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Burma's towns face refugee crisis alone as aid piles up

Some have come by boat, others by truck. Some had arrived with a handful of possessions, others with just the clothes they stood in. All have remarkable stories to tell, both of their escape from the cyclone and of their friends and relatives who did not survive.

Squeezed together into the ground floor of a school in this busy river port city they sat waiting for their evening meal, wondering what further fate may befall them. "I was floating in the water when the storm struck, then I arrived on the land and escaped," said Aye Pwint, a young woman from a small village on the furthest fringes of the Irrawaddy delta. "I was hiding in a tree for a night and a day. Seven members of my family died. There was nothing of our village left."

A week after Nargis struck, killing at least 60,000 people and leaving about 1.5 million in desperate need of aid, the towns and cities of the delta are starting to become flooded with refugees. In this one building there are 459 people, each with a cardboard tag pinned to their shirts. The policeman in charge said there were 30 such make-shift centres in the town. An estimated 10,000 refugees have come here.

In the aftermath of the storm, relief agencies have warned that food, water, medicine and sanitation facilities are urgently required. While aid agencies have warned that the conditions in the relief camps set up by the military authorities in towns such as Bogale and Labutta are "horrific", it is only slowly that the full scale of the problems that the authorities are having to confront is becoming apparent. The UN now believes that 220,000 people are missing, while between 1.2 million and 1.9 million are struggling to survive.

"Time is crucial," said Gordon Bacon, of the charity International Rescue Committee. "The people who are dead we cannot help, sadly but the people who have survived have no food or water. It requires the government of Burma to work with the aid agencies."

In this particular school in Myaung Mya, officials said they had sufficient water but were in need of food and clothes. "We need food, that is very important. But some of the people are naked," said Win Shwe, a police officer who appeared to be in charge.

The policemen said that most of the people in the classroom were from the Labutta area. He said the government had been bringing the people in by truck and by boat. Asked how long the people might be there, he said it was unclear.

The camps seem woefully inadequate to cope with the numbers of people, and there are few proper facilities. Mothers bathe their children in the playgrounds and hang up laundry wherever they can. At night they sleep on the bare floor without the benefit of nets or coils to keep away the mosquitoes that carry the risk of malaria.

One of the men in the school bore a dazed look, his focus somewhere in the middle distance. His name was Than Zoe and he worked as a farmer and labourer in a small delta village called Rawe. "The whole village was entirely destroyed. There was nothing to see," he said. "There were five of us but three died, my two daughters and my father. My wife and I escaped. The others were taken by the water."

The Burmese junta that has ruled the country for two decades continues to prevaricate and obstruct the international aid effort. While the UN has made some progress in having a consignment of high-energy biscuits released from confiscation, most foreign aid workers with the skills to handle a humanitarian crisis on this scale are still barred from entering Burma and undelivered aid is piling up. Despite the international outcry over aid, the military rulers went ahead with a weekend referendum on a new constitution.

In another setback, the first Red Cross boat carrying relief supplies to the disaster area sank near Bogale after it collided with a submerged tree trunk. Oxfam warned that the eventual death toll could reach 1.5 million if people do not get clean water and sanitation.

In these conditions, what future is in store for the people in the school at Myaung Mya and in countless other such makeshift centres is unclear. What does appear certain is that the influx of so many desperate and needy people without money or possessions will stretch the authorities.

There is already evidence that the refugee crisis is testing the patience of some local people. "The military government has not given any help, and the town cannot cope," a woman working at one school housing 900 people told Reuters. "Most shelters are holding 700," she said. "Three hundred was OK, but 900 is too much." At the entrance to her school, three teachers stood at the gate asking passers by for donations, but they were only receiving very small bags of rice. The woman added: "We have 900 people here but we only have 300 lunch boxes. We gave it to the women and children. The men have still not had any food."

While Myaung Mya was not damaged, some locals appeared concerned about the impact of the refugees. "How many more days are we going to be able to feed them?" asked one. "People here can barely afford to feed themselves."