AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 21/2008

Burma The Silence of Bogalay

Thousands of corpses are floating in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, but the country's military junta is not taking care of survivors. It would be hard to surpass the cynicism of the generals. An eyewitness report from the Irrawaddy Delta.

By in Burma


Two Burmese women sit on their haunches at the edge of the gravel road that leads to Bogalay in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, the region of the country hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis. They've been waiting here in the pouring rain for hours, next to a rice field a few kilometers outside the city. They hold their windbreakers over their heads and talk in low voices.

The women work for a German aid organization that has been present in Burma for 10 years. They came here alone; their German project manager had to stay behind in Rangoon. The organization is tolerated by the military junta, but it can't really work like it's supposed to. The women have been in the Bogalay area for 48 hours. They're feeling more frustrated with every passing hour.

They want to move 70 tons of rice, dried beans, and packaged drinking water into the city. The women have been told to check out the situation and make the necessary preparations for the planned relief effort. Unfortunately they haven't gotten very far. They asked for an appointment with the local authorities, but weren't allowed to see them.

They visited camps where thousands of persons left homeless by the cyclone are staying in desolate conditions, plagued by diarrhea, unable to do anything for themselves. They saw how representatives of the military junta came to these camps to count the living (but not the dead, who are no longer any good to them).

Soldiers shoved ballot forms for the country's constitutional referendum at survivors. The referendum, which was postponed in the delta due to the storm, is to be held here on May 24 -- despite the fact that the government-controlled press has reported that the outcome of the election, which was held in most of the country on May 10 as originally planned, has already been decided. Allegedly there was a voter turnout of 99 percent, with 92 percent of the Burmese electorate voting for the junta.

They saw how corrugated sheet iron was distributed to well-off families so that they could repair the roofs of their stone houses, which were only lightly damaged by the storm, along the main streets. This way everything will look neat and tidy whenever the generals drive by in their dark limousines.

They saw how camps were set up with tents made of blue plastic sheeting. But there is no one living in them. They will be filled with supporters of the regime just before the generals come to visit, accompanied by state television and reporters from the junta-controlled newspaper New Light of Myanmar. This is to prove to the people of Burma and the world that the generals have the situation in the Irrawaddy Delta under control.

Graphic: Burma's Irrawaddy Delta
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Burma's Irrawaddy Delta

"It started with a natural disaster," the smaller of the two women says, fighting back her tears and trying to keep her anger under control. "Now it's only about politics. What the junta is doing here is just unbelievably despicable."

The women are standing at the side of the gravel road outside Bogalay because their desperation has driven them to try a different tactic. In a last-ditch effort, they are attempting to have the relief goods smuggled into the devastated city. They have had the rice, beans, and water reloaded onto trucks belonging to the Burmese Red Cross. These trucks will be able to enter the exclusion zone since they belong to a Burmese aid organization.

But no trucks have come by yet. Indeed, nobody seems to be coming to Bogalay at all. The women are fearful that their stratagem may have been discovered. They think the military may have stopped the trucks somewhere along the way and the drivers may be stuck there.

Bogalay is in the Irrawaddy Delta, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Rangoon, in the middle of green rice fields. It is this area that was hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, which struck in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 3. Winds of up to 230 kilometers per hour (143 miles per hour) tore through the delta region and caused huge waves to surge upriver. One of them struck Bogalay, knocking palm trees over like cornstalks and crashing wooden boats into houses. Huts were simply washed away.

It's eerily quiet in Bogalay. There is no sound of chain saws, excavators, or bulldozers. The Burmese army has five helicopters, but we haven't seen a single one of them all day. There's not even the sound of birds chirping. Survivors tell us that the birds have been silent since the storm.

Around 200,000 people inhabited this port city and the some 500 villages in the surrounding area. Most of them were rice farmers, living in palm huts on the banks of the Irrawaddy and its thousands of small tributaries in the delta. Hardly any huts were left standing after the storm. Countless bodies can be seen floating in the river. Tens of thousands of people died here. The overall death toll may be as high as 130,000. "Why should we fish them out?" a survivor asks. "We're hardly able to help ourselves."

For more than two weeks now, Bogalay has, for all practical intents and purposes, been cut off from the delivery of relief supplies. The degree of cynicism shown by the junta generals is criminal. The survivors are aware that the international media are reporting about them on a daily basis, that millions of dollars and tons of relief supplies have been donated, and that much of it has already arrived in Burma. But thus far they haven't seen any financial assistance, medical supplies, or even rice to eat.

But it's not just foreign relief supplies which are prohibited in Bogalay; foreigners are banned too. The junta has posted soldiers at hastily erected checkpoints. They stand on bridges or at turnoffs onto roads leading out into the delta and check every vehicle that comes by, shouting "Naingchartar?" ("Foreigner on board?") Anyone who is not Burmese or able to produce an official permit has to get out.

We reach the city just after dark. It took us three attempts to get there. Earlier in the day we were stopped by soldiers who noted down the numbers of our passports, even though they couldn't read them (it probably didn't help that they were holding the passports upside down). They ordered our driver to turn around on the spot and go back to Rangoon.

We had bounced along on gravel roads for hours on end, seeing nothing but rice fields and people standing by the road begging. We tried to keep out of sight in the back of the share taxi we were travelling in. Our Burmese helpers laid jackets and blankets over us whenever a roadblock came into view.

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© DER SPIEGEL 21/2008
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