Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Burma, breaking in and through

Though the higher ups have dug in their heels there are tales of extraordinary efforts being made by the "little people" (Burmese and expats) to help those devastated. Here's one such story from today's Sydney Morning Herald.
Pray for this beleaguered country and its people who have suffered so much trauma for so many decade.

Breaking through Burma's cruel wall of silence

Harry McKenzie* decided to crack the Burmese regime's Bamboo Curtain that bans foreign aid workers and journalists from the areas worst hit by the cyclone. He organised a truckload of food, hired a few locals and set off into the Irrawaddy delta. This is his story.

"DON'T worry about the dead bodies; the fish will eat them," a general in the Burmese junta was heard to say last week.

The general was being serious, it seems. Nearly a fortnight after Cyclone Nargis flung a tidal wave of salt water over the rice paddies of southern Burma, many bodies still float in the paddies, ignored and unclaimed, and hundreds of thousands of people are in dire need of food, fresh water and medicine.

Last week our secret aid truck penetrated the wall of secrecy the junta has thrown up around the Irrawaddy delta. The truck, packed with food bought by foreign donors, myself and locals, made it into Bogale, at the centre of the worst-hit area.

Thousands of people are living here in makeshift refugee camps, still desperate for food and medical help two weeks after the cyclone struck. These were people who had borne the unbearable, whose condition the Burmese military junta is desperate to shield from the outside world, and who it continues to refuse to help by allowing in foreign aid workers. Hundreds crowded around our little aid truck when it entered town last Thursday. They were crying and begging for food. "Me, me, give me food," shouted one man, who tried to drag off one of my aid workers.

My "NGO" - comprising four handpicked Rangoon "street kids" - worked through the night distributing parcels of food to surviving families in Bogale and surrounding villages. Villagers wept: "Please, please give us rice, soup, anything."

"People were begging on their hands and knees for a single packet of soup," a team member said. "Please don't leave us," cried a hungry young mother nursing her child. She had lost her husband, mother and three other family members.

Nearby, a parentless baby lay splayed on a concrete slab. Elsewhere, a wretched old man raged against the paranoid regime that had so cruelly abandoned his family: he had received no warning of the cyclone and lost most of his family in the tidal surge that killed at least 100,000 people and left 2.5 million in need of aid.

Save the Children and the UN estimate the death toll could now exceed 200,000 (the official Burmese Government figure is 78,000).

When food arrived last Thursday it caused a stampede, forcing local officials to padlock the gates to the Hindu temple, where 3000 were packed in.

Overhead, the thwump-thwump of a government helicopter tormented this living hell. Sent to "survey" the damage, the official choppers rarely land in the devastated areas. Our aid team travelled for two days in the delta and saw not a single government helicopter land.

Many in Bogale were too sick or exhausted to care. In a corner of the monastery, alone with her awful memories, sat a teenage girl. She stared blankly into space. She had lost seven members of her family. She survived the storm by clinging to a tree.

My idea started as a dream, and ended as an unlikely reality: to send a single truck of food, as a kind of Trojan Horse, into the delta to penetrate the worst-hit areas that were cut off from the world last week.

The Government has literally locked up Rangoon, blockaded the roads heading south and west, confining foreign aid workers and journalists to the city. Only locals were permitted into the disaster zone.

To make the plan work, I needed the right locals. The officials seemed to find the idea of a foreigner organising a private aid convoy a great old hoot. Major Tun even wondered whether he might take his fishing rod.

Further mobile calls yielded an official reply: No. "A boat is not possible," said one official. "Why not go by truck?"

Full circle. We agreed - a truck - and everyone relaxed.

It was 3pm on Wednesday; the plan was to leave at 5am the next day. We had two hours to buy food supplies before the markets closed. Rangoon central marketplace is a human hive of ramshackle little boxes of traders piled one on another.

But there is method in the madness, and Win had mastered the method.

Kumer waited in the truck outside as we negotiated with the traders. By 5pm we had bought six 20 kilogram bags of corn, three 40 kilogram bags of potatoes, 10 boxes of chicken noodle soup packets (about 1000 packets), 10 boxes of mosquito coils (500 coils) and 10 boxes of canned fish. Total price: 1,002,000 kyat (about $1040).

We met on the street at 5am the next day. The major, Win and I travelled in an old VW van - while Chi and Mug went with Kumer in the truck behind. We soon left the city and passed through wide rice paddies, still flooded, with smashed homes and villages on either side.

Within an hour we reached the first checkpoint. The youth at the gate, seeing Major Tun, sprang to attention, saluted, and waved us through. After surviving two more checkpoints we reached the large township of Kunyangon. We passed this, too, and it seemed I might reach the worst-hit area of the delta.

Then I noticed a motorcycle rider in an army uniform, who gestured for us to pull over. Major Tun's smile froze; I looked forward to watching the motorcyclist get a severe dressing down.

Alas, it was Tun who got the dressing down, for taking a foreigner into a restricted area. The soldiers inspected my passport and confined me to the van with curtains drawn. The team was interviewed by a senior army officer: where were we headed? Bogale. Why? To feed some people. With whose aid? Mr Harry's. On behalf of which NGO? None, this was Mr Harry's private initiative.

We were forced to turn around; the foreigner - me - was not allowed to proceed.

