Disaster in Burma The Dead Calm After the Storm

Uprooted trees, destroyed houses, disease. Burma is in chaos more than a week after Cyclone Nargis, and the real disaster is happening now. Drugs and aid aren't reaching the people who desperately need it. But the Burmese are helping each other, and anger at the junta is mounting.

By our reporter in Rangoon, Burma


The airport is virtually deserted. Two state-owned propeller aircraft are being refuelled, stray dogs chase each other across the runway, but apart from that there is silence, and no movement anywhere. And there's still no plane in sight from the so-called friendly foreign countries, meaning China, India or Thailand, to bring water, rice and drugs for onward transport to the flooded Irrawaddy delta.

It's difficult to imagine how the aid could get to where it's needed even if a fleet of planes were arriving here. The place has only one forklift truck. There's a crane that could help load goods, but it's been out of action for months for repairs, say the taxi drivers and baggage handlers at the airport.

It looks as if Burma isn't ready to receive foreign aid even on day eight after Cyclone Nargis. And why should it be? The generals are still declaring that they have everything under control.

As we drive into town, Rangoon resembles a gigantic compost heap. The streets are lined with meter-thick tree trunks torn out of the ground by the cyclone which also ravaged this city of more than 5 million. Knocked-over advertising hoardings litter the roads and people are sawing up branches and trunks and burning them in little fires by the roadside. Reconstruction in Burma on day eight after Nargis is a silent, diligent affair. Monks in dark-red robes and soldiers in green uniforms are laboring quietly, patiently, at least for the time being.

In a house at the edge of the city, Lay, 48, is lying on a mat, sweating and groaning. The slender man, dressed in a wrap-around skirt, managed to get out of the Irrawaddy delta a few days after the disaster struck He and his wife fled to the capital two days ago. They had a little money and were fortunate to have relatives who were prepared to take them in, so they were the only people able to get out of their village a few hundred kilometers south of Rangoon. All the other villagers had to stay. Perhaps they're still alive, perhaps they're dead, says Lay and starts to cry.

He has just returned from the market. He had to queue for four hours for a liter of petrol, he couldn't get any more than that, and the price was twice as high as a week ago. Lay's wife mops the sweat off his chest and back as he tells us about the night Nargis struck. He is suffering from his third burst of fever since he arrived in Rangoon, says his wife. She says it must be malaria, but they have no drugs to treat it.

Storm Sounded Like a Jet Engine

On Friday night when the storm began with the sound of a jet engine, Lay was sitting in his kitchen with his wife and 30 neighbors. She was cooking fish and curry for the monks in the monastery, she wanted to bring them the food the next morning to improve her karma and to pray. It was eight o'clock in the evening, the rain was lashing against the windows, and no one had an inkling of the impending disaster.

At around midnight the storm seemed to stop. There was not a breath of wind and not a drop of rain. They were in the eye of the storm. Some 15 or 20 minutes later it started again, worse than before. It got so bad that they could no longer hold onto the beams they had been clinging onto in their wooden house. Parts of the roof caved in, they jumped into the waist-high water that was now swirling around the house, they held a plastic sheet over their heads, grabbed each other by the hand and prayed. At 10.30 the next morning the storm and the rain gradually died down.

They crept out from under their sheet and saw the water had flowed on inland. They stumbled through their village and saw that only four houses were left standing, the other 500 were in ruins. Later they heard that 100 neighbors were dead. The storm warnings on state television had only reached the people in Rangoon, he said. In his village the power is shut off after eight o'clock at night.

Corpes, Bloated Carcasses, Disease

They were left to their own devices for the next three days. There was no aid, no trucks, no helicopters. There was barely any clean water, no drugs, no soldiers, and they still haven't arrived. The monastery survived the storm and they ran to the monks. They got rice from the village store, which had miraculously not been flooded. They shared the few pots they could find, boiled water and slept under plastic sheeting.

On the fourth day Lay and his wife walked for several hours into the nearest city which had a bus service into Rangoon. The place was crowded with people from the delta. It was here Lay heard about the scale of the disaster for the first time. The people said many of the villages located further south had been hit worse, that corpses were floating in the mud-filled canals or hanging in trees, that bloated animal carcasses were lying everywhere. People hadn't eaten anything for days, were suffering from pneumonia, stomach cramps, diarrhea. We're safe, says Lay, groaning and coughing, but what will become of those who had to stay behind. The real disaster is happening know, after the cyclone.

Since he arrived in Rangoon Lay has occasionally watched television, CNN and BBC. Footage of heaps of aid supplies lying in Bangkok and Singapore, graphics showing the millions of euros in donations being pledged from all over the world. Seeing that makes him despair and fills him with hatred of the junta. He no longer believes any aid will arrive soon. As he says goodbye to us he drags himself to the door, supported by his wife. In a few days when the malaria attack has subsided, he and his wife will return to their village, he says. They will take rice, drugs and clean water. Who else will help them if we don't, he says.

Aid Workers Frustrated

There's a similar sense of hopelessness and tension in the office of the German Food Aid (Welthungerhilfe) charity near the Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden dome is being hastily repaired after being damaged by Nargis.

On Sunday at about 1 p.m., it briefly looked as if the aid crisis could be resolved more quickly than expected. German Food Aid head Angela Schwarz was at the United Nations presentation of plans to set up supply stations at Labutta and Bogalay, the worst-hit cities in the delta. Suddenly the announcement came that the government had signalled that aid supplies would immediately be allowed into the country and could be distributed by aid organizations themselves.

That was the good news on Sunday. An hour later, the bad news came at the first meeting of the junta since Nargis.

The 20 Western non-government organizations in Burma had been invited, along with diplomats and ambassadors. The Burmese Minister for Planning and Development read out a speech in which he said the government was in control of the situation, that aid relief and money from abroad were welcome but that it would only be distributed by the military.

So nothing had changed after all. That doesn't surprise the Burmese lawyer whose flat at the edge of the city has turned into Rangoon's true news center. Burmese journalists and regime critics meet here, as do a few Western journalists. They had already come here five months ago when thousands of monks demonstrated in Rangoon. The lawyer shows us photos from corpses in the delta taken by Burmese photographers. He's is forbidden to publish them.

He says the cyclone chose a good time to strike Burma. Now the world is looking at Burma, and not just Tibet. We have a chance too now, he says -- what the Olympic Games are doing for Tibet, the failure of the junta after Nargis is doing for Burma, cynical though that may sound. We just have to seize the opportunity, he says. We ask him how. He shrugs his shoulders, and looks as exhausted as he did last October, shortly after the junta stopped the monks' protests.

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