Notes from the Field

Dispatch from Burma

May 21, 2008

Rangoon, May 20. I am staying in a house without electricity, and at night I write by candlelight, the battery on my laptop dwindling, draining. In the mornings, I go to one of the city’s high-end hotels for the Internet connection. I want reliable information about the ravaged fishing villages and rice farming communities in the Delta. I seek people out for their stories”executives, aid workers, doctors.

A businessman who has just returned from the worst-hit south-western part of the Delta in a private boat loaded with supplies, shows me film footage of villages that are nothing more than piles of water-logged timber. Shocked survivors huddle under make-shift shelters, with no access to relief supplies or medicine. Pointing to villages further south, in areas not yet reached by any aid two weeks after the storm, they say blankly into the camera, “Down there, it is even worse.”

Later, a man who has been delivering medicine to affected villages tells me about canals clogged with dead bodies and people with terrible wounds, succumbing to gangrene. There is no medical assistance. Well water has been contaminated. People are afraid to fish in the rivers because of the thousands of corpses that still float there. There is the fear that epidemics will breakout among the survivors, he says, sending the death toll higher.

A Burmese doctor mobilising small teams of medical staff to set up a clinic in one Delta town is preparing to deal with immediate medical concerns: skin infections and lacerations, diarrhea and respiratory illnesses. “Most have nowhere to go,” she says. “They have nothing left. Some of them were naked after the storm. They have no home left and no family. Nothing.”

Roads, bridges, entire villages have been washed away. School, hospital, and monastery buildings destroyed. There are wider repercussions. The Delta is a major rice-growing region for the entire country; rice warehouses, stocked with the recent harvest collapsed in the storm, and paddy land has been rendered unusable due to excessive saline content caused by sea water flooding.

Yet to be assessed is the psychological toll. A Burmese journalist, who has just returned from an area where people were taking shelter in monasteries, said survivors stopped a man who had lost his home and family from slitting his own throat.

So many horrors not yet known, but the evidence coming out through private channels indicates that the damage is much, much worse than has been reported and that Cyclone Nargis will have a devastating effect on the affected population for months, for years to come.

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