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Burma: 'I stopped counting bodies on journey down river of death' PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 11 May 2008

Corpses litter the landscape as the cyclone survivors are forced to fight for life alongside a tide of mortality

We saw the first one a few minutes downriver, no more than five hundred yards from the quayside and the busy town centre of the river port of Pyapon. He was caught in the crook of a toppled tree, floating in the water on his back with his arms spreadeagled - the naked, decaying remains of a drowned man, reports Times Online.

There was another corpse a few yards down, and then another, and then three more close together. Number six was recognisably that of a woman, with a green undergarment still clinging to her; number seventeen was a young girl. Close by was a dead buffalo, and what I mistakenly took to be a coconut or a drowned animal. “Khalaylay,” said the boatman, correcting me. A baby.

We chugged gently down the river, past the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, which passed almost directly over head a week ago this morning. Warehouses had their roofs ripped off, 50 foot boats had been picked up by the storm surge and deposited a hundred yards inland, and every few yards were the sunburned, distended bodies of the storm’s human victims. In 25 minutes, I counted 23 of them. And then I stopped counting.

Until yesterday, this disaster has had an unreal quality. The physical damage to trees, fields and buildings is overwhelmingly obvious. Refugees are living in schools and monasteries thought the Irrawaddy Delta. But the huge casualty figures have been impossible to grasp imaginatively.
On Monday morning, the official figure was 351 dead; that evening, it had risen to 10,000. The next day it was 22,500, followed by estimates by aid workers and diplomats of up to one hundred thousand. It is a struggle to contemplate the meaning of such figures – and the dead were nowhere to be seen in the villages and towns through which I had travelled for two days. But they were there, of course, many of them undisturbed since their deaths, in the deep reaches of the vast delta. And the bodies I saw on my boat ride yesterday were only the ones obviously visible from the river. For every one of them, I would guess that there are half a dozen others hidden out of sight in the narrow creeks and ditches and paddy fields.

Many people survived the cyclone, of course, and on this stretch of river they live as neighbours to the dead. Close by my twelfth corpse, and my twenty-third and twenty-fourth dead buffalo, a group of children were bathing in the river and a woman was washing clothes in front of the shell of a storm-broken village hall. “We pulled many bodies of the people we knew out of the water,” the boatman, Myint Swa said. “There were ten babies, all from this village and we buried those in the cemetery.”

But the storm surge carried people and debris from all over the area. The bodies floating in the water are just the ones whom no one has claimed or no one can recognise – part of the 41,000 [CHECK FIGURE] designated as “missing” by the Burmese government. Or perhaps they are simply from families of whom not a single member survived.

The survivors live on exist in a wretched state, and the journey down the Pyapon river confirms what has become ever more clear with every day spent in the Irrawaddy Delta – the vicious indifference of the Burmese dictatorship to he welfare of its own citizens. Almost no one here has received any aid whatsoever, and that which has been delivered is derisory in its insignificance.

Kwagyi is a village on a river island which is so low and exposed that during the twelve hours of Cyclone Nargis’s spate, it ceased to be an island at all. The waters were six half feet high; they covered everything except the buildings, and many of those had been blown away. “When one house fell down, the people ran to the next house that has not fallen down,” said the Venerable Wimsala, abbot of the small monastery on the island. “And then when that one fell down they ran to another one.”

The monastery’s meditation room collapsed, killing Miss Wain, the schoolmistress, who was inside, praying for her life. Dozens of other villagers died. Today, the community survives on coconuts (of all trees, the palm was the one most resistant to the storm). One in seven villagers is suffering from diarrhoea and the children are succumbing to fevers. But no representative of the government has been here to offer the villagers help or even to assess their need.

“The government officials go to the town, but they do not come here,” says the Venerable Wimsala, although that is not quite true. In Myinkakon village, a little way upstream every single family in the village received one pi of rice yesterday – one pi for each of 200 families. Such munificence is in danger of sounding impressive until you learn what the Burmese measure of a pi represents – it is a single level scoop, about as much as could be contained in an empty baked bean can, enough to feed just one person for two meals.

The government is overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy, as most governments would be – think of the chaos of the early days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. But that is no excuse for the current state of affairs. In granaries and store houses across the region are food and medical supplies which could be flown to Burma within hours and dispensed to the villages of the delta within days. One thing, and thing alone, holds them up – the Burmese government’s refusal to give the necessary permissions to foreign aid workers.

It is not just the food itself, but the entire logistical operation that requires outside help. According to a recent visitor to Rangoon airport, there are so few forklift trucks that the little aid that has arrived has to be unloaded by hand by an exhausted troop of 300 soldiers. Foreign diplomats in Rangoon report that the government has at its disposal only seven helicopters but, from the available evidence, these are not being used for serious aid work. Instead, the generals use them for a series of photo opportunities, which duly appear in the following morning’s state run press.

In one, the prime minister, Thein Sein, is pictured “assisting” the loading of relief supplies onto a helicopter; in another a junior minister, hands over a bag of rice to a scared looking but “grateful” cyclone victim. The accompanying news stories achieve the feat of making the country’s worst disaster in living memory seem like nothing more than a bothersome inconvenience.

In the most staggering image of all, Mr Thein Sein “presented 20 sets of TV, 10 DVD players and 10 satellite receivers … for the storm victims enabling them to enjoy the programmes”. It would be hilarious if it were not so depressing: having survived the destruction of their homes, the deaths of their loved ones, and lacking food or medicines, the cyclone survivors are being forced to watch Burmese state television.

Cyclone Nargis had been forming for days; the government was warned that it could be gravely destructive, and days before it struck the United Nations agencies were drawing up the same emergency plans which they are now forbidden from implementing. But everyone one meets in the delta says the same thing: apart from a forecast of choppy weather, there was no warning of the scale of the cyclone or any advice about to do to protect against it.

Myint Swa the boatman climbed a palm tree and hung on for dear life. His wife and eight children cowered in the boat and rode out the boiling waters. Many had no such recourse; now they lie bobbing in the water like pieces of rotting meat. Burma’s generals have oppressed their people for so long that their brutal incompetence had ceased to be news. But this week they have has added a whole new chapter to the book of their crimes.

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