Notes from the Field

From Burma: Six Months After Cyclone Nargis

November 12, 2008

There is a phrase I hear over and over as I travel around the Irrawaddy delta in Burma (also known as Myanmar): “We have nothing left.”

Six months ago, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in this region and roared across the flat and vulnerable lands of the delta, bringing with it a massive storm surge of sea water. The wind and the water combined into a fatal and catastrophic force that wiped entire villages off the map. People drowned. Houses were demolished by the storm. Personal possessions washed away. Farms animals were killed. Fishing boats sank or were smashed to pieces in the waves. Survivors in the worst-hit areas were left with nothing.

How does one go about restarting life after losing your family, your home, your job, and all your possessions? In Burma, it is probably far harder than in many other places.  Immediately after the cyclone, reports came out that Burma’s ruling military regime was preventing international aid workers from entering the country, and restricting the movement of those already working inside the country. It took three long weeks of diplomatic negotiations before the regime began to ease restraints on the international community’s efforts to launch an emergency operation. Excruciatingly slowly, aid agencies were granted access to affected areas.

I have been spending a lot of  time here, and, today, six long months since the cyclone hit,  the region is still in dire need of help.

In one village south of the delta town of Mawlamyinegyun, a man showed me a black-and-white passport photo of his wife ” she was killed during the cyclone, along with their four children. He used to run a noodle stall and, even if he had the equipment or the money to invest in starting again, no one in the village has the spare cash to buy a bowl of noodles. He now lives in a shack constructed from donated tarpaulin and wood that he salvaged out of the debris left behind by the cyclone. Inside the tiny shack there is just enough space for one person to lie down on the split-bamboo floor. The man’s few belongings are all things that have been given to him by aid organizations ” a few plastic buckets and cooking pots, a flashlight, a blanket. The only thing he has from his life before the cyclone is the stamp-sized photograph of his deceased wife.

In a nearby village, I met a woman in her mid-30s whose husband and two of her sons were killed in the cyclone. She is now the sole caretaker to her two surviving children. Before the cyclone, she and her husband worked in the paddy fields around the village. He had supplemented their income by fishing along the area’s many creeks in their small wooden boat. The boat was also destroyed. Without her husband, without the boat, without her two sons, the woman cannot earn a living and support her living children, who now huddle with her in a tumbled-down shack that shudders violently whenever there is a strong wind.

Outside Labutta town, there are a few thousand people left sheltering in government camps. The huts they live in are little more than tents, made from tarpaulin and bamboo poles. They are airless and blisteringly hot. The people who stay here are listless and despondent, as the camps are too far from town to travel and find work, so there is nothing to do each day. I talked to one elderly woman who shares a hut with her husband and a widow who lost her family to the cyclone. I wondered why they chose to stay here in such miserable conditions. Why don’t you go back to your village? I asked. “How can we go back?” they responded. “We have nothing left.”

Stories like these are repeated over and over again across the vast expanse of the delta.

Six months on, most of the initial logistical and political obstacles to providing aid have been overcome. And the overall relief effort is shifting its focus from emergency response to longer-term reconstruction projects that will help restore the livelihoods of people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by Cyclone Nargis.

Special to In Asia, by an on-the-ground contributor in Burma to The Asia Foundation.

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