Lives still in limbo for Burma's forgotten cyclone victims

Four years after the disaster, Andrew Buncombe visits the inaccessible Irrawaddy Delta, where people have yet to fully recover from Nargis' impact

When Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, the locals took shelter in rice sheds and temples, tied themselves to coconut trees and prayed they would survive the storm. Up to 200,000 of them perished.

Four-and-a-half years later, people are still struggling to find new livelihoods, farm the paddy fields that were inundated with salt water, and rebuild communities that lost up to a third of their population. They are also having to deal with the persistent trauma of what happened that spring night.

"Of course there is a psychological effect. It was traumatic," said Hla Aye, a 62-year-old woman who makes a living as a day labourer in Pyin Ma Gone, a village accessible only by boat, close to the delta town of Bogale.

"Sometimes when it rains, some of the children refuse to go outside. The parents have to tell them not to be so afraid of the storm and rains."

The raw power of Cyclone Nargis not only devastated the communities of the Irrawaddy Delta. It also shone a light on the inefficiency and cruelty of Burma's military junta, whose response was both inadequate and scornful. The generals expended more effort trying to prevent foreign aid workers and Burmese volunteers from Rangoon from reaching the region than they did helping those who were affected.

A famous Burmese writer and comedian, Maung Thura, better known as Zarganar, was arrested and jailed after organising food convoys and criticising the government's response. Even now, the media needs a special permit to visit. The Independent was among a group of international reporters taken to the delta by the EU to see the progress of European-funded development projects.

The coming to power of a nominally civilian government in Burma that has embarked on a series of reforms has made things easier for those involved in efforts to rebuild lives in the Delta. Among the most important tasks are providing clean water in remote villages and income generation projects.

Half-an-hour downstream the Bogale River from Pyin Ma Gone lies the community of Myit Poe Kyone Sein. There, villagers have learnt how to plant eucalyptus trees and mangroves to provide timber and erosion breaks and build energy-efficient ovens from clay and banana-tree sawdust. They have recently also reaped the benefits of having access to micro-loans.

"I set up a shop selling vegetables and snacks," said Ai Win, one of 50 women in the village who are part of the loan scheme and who meet in a large thatched hut.

The reforms carried out by the government of President Thein Sein have brought changes to the lives of those in the Delta in other ways. Everyone in Pyin Ma Gone knew that Barack Obama had visited Rangoon, and met President Thein Sein and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – they had listened to the news on the television or the radio.

"We are beginning to see some freedoms starting. We feel we can speak more openly," said Hla Kyi, a 65-year-old farmer. "Before, if something was wrong we were too scared to speak to the village authorities. Now we can talk to them about matters of justice."

As an example, Mr Kyi said that previously if two people had quarrelled and one of those involved had been related to a government official, no one would have raised the matter. Nowadays there was more confidence.

There was also more hope for the future. Another farmer, Than Khe, 53, said he had little knowledge of the changes that had taken place in the government. He also knew that their lives had not yet fully recovered from the impact of Nargis. And yet he said: "We do trust. We do believe. We believe our lives will get better."

Harder to tackle than field-testing salt-tolerant rice seedlings to counter the salination that took place, and replacing destroyed mangroves, is the sheer scale of loss. The village of Pyin Ma Gone lost 33 per cent of its population to Nargis while the death toll in Myit Poe Kyone Sein amounted to 25 per cent.

Everyone, it seemed, had friends or relatives who had lost their lives. Than Khe lost his wife, daughter-in-law and six employees, Hla Kyi lost a daughter and daughter-in-law. Two of Hla Aye's sons and daughter-in-laws were also among the dead.

The bodies of many of those who died were never found – swept out to sea or else carried by the tides to another community who had no idea who they might be. Most were buried as there was no fuel for cremation fires.

"A year after Nargis, if a farmer's crop grew particularly well in one patch, you knew that a body was there," said Win Sein Naing, of the Mangrove Service Network, a local group that has been trying to develop livelihoods.

Myo Win, 41, who works for another NGO, was at his parents' home in the town of Bogale when Nargis struck. He survived by leaning against the outside wall that did not face the storm. At the very height of the surge – around 3.30am – the water came up to his chest. By 5am, it had gone.

His main concern had been for his wife and children, who were at his home by themselves. As it was, they survived largely unscathed, but Mr Win's son, Phyo Htet Kyaw, now aged six, is among those children for whom the annual monsoon may always be a cause for anxiety. "He cannot go outside when it rains," he said.

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