"Look, why don't I hide under the tarp in the back of the truck?" I suggested a little way back down the road.

"No, very, very dangerous," Win said. "They shoot you - maybe."

"OK," I said, "you blokes go to Bogale and the major and I will return to Rangoon."

It was agreed: Win, Chi, Mug and Kumer turned back to Bogale in the truck. I slipped them my camera and recorder, which Win rammed into his underpants.

That was how half our convoy made it into Bogale.

The team looked distraught on its return on Friday. They described the little truck's arrival in the stricken town.

"Mr Harry … Bogale is totally broken, broken, broken," Win said. "Every home is broken. There are 130,000 dead in the area. The villages have no electricity, no lights, no lunch, no dinner, no hope. The people are broken."

But he couldn't go on. He lay his head on the table and wept. Mr Chi wept too: "It is everywhere," Chi said furiously. "Bogale just one place. This f---ing government."

Win raised his head, still in tears: " … so many children and babies naked and crying. So many naked. I gave the people my shirt. They are my people."

Both men gave their shirts to the people.

As they wept I looked at Win's photos, taken at great risk. They revealed the scale of the horror: families wiped out; broken legs and arms, unset; babies sleeping on banana leaves in mud.

"The Government has given nothing," Chi stressed.

"We saw no government aid. We saw no UN or NGOs, and very few medicines. It was mostly private donations - by local businessmen - or from China."

"My heart is crying," Win said. "So many people crowded around us, crying, 'Please, please. Please help us."'

It is a portrait borne out by local and foreign aid workers. UNICEF said it feared a cholera epidemic from drinking bad water directly from rivers polluted with human excrement, bodies and dead animals.

"The water in the whole area is contaminated," one official said.

By Friday, UNICEF had sent 100,000 oral rehydration solutions, many more essential drugs, tarpaulins and bleaching powder (to purify water in wells). But the official conceded this was way too little; 2.5 million people were in dire need.

"I'm always thinking of how we can mobilise resources. But we can't bring in foreign workers."

UNICEF employs only 130 locals in Burma.

The biggest fear is cholera. Such an epidemic would kill millions without modern treatment and experienced doctors, whom the junta refuses to allow into the area.

A UNICEF official said: "Normal preventative medicines will limit deaths to 2 per cent of a stricken population; but without help, as in the Irrawaddy delta, the numbers killed will be at least 50 per cent."

Malaria, tetanus and measles were spreading last week; and typhus may also be a big concern. The UN is organising fumigation teams to spray the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but few teams have been allowed into the area.

To help the 300,000 most in need would involve 10 times the current relief effort, one foreign official said.

"Otherwise tens of thousands will die in the next few weeks. The death toll may double."

A spokesman for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Rangoon said: "We're equipped to deal with 25,000 people, but if there's a massive outbreak of infectious diseases we wouldn't be able to cope at our present level of readiness. On the ground people are breaking down; our translator was crying when he returned."

MSF has just flown in psychologists to counsel their local staff.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of cyclone survivors have been forcibly moved into refugee areas, in the towns of Laputta, Pyapan, Bogale and Pathein, where they sit in temporary camps set up by the Burmese Army. In Laputta and surrounding villages the official death toll is 26,000.

One reason little aid is getting through is that so few experienced people are on the ground to distribute it. In the absence of foreign aid workers and so few locals, the junta has delegated responsibility for distributing foreign aid to local business tycoons. They include:

■ Te Zay, a top crony in the economic wing of General Than Shwe's regime, and head of HT00 Trading Company, the local airline and several construction businesses. Te Zay, also an arms dealer, heads the US sanctions list for Burma;

■ Steve Law, the son of a drugs baron and owner of Asia World, a local business with sharemarket and construction interests;

■ Serge Pun, the head of the local conglomerate FMI.

No doubt these men are doing their best to help, one official said, but foreign NGOs say the business leaders have no experience of massive disaster relief.

And, of course, corruption is never far away. One business leader used his private aid fiefdom for a photo opportunity showing him handing out DVDs and TVs to flooded villages with no electricity. Others were branding packets of foreign aid with their own corporate logos and filming themselves handing it out, as a publicity stunt.

Most aid goes straight to the Government or the army. The US is sending four plane-loads a day, all of which goes to the junta. Not surprisingly, bags of aid designated for the desperate south are showing up in the street markets of Rangoon.

Many foreign governments now see the regime's inability to deal with the crisis as a man-made catastrophe. The British Opposition Leader, David Cameron, has described it as a crime against humanity.

Nothing will change before Saturday, when the worst hit areas will be forced to participate in the second stage of a referendum on whether Burma should adopt a new "democratic constitution".

Few Burmese have the will to resist and vote "no", though most people affected by the cyclone feel extreme anger towards the regime. In the first round of voting an absurd 98 per cent were said to have voted "yes".

People had little choice: they were threatened with the confiscation of their crucial ID cards or bank books if they voted "no". In many villages the local chief simply requisitioned all ID cards, and ticked "yes".

Amid the chaos and sadness, one voice has been forced to stay silent: Aung San Suu Kyi. A Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the symbol of democratic opposition, Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

Her spirit seems to hover over the madness and tragedy of Burma, where the great courage and care of local people such as Win and Chi will prove helpless before this encircling nightmare of the junta's making.

* Harry McKenzie is not the writer's real name.

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