break up large boulders into pieces of rock for road construction.

Hardships become harder with junta
Inside the temple, volunteers called out names as they distributed bundles of donated clothing to families sleeping on rattan mats under plastic sheets strung from the leaky roof. Behind them, a large Buddha statue was draped with a tarpaulin to protect it from the rain.

“We have received no help from the government,” said Kawvida. “The survivors have been relying on food and other things provided by private donors.”

But some volunteers, especially those affiliated with opposition political groups, have reported being harassed by police or having their vehicles impounded.

Daw Kyi Kyi said she was driving back to Yangon Sunday night after donating slippers, rice and other food to cyclone victims at a monastery in Dedaye, about 40 miles southwest of the city, when three policemen ordered her to drive to a military compound.

“We were told by authorities that we were detained because we created commotion along the route as we delivered relief goods to victims from cars,” the 65-year-old woman said.

She was freed the next morning, but only after authorities took her driver’s license and car registration and charged her with a traffic violation. She said she saw 40 other cars impounded in the compound.

“We didn’t drop food on the road, and we didn’t violate any traffic regulations,” said another volunteer, Nyi Nyi Zaw. “I cannot understand why we were herded into a compound and held there for several hours. This is absurd and very unpleasant.”

In some cases, worried volunteers have abandoned plans to deliver aid. “We collected 80 bags of rice for the cyclone victims in Kunchangone, but we aborted the plan after hearing news of cars being impounded,” said a volunteer, Moe Moe.

That means survivors like 93-year-old Khin Mya, whose only shelter was a red flowered umbrella and a plastic bag, will go without.

“I get very worried every evening because I have to find a place to sleep — maybe under a tree, or if I can share a hut with someone,” the bone-thin woman said. “I must come to the road to receive food from donors or else I will starve.”

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24861670/

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Written by Lwin Aung Soe

May 29, 2008 at 1:43 am

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