Editor’s note: We have withheld our reporter’s name so that Myanmar authorities won’t bar his entry.
BANGKOK, Thailand — With more than 100,000 dead or missing and 1.5 million affected in cyclone-devastated Myanmar, international aid agencies now must do the most difficult thing possible: wait.
Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal May 3, triggering a 15-foot tall tidal surge that overwhelmed the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) Delta.
“Presumably, thousands of people living along the delta were simply washed away,” said one Catholic Relief Services (CRS) worker.
The delta is home to some 24 million people. Myanmar’s capital, Yangon (Rangoon), also suffered significant structural damage from the region’s worst cyclone since 1991.
“Our official numbers put the situation at 100,000 dead and 1.5 million affected,” said Patrick Nicholson, Caritas Internationalis’ communications head. “All the affected areas are on the delta and in Yangon. The destruction was massive. Massive.
“Whole villages were wiped out. We’re talking 80% of houses destroyed in some villages. It’s comparable to the destruction of [2004’s] tsunami. There is that same sense of shock and trauma. Everything was completely wiped away. People are just defeated.”
“The reports we get reinforce the fears we had,” said Caroline Brennan, “It’s hard to get a full picture. Until our partners can access more areas, more fully, we’re awaiting a clear picture of the greater crises. We’re still reliant on reports from trusted news sources.”
Caritas is one of the few agencies on the ground in Myanmar. They’ve been joined by the United States government, the United Nations, World Vision and Christian Action Research and Education (CARE). But progress and status reports are just now trickling out.
“I finally received some personal testimonies from Caritas workers,” said Nicholson. “Church staff is going around in dinghies and boats to villages and communities that haven’t been reached until now. It’s pretty traumatic. Bodies in the water. Dead floating children. Dead animals. People aren’t clearing the corpses, so the smell is bad.”
Those still in the villages “who actually survived, are traumatized. They lost children and family members and livestock and homes and everything else,” Nicholson added. Food and potable water are scarce. “Children are eating coconut husks. The situation is no less bleak, really.”
Refugees, the homeless and displaced, meanwhile, “are all going to parishes and temples and living there,” he said. “Imagine these groupings — of say 700 people, or 900 — all living in a church.”
For instance, in Myaung Mya, about 65 miles west of Yangon, upwards of 10,000 refugees are holed up in 15 schools and monasteries.
The upside, Nicholson said, is that through such groupings, people are receiving aid. In addition to medical teams “we’re delivering food, aid, cooking utensils and such to 40,000 people right now.”
The Myanmar bishops and clergy, meanwhile, are left in an unenviable spot. Surrounded by death, they must beat back anarchy, man makeshift refugee camps and oversee aid distribution. At the same time, they have little choice but to ask people with next-to-nothing to give a little bit more.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone relayed Pope Benedict XVI’s condolences in a telegram sent to Mandalay Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng on May 6. Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, apostolic delegate to Myanmar, also visited the country on May 8.
The immediate needs are abundant, pressing, and at times, daunting.
“Food, water, shelter and sanitation are critical from reports,” Brennan said. “It’s pretty typical stuff after a disaster. Especially with water-related disasters. Most of the time, there’s contamination of water sources. Especially in [Southeast Asia] there can be real problems with stagnant water,” including cholera and malaria outbreaks.
“Some agreement between Myanmar’s government and the international aid community would be the best way to help everyone,” he added.
But the ruling military junta, officially the State Peace and Development Council, has shifted its attention elsewhere. On May 10, it held a nationwide referendum. Voting in devastated areas, including Yangon, was postponed. But the election, Myanmar’s first since 1990, didn’t go over well internationally. Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all had local protests.
“The Myanmar government is obliged — under international norms — to help its people in the best way it can,” Nicholson said. “If it believes it can [single-handedly] provide sufficient aid, then that would be great.”
“But most countries would have enormous difficulties doing so,” he added. “Even the United States, the richest country in the world … look at Katrina. Now Katrina is not on the same level as the cyclone. But look at the problems they had reaching aid. So Burma [Myanmar] — at the bottom of most people’s lists of developed countries — is probably going to have some problems.”
Once a clearer picture emerges, Brennan of Catholic Relief Services added, the international aid community can begin recovery and reconstruction.
Secondary needs “are pretty simple,” she said. “Get people the means to rebuild their lives. Provide counseling for those who’ve suffered loss. Build permanent shelters. Get kids back into school. Get a routine going again.” The new school year starts June 1.
“For those who’ve lost the means to livelihood — say a fishing boat that’s been destroyed, a shop that’s been flooded, lost tools — we need to reestablish that,” he said, “because it, in turn, produces stable families.”
To help: www.CRS.org