Burma: The river of death

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As Burma's junta spurns the world's offers of aid, Andrew Buncombe finds a landscape flooded with corpses – and a people begging for help

For the people living alongside the Payapon river – a branch of the mighty Irrawaddy – the slow-moving waters have always been a sustainer of life. The river has provided irrigation for their crops, as well as clean, sweet water for washing and bathing, and the fish from which so many of them make their livelihoods.

Now the same river is delivering the dead. The corpses of hundreds of people swept away and killed by the surging tidal wave of Cyclone Nargis are now being washed back.

They lie on the river's edge, snagged in the roots of the mangrove swamps, bloated and burnt by the sun. Many of the corpses have already been buried by family or friends but there are plenty more that lie floating and abandoned, as anonymous in death as they must have been named and known in life.

"The storm happened on the Friday night and the next morning the bodies started appearing," said Zaw Zaw, a boatman who has been plying his trade on the Payapon river since he was a teenager. "Further downstream, I have seen places where there are 20 bodies, another where there were 30 and then one where there were 50 bodies. In all, I saw the bodies of 100 people. The river has moved them all by now."

We have boarded the young man's boat at the port city of Payapon, well known for the quality of its rice but now, like most of the other communities in the delta, resembling a war zone.

Officials said that up to 100,000 people were killed by the storm that struck last weekend, most of them living in this expansive region of southern Burma.

With the last of the afternoon's liquid yellow light, Mr Zaw dipped his boat's propeller into the water promising to take us to the bodies. We did not have far to go. On the opposite side of the river, the corpses were lying at the water's edge. Some were being gnawed on by dogs, others lay with their arms and legs outstretched next to the carcasses of cattle and buffalo. Within just a few hundred yards, the sour-fish smell of the jetty had been replaced by the foul sweet odour of decay.

Experts who have measured the strength of Nargis said that, at its height, the storm blew at 130mph. The river provided a terrifying insight into what such numbers mean in real human terms, and also of the forces that could have swept so many people to their death. For while the river has become a gathering place for corpses, the water's edge has also become a graveyard for countless ships and boats that were forced on land by the surging tide and then left stranded by the receding waters. In just a few miles, there must have been 40 different craft. One had been driven inland by at least 50 metres.

But where had all the corpses come from? Aid workers and officials believe that tens of thousands of people from the communities on the southern fringes of the delta, towns such as Labutta and Bogale, were washed out to sea by the surge, their bodies returning with the tidal flow. But even near Payapon, three hours upstream from the coast, the storm had been terribly lethal.

We branched off the river into the Noke Phin Toe creek. On either side were small, flimsy hamlets that had been completely flattened. Everywhere, people were busy rebuilding and cleaning, washing their clothes or themselves in the river.

"The water came up to here," said U Hoa Aye, 61, a wiry fisherman who pounded on his chest to illustrate the level it had reached.

He claimed that more than 200 people had been killed in his small village and another on the opposite side of the river. Most of those who died, he said, were old people and young children who had been unable to hold on tightly enough.

He led the way through the shattered remains of his hamlet to one of the few solidly built structures – a house made of sturdy wooden beams – in which he said 50 people had taken shelter when the storm struck. In the centre of the room, he wrapped his arms around a solid teak upright to which he had clung for his life.

For two hours, the villagers were standing in water up to their waists. "There has never been a storm like this before. This is the first time," said another man, Ko Khin My Aye. He said that when the storm struck he had been on his boat, which was tied by rope tight to the trunk of a coconut palm. While he and his family survived, some friends and an aunt were among the dead. "There were many, many children. We could not hold on to all of them."

One woman said she too had been on a boat but that it had been thrown on to land. "When I got out of the water. I ran to a house and held on to the timbers," said Ma Aye Myint, who has three children.

The villagers said that most of the dead had been gathered and hastily buried in a nearby cemetery. But in the absence of any help from the authorities, many had been left where they lay. For now, this river of life has become a river of the dead.

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