Myanmar cyclone victims die waiting for help
Los Angeles Times
From a Times Staff Writer
May 30, 2008
PA DEWE GAW, MYANMAR — Tropical Cyclone Nargis didn’t kill Ma Thein Hlaing. Neglect did.
She was in the village monastery, reciting Buddha’s canons day and night in the five-day ceremony of pahtan, as the storm gathered strength over the ocean close enough to see from her riverbank village.
The cyclone struck like a ferocious beast clawing at its prey. Thein Hlaing, 56, cowered inside with 19 other worshipers who fought to hold on against a rising flood.
The monastery began to break apart and a large stereo speaker toppled onto her, forcing her head under the surging seawater.
Several men heaved the teak speaker off. But when the 12-hour tempest had subsided May 3, her 19-year-old son, Saw Ko, had disappeared along with the splintered pieces of the family home.
Thein Hlaing was still conscious. She needed a doctor, but in a flattened village with no boats left, her husband, Ko Myint So, had no way to get her to one.
He watched the horizon, hoping help would come from one of the nearby military bases guarding the southern coast of Myanmar, also known as Burma. It never did. More than three weeks after the storm struck, no one from the government, neither soldiers nor civilians, has come here.
In the early days after the storm, as the military government insisted that it had everything under control and shunned most foreign relief aid, the armed forces moved slowly to assist hundreds of thousands of survivors stranded in devastated Irrawaddy River Delta villages.
The government estimates that the cyclone killed 78,000 people, and that an additional 56,000 are missing. The number of injured survivors isn’t known yet. Many survivors are only now being reached as civilian relief workers push farther into isolated areas.
For days, Thein Hlaing lay in pain, pleading with her husband to do something. Each time one of the few remaining civilian vessels plying the river passed the village, he and neighbors frantically shouted and waved from the ruins.
On the fourth day after the cyclone, the crew of a fishing boat stopped at the remnants of the village dock. It would take almost three more hours to reach the nearest hospital, 25 miles northeast, in the town of Bogalay.
Thein Hlaing held on long enough to reach the jetty in Bogalay, a military relief hub. She was still alive when villagers eased her onto a stretcher and took a few hurried steps along wooden planks toward the main hospital, her husband and other witnesses said.
She passed away before reaching solid ground again.
“My wife talked a little bit on the way, and just a few minutes before she died, she said, ‘My eyes can see clearly now,’ ” recalled Myint So, 53. “Then she just closed her eyes. And she was gone.”
“She didn’t have to die,” he said, looking down at weathered hands flecked with mud. “She just didn’t get help in time.”
Nwet Nwet Win, the village nurse and midwife, was in Bogalay when the storm barreled ashore. She worked at the town’s hospital until the chief doctor announced that any staff with homes to return to could leave on Sunday.
The nurse said the first patients from outlying villages began arriving at the hospital four days after the cyclone. She knows of 30 who died, mainly children and the elderly.
“Many people died on the way to the hospital,” she said.
As if a giant hand had swept across the land, the cyclone razed hundreds of villages in the southern delta and deposited the debris along the eastern shores of islands and riverbanks for miles.
To signal relief boats, survivors squatting in makeshift shelters who are trying to stay dry in the daily monsoon deluge have raised tattered pieces of cloth on trees stripped of their branches by the winds.
In one long stretch of broken planks, tree limbs and other wreckage along the shore of Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary, a small statue of a local spirit, a protector on horseback called U Shin Hyi, is the only thing in one piece and still standing.
Burmese staff from U.N. relief agencies reached this village Tuesday, along with several cartons of food and other supplies delivered by Buddhist monks. But without fuel and a pump to clean the reservoir, or some other way to provide clean water, an outbreak of disease is a constant danger, Nwet Nwet Win said.
“I’m very worried,” the nurse said. “All I can do is tell people to boil the water.”
The United Nations and foreign relief agencies say they already have or are ready to deliver equipment to purify large amounts of water in Myanmar, but need to bring in more experts to determine the best places to set up the machines and keep them running.
The military regime has issued dozens of visas to foreign relief workers since top leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a weekend meeting that all nations were welcome to send help.
Many more aid workers are waiting to get in, along with tons of food, medicine, building materials and other supplies, for a relief effort to support about 2.4 million people. Ban said survivors would need support for at least six more months.
The government, which has urged storm victims to be self-reliant, insists that the relief phase is complete and says it has moved on to reconstruction.
But for survivors like Myint So, what to do next remains unclear.
Before the cyclone, he had made a comfortable living making small, low-interest loans to villagers through his micro-credit bank, financed with capital from his son. Now, like most people in the delta, Myint So is broke.
He couldn’t pay for his wife’s funeral, so volunteers took care of it for him, burying her in Bogalay. He lives in a leaky shack smaller than a garden shed, which he hammered together from snapped tree trunks and clear plastic tarps.
He can’t stop thinking about the woman he loved and what could have been done to save her life.
“Before she died, I was a fit and strong guy,” he said. “But I haven’t slept a single night since then. I’m getting thinner and thinner every day.”
He paused for a moment to recall his fondest memory of Thein Hlaing, and he smiled.
“The thing I miss most about my wife is the way she talked, the way she moved,” he said. “She was a guiding star for me.”