Many Burmese Still Awaiting Aid

Associated Press
Saturday, May 31, 2008

PYINMAGON, Burma, May 30 -- This rice-farming village in the Irrawaddy Delta, one of countless communities devastated by Tropical Cyclone Nargis, can be reached only by boat, a trip of up to two hours, depending on the tide. So while people in more accessible places have begun to get help, Pyinmagon's 801 survivors are still largely fending for themselves a month after the storm struck.

"Maybe they were discussing it for a long time, maybe they had problems trying to deliver the help," said Myint Oo, 55, the village chief, standing Thursday outside the Buddhist monastery where most of the local survivors are being housed.

The village, which sits in the middle of an almond-shaped island that splits the Bogalay River, lost a quarter of its people, and all but three houses and the monastery were destroyed. Its livestock, rice supply and crops were wiped out, and salt water and debris polluted its only drinking-water source.

The response of Burma's military rulers to the crisis has been slow and inadequate everywhere. United Nations and church officials reported Friday that the government is forcing people out of the few camps it had established and back to ruined villages with virtually no aid supplies.

Eight camps in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Bogalay are "totally empty," UNICEF official Teh Tai Ring told a meeting of aid groups in Rangoon, Burma's largest city.

More than 400 cyclone victims from the delta town of Labutta were evicted from a church in Rangoon on orders from authorities Thursday, a church official said.

The government has given no explanation for the moves, but it earlier said relief operations were over and it was time for reconstruction. Foreign aid experts disagree.

Nowhere are the government's aid shortcomings more visible than in places such as Pyinmagon.

When no help came in the first week after the storm, the survivors lived on what little rice they could salvage. They scavenged for vegetable scraps and caught rats, but still many went hungry. By the second week, only 50 sacks of rice from local authorities had reached them, but that was depleted almost immediately, Myint Oo said.

The headman said an international aid group had told villagers it would provide them rice for six months, but he was not hopeful the pledge could be fulfilled, in view of the village's isolation.

On Thursday, nearly a month after the cyclone hit, the village received its first private donation, clothes from a local trading company, he said.

To get around the seawater contamination, villagers have been taking boats to fetch fresh water from a lake in Bogalay and have collected rainwater in a few large ceramic pots, using broken pieces of corrugated roofing as makeshift funnels.

Shelter is an urgent issue. Villagers worked outside in the rain, tying bamboo poles together as frames for temporary huts, but the headman said the work will be for nothing unless they receive tarpaulins or plastic sheets for the roofs.

In the meantime, the survivors have been sleeping on mats on the wooden floor of the leaky-roofed monastery. Short, round wooden tables; cabinets; kitchen utensils; and other salvaged pieces of furniture are also stored there. Without mosquito nets or blankets, the survivors are defenseless against mosquitoes, which carry diseases such as dengue fever.

A Burmese Red Cross team visited the village last week for the first time, survivors said, but it was too late for a man and two children, who they said died from diarrhea and food poisoning.

For farmers, rain is usually a blessing, but these days it's also a curse for many survivors. Kyin Mya, 59, jumped as raindrops fell from the leaking roof. Her husband and 5-year-old granddaughter drowned as they were carried away in the storm surge. "Is the wind strong? Is the wind strong?" she asked, her eyes wide with fear.

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