Harrowing stories from Cyclone Nargis
June 23, 2008
“While we were in the villages, we heard a lot of stories about the cyclone. Apparently the sky went red and they heard a very loud noise. The rain and the wind started at the same time, but the wind was very strong. The water levels rose to 12 feet high, so the villages near the river were completely overwhelmed.“
Kim (not her real name)is a, nurse, 26, who normally works for MSF in one of the rural projects in Myanmar. She has been with MSF for about two years and normally works on primary health care. She has been working in the Delta for three weeks assisting in the MSF emergency programs following Cyclone Nargis and is now having a few days rest in Yangon before heading back to Pyapon.
“I didn’t hear about the cyclone until a week after it had happened. I was staying in a very rural part of the state where I work. It is very difficult to communicate in the village where I was staying, and it is a long way from the state capital. There is no television there and because all the telephone lines were down, I first heard about the cyclone on the radio.
“The first thing that I heard was that Bogale and Setsan areas had been very badly damaged and that many people had died. Then we were called back to the state capital. We were told that they needed four nurses to travel down to the Delta, so I decided to volunteer because I wanted to help the people who had been affected by the cyclone.
“We first traveled down to Yangon, then after two days we went to Pyapon. I noticed that there were a lot of people living in temporary shelters next to the main road. This was because all the houses in the villages had been damaged in the storm, so people had to come and live by the road.
“All these houses were very small and not big enough for the families. The houses were made out of palm leaves that they had found from coconut trees – this was to try to keep the rain out. This was because they could not afford to buy any construction materials because after the cyclone the cost doubled. But even so, a lot of shops had already run out of construction materials and it was impossible to buy any. When I arrived in Pyapon all the houses seemed to be damaged. Almost all of them had lost their roof.
“From Pyapon, we traveled out to quite a lot of smaller villages. One of the things that I noticed were all the dead bodies. There were so many, especially lots of children. There were also lots of dead animals, especially water buffalos and pigs.
“I was surprised because, although I didn’t arrive until two weeks after the cyclone, there were still a lot of dead bodies which smell really bad. The problem was that people had to survive. They have to rebuild their homes and find clean water and food, so they are not interested in clearing away the dead bodies – there is still too much to do.
“People don’t really seem to care that they are living among dead bodies – I saw quite a lot of people showering in water that had bodies floating in it, but luckily they know not to drink that water.
“Drinking water is a big problem. Most villages had some sources of clean water, such as a lake. But the lakes have now become contaminated because people or animals died there so we had to pump out the water. MSF provides big water tanks, but the problem is that they are difficult to transport, so we can only bring them to villages close to the road or big rivers.
“Many people walk to villages to collect water, so we give them jerry cans to collect the water. People who live in other villages have to collect rain water, so we give them jerry cans or they walk to Pyapon to collect them and bring them back to their villages.
“When we first arrived at Pyapon there were hardly any staff and expat staff were not allowed to travel at that time. We were split into two teams, and we traveled to the villages in our teams.
“When we arrived in the villages we had three jobs to do. First we would assess how many people lived there and what the needs were. Then we would find a place, such as a school, where we could do distribution. Most houses had no roofs so we would give everyone a tarpaulin and a jerry can. After we had finished the distributions we would start medical consultations. The problem was that there were too many people who needed medical consultations, so we had to prioritise treating the under fives first. We would check their nutritional status, and if they were in danger of malnutrition we would give them Plumpynut, which is a ready to use nutritional supplement.
“We would assess other patients for diarrhea and check their wounds. A lot of people had badly infected wounds because they hadn’t been able to clean them properly.
“Now there are three teams when we go to the villages. Some people are in charge of doing the assessments, other people do distributions and medical teams do consultations. I’m happy because now we get to see all the patients who need treatment.
“While we were in the villages, we heard a lot of stories about the cyclone. Apparently the sky went red and they heard a very loud noise. The rain and the wind started at the same time, but the wind was very strong. The water levels rose to 12 feet high, so the villages near the river were completely overwhelmed.
“The villagers said it was impossible to see the land and a lot of the coconut trees were destroyed. A lot of houses were completely submerged by the water.
“Some people ran to the monasteries because the monasteries tend to be higher than people’s houses. In one village everyone climbed onto the roof to keep out of the water. But the roof could not take the weight of all the villagers and it collapsed. Everyone drowned who could not swim. People had to hold onto anything that they could find to stop themselves from drowning.
“One father who could swim tied string around the wrists of all his children, so that they would not be separated or swept away. But the cyclone went on for too long, and he couldn’t swim any longer. Afterwards they found the whole family drowned, tied to one another by the string.
“The wind was also a big problem. One monk told me that he had been lifted from one side of the village to another. Another man was worried about his mother all alone in her house in the other side of the village. He left his own house and went to his mother’s house to bring her to his own house where she would be safe. But as they were walking to his house she was blown away and killed. He feels very bad and blames himself for her death.
“Most of the villagers had lost all their clothes because they had been torn off their back by the force of the wind. People had to steal clothes from some of the dead bodies because they were so ashamed of having nothing to wear. Other people used their longhis (Burmese sarongs) to tie themselves to coconut trees, which was how they had managed to survive.
“My colleague was working in Bogale and told me about some of the things that happened there. There are two big boats in that village and a lot of people had taken shelter in the boats. One of the boats was tied to a tree by a rope and everyone survived. But the rope holding the other boat broke, and the boat was destroyed. Everyone sheltering in that boat drowned.
“We also heard some good stories about the night of the cyclone. A lot of women went into labour that night so the midwife was very busy. She did a very good job, so many people have decided to name their children after her!
“A lot of families are very crowded together because they have lost their homes. Normally you have about four of five families staying together in one house. This is not good because disease can spread quickly this way. People really need building materials so that they can get their own houses. They are also in need of food.
“Some people were really starving before they got any aid. In one village they had nothing to eat, so they had to take one of the pigs that had died in the cyclone and eat it. I felt really sick when I heard this story but they had no food and otherwise they would have starved to death.
“People are also scared to eat the fish because they are worried that the fish have been eating the dead bodies. I don’t know if this is true but I think that people are very scared about disease.