'To Be Busy Helps Them Forget'

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 6, 2008

BOGALAY, Burma -- Two months after a cyclone savaged the fertile Irrawaddy Delta, in Burma's southwest, the bones of drowning victims still clutter the muddy banks of waterways.

One bamboo stick at a time, survivors in hundreds of flattened villages are struggling to rebuild their lives. For shelter, they squeeze several families into a single tent. For drinking water, they collect monsoon rains that trickle off tarpaulin roof coverings into buckets or salvaged ceramic vases. For food, they cook communal meals with rice, beans and oil from handouts. Sometimes it is spoiled.

On a recent visit, one village looked as if it had been carpet-bombed, a cratered landscape of muddy pools, debris and the remains of water buffaloes. A few hundred feet away, villagers sawed and hammered at planks salvaged from the wreckage. A teenage boy in an oversize shirt donated by a Buddhist monastery picked through piles of smashed wood.

"To work is to be busy, and to be busy helps them forget," said Soe, the village leader.

Nine hundred forty-three people used to live here, he said. In the storm that came ashore the night of May 2, 660 of them disappeared. Across the vast, mazelike delta, an estimated 130,000 people were killed and 2.4 million affected.

Persistent obstruction by the country's military rulers has kept aid at tragically meager levels. International efforts to quickly dispatch emergency assistance were delayed as the country's xenophobic military rulers rebuffed offers of help, denied visas to foreign aid workers and required permits for travel within the country.

Aid workers say that the majority of survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis have received at least some help but that few are even remotely equipped to make their way in coming months. Some communities have only recently been reached by aid teams, who had journeyed for hours on foot, by motorcycle and by boat.

Many of the restrictions have been eased, but relief workers say they still operate under erratic and constantly shifting constraints. The logistical challenges remain formidable as they scramble to dispatch seed, tractors and tillers to farmers before the rice-planting season ends this month.

"We have time to farm, but no tractors, no buffaloes and no seed," Soe said.

To reach his village required a seven-hour drive along a potholed, tire-shredding road from Rangoon to the rural hub of Bogalay, past four police checkpoints where documents were rigorously scanned. Against a backdrop of peaceful rice paddies, strange touches stood out: a patchwork of blue and red tarpaulins stretched across delicate palm-thatched huts; decapitated golden pagodas; and peaked iron roofs blown like dead leaves onto the roadside.

From Bogalay, where electricity has barely crackled back to life, the journey continued aboard a motorized boat loaded with supplies. The riverbanks form a cemetery for cyclone victims whose bodies floated for weeks along the waterways and whose remains, at low tide, now whiten in the mud.

A boatman pointed to an empty stretch of riverbank interspersed with bare-branched betel and coconut trees. "That used to be a village," he said. "There, too," he said minutes later, gesturing at the opposite bank.

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