18 June 2008

Eyewitness Report from Myanmar

Eyewitness Report from Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis

This report was posted on the Columban Members' website last Tuesday, 17 June. There are around 603,000 Catholics in Myanmar/Burma out of more than 58,000,000, 1.03% of the population. The Diocese of Pekhon, where the volunteer below is from,w as established in 2005 and has more than 37,000 Catholics, 8.3% of the overall population of 450,000.

This report is from a volunteer from Pekhon Diocese, Myanmar/Burma

I am a volunteer from Pekhon Diocese. I had offered my services because I want to help my countrymen and women who had suffered greatly from the cyclone.

We left Rangoon around seven in the evening and arrived in Laputta the next day at around 11 in the morning. A colleague of mine had previously assessed the area and we were tasked to distribute the needed items to the people situated in the temporary settlement area around the city.

Crowds waiting for supplies to arrive
Upon arrival in the first settlement camp where we were supposed to distribute our goods, we were surprised that only a few people were there. We soon found out that this is due to the issuance by the government of a new mandate that all those displaced families settling in these areas should move back to their own villages. However, their villages were totally destroyed and most people killed. There was nothing to go back to. Anyone who opposed this military order will be imprisoned. They were only given an hour to pack and leave the settlement area without any means of support whatsoever. We were greatly surprised by this and saddened by this inhumane and heartless act by our government.In one of the settlement camps we visited, it was reported in the previous assessment that there were more than three hundred people living in the Baptist Church. When we arrived in the area, we found just fifty-three people. We distributed our items and continued on to our next destination, a Monastery not far from the Baptist Church.

When we arrived in the Monastery, we were expecting to meet and help 1500 people but we were only greeted by 700 people. Again, we distributed the food items that we had for them.

We continued on to our next destination, and distributed our items to those who were waiting. After going to the four assessed settlement areas, we still had some items left over so we drove around town looking for settlement areas to distribute our goods. We drove for hours but found the temporary settlement camps empty. We were very frustrated because we were thinking that we could have helped more people if not because of the government.

Families crammed into a small shelter

In the settlement areas which I have visited, the situation are much the same. People living in anywhere and anyway they can. It was hard to imagine the situation they are in right now. You can see men, women, and children living in a common area, an area without any borders in it, no walls, and any other means of division. There are also smaller temporary shelters made of bamboos for support and tarpaulin sheets donated by relief organizations to protect them from the harsh rain and heat of the sun. These smaller temporary shelters are about 5x5 feet in area and shared by 3 families.Food and other essential needs are scarce. Families are limited to what the NGO’s are giving them. This is not enough for it has been rationed for a family of three and most of the families are composed of five or more. Safe drinking water is also very scarce as water sources are either severely damaged or contaminated. They are now depending on the relief efforts that organizations are giving them.
During the night, our group gt together and talked about what we can do for the displaced families being forced to return to their villages with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The group decided to follow the villagers to their own village and see what we can do to help them.

On the 27th we tried to hire a boat but to no avail. The villages we are trying to reach can only be reached by boat. On the 28th we finally succeeded in hiring a boat and we headed directly to our destination.

A village beyond recognition

Along the way, you can see dead bodies scattered along the riverbanks. Those bodies had been there for a month already. All of us in the group paused because of the sight we saw before us. Along the banks, you can see what is left of an entire village; basically nothing but scattered debris of houses and coconut trees lying around. The village is indistinguishable as landmarks had disappeared. In some of these villages, it was reported that only 3-4 people survived and the rest of their villagers are either dead or missingAs soon as we arrive in Thin Gan Gyi Village Track, the villagers started running to us. We were surprised to see many people back in their village. They don’t have the basic necessities such as food, water, clothes, shelter, or cooking utensils. We were even more surprised to see soldiers in the area. We were asked by the soldiers who we are and what we are doing there. They were as surprised for we were we the first group from the outside to arrive in their area. After a tense conversation with the soldiers, they allowed us to continue. They said that they are there to protect the village. Protect them from what? That we do not know! We came to know that they were there for 17 days and their military base is sending them a week’s ration of food and water, but nothing for the people that they say they are trying to “protect”. Lies!

This Village Track is composed of 10 smaller villages consisting for a total of 3200 people. Only half of the entire population survived the disaster. They are now back in their village. The dead remain unburied.

In the village, only a monastery was left standing. The roofs were blown off and its walls had collapsed. It has been temporarily repaired with the help of tarpaulin sheets serving as the roof. The monastery can accommodate only 20 people. This is obviously not enough for 1300 people trying to seek shelter for protection against the cold night and hot days.

A shelter

The surviving villagers are staying in a makeshift shelter 10x20 feet. There are only two of these so-called “shelters” in the village situated side by side near the bank of the river.

Getting safe drinking water is also an enormous challenge, as is food and medicines. The villagers take a 2 hour boat ride to a nearby village to fetch water for their villagers. We have been able to provide them with 7 gallons of fuel when they were transferred from the settlement camp back to their village. This will not bring them far but we have no more fuel to offer them. It is so sad as they may be stranded or lost at sea in their search for clean drinking water for their villagers. They have put their own lives at risk for others.

We continued on to Gone Nyi Than Village, one of the ten villages which are under the Thin Gan Gyi Village Track. There were about 150 households in this village accounting for around 400 people. Now, only 31 people are left. The others have died. The situation of the 31 survivors is dreadful. The village has been flattened. There are no trees or houses. Dead bodies are still in and around the village. The smell of decomposing flesh filled the air which causes people to be sick.In the river, which is just a couple of meters from the village, we found a capsized ship. With the help of the villagers, we investigated the ship and found out that there are 53 bodies in the boat. All of them were starting to decompose. We carried the bodies to shore, buried them in a shallow grave, turned the boat upright, and used it as a transport vehicle to get necessary supplies.

We returned to the village with 10 liters of water that we had bought in a nearby town. Upon arrival, the soldiers seized 5 gallons for themselves leaving the other 5 gallons to be shared by the entire village. This made the villagers very angry but they cannot do anything. If they try to confront the soldiers, they will either end up in jail or worse end up dead.

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