'We Have Nothing. How Do We Go On?'

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
By Jennifer Cavagnol
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 9, 2008

BOGALE, Burma, May 8 -- Ma Gan survived Tropical Cyclone Nargis. The storm tore the roof off the tiny brick house where the 22-year-old woman and her extended family live, 60 miles southwest of Rangoon, but didn't carry her away. Then, two days later, she gave birth.

Now the baby girl is growing weaker by the day. Ma Gan is not producing breast milk, and almost a week after the storm blasted through, there is virtually no clean water in Bogale or the rest of the disaster zone. There is no medical care and precious little food. A grandmother has taken charge of the infant and is trying to keep her alive by feeding her drops of water from a polluted canal.

"We have nothing. How do we go on?" lamented the family's patriarch, U Myint.

A drive down the road to Bogale on Thursday revealed a swath of destruction -- a succession of flooded fields, fallen trees, brick houses turned to rubble, bamboo huts folded flat like cardboard -- and thousands of survivors, who were camping here in the Irrawaddy Delta wherever they could, desperate for help and in most cases getting none.

Bogale lies near the midpoint of the storm's path across the delta, one of the world's most fertile rice-producing areas. The town endured winds topping 120 mph and a storm surge that dumped five to six feet of seawater on the town and rice fields. The death toll in the area is unclear, but Burmese government sources have said 10,000 may have lost their lives in and around Bogale.

All told, the storm killed at least 22,000 people and left 40,000 missing, the Burmese government has said; U.S. diplomats have suggested that the death toll could reach 100,000. About 1.5 million survivors are in urgent need of aid, the United Nations said Thursday, as concern turned to a potential second wave of deaths caused by infectious diseases and malnutrition.

On Thursday, Burmese soldiers and police officers were operating many checkpoints in Bogale. During a visit to the area, a few Burmese aid groups were seen. One helicopter was spotted delivering supplies.

Ma Gan's house, not much bigger than an SUV, is about a mile outside Bogale. Family members and 20-plus friends and relatives were gathered on the family's small, wrecked plot of land. They had erected corrugated metal sheds to complement the house, which was cut in half by the storm. Some were seeking relief from the vicious heat and humidity beneath a lean-to.

The survivors seemed to wear the same look of exhausted acceptance, a traumatized stare, eyes glazed and blank. And their stomachs were empty.

The baby was born in a small shack made of wood and corrugated iron roofing, about the size of a small kitchen, too low to allow people to stand. Ma Gan's mother and other women in the extended family helped with the delivery and were taking care of the infant as best they could. Ma Gan, traumatized, was not joining in.

U Myint went into Bogale to try to get some rice or water, but supplies in the ravaged town were limited. "They sent us away," he recounted. "We have no food, no water. The paddy is no good."

He was referring to rice from a recent harvest. Now rotten, it would normally be fed only to animals, but it has become their staple, their only food. The rice provides no nutrients and can roil the stomach, but they have no choice.

In Bogale were more scenes of destruction, and of waiting. Hundreds of children sat quietly in a set of concrete school buildings that now serve as orphanages and shelters for the many thousands of people who lost their homes.

Farther down the road was a similarly demolished community. It included one of the many monasteries that, though devastated, had taken in the homeless and dispossessed. There were 600 people there, in a temple that housed only 28 monks.

People came with a few belongings -- a small pot, perhaps, a woven bamboo mat -- but often with only the clothes on their back. Now they waited. They sat and stared, they slept, they collected scattered wood for fires. And they waited.

U Than Swe, a middle-aged Burmese man who owned a simple hardware shop in the area, smiled when he saw foreigners approaching. To him, their presence spelled salvation -- food, maybe some money. But the visitors had nothing to offer. Not food or currency. He retreated into the shadows, to sit and to wait.

Elsewhere, people scavenged for fish in canals that had turned black as oil and were starting to reek of decomposition. Children and grandparents cleared debris, while men extracted rusty nails from broken wood beams.

The fierceness of this storm was unexpected. "We didn't know it was coming," said Ma Naung, a mother of three in the town of Pyapon. "Nobody warned us. In the middle of the night, the winds knocked down our walls and water began to flood us out of our home." She and her children hung onto the floorboards. When the winds died down a bit, they made it to a neighbor's house.

Many around her did not survive. Thousands in Pyapon drowned in the surging floodwaters, people said. Houses were ripped apart.

Another small community of the bereft was taking shelter beneath a concrete bridge Thursday. They waited out the heat and put out their few belongings to dry in the sun. A woman cooked a pot of rotten paddy rice. Her name was Mayn.

"My baby is sick," she explained. The 2-month-old girl appeared severely malnourished, reminiscent of a skeleton, eyes and bones bulging, and in constant discomfort. Mayn said she wanted to take her baby to the hospital, but it was destroyed by the cyclone along with its small reserve of drugs. All she could do was wait.

Cavagnol is a co-founder of Vagabond Reporters International.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company