Eyewitness to tragedy in Burma
Max Quincey, resident (Rangoon)
May 8, 2008
HAVING survived the cyclone, the struggle now is for survival.
First there is the scramble for fresh water, with long lines all over Rangoon to buy it by the bucketful at three times its pre-cyclone price.
Then there is the hunt for shelter among the debris in a city where houses without roofs outnumber those with them.
Huge queues snake from the few petrol stations still in operation. Fuel has doubled in price.
In Shwe Pauk Kan township in Rangoon, most of the houses have been largely or totally destroyed. People are crammed into the few remaining large buildings, including a school housing 600 children, 450 women and 250 men. The school's head, U Maung Maung Aye, opened it to anyone who needed shelter. He shows off a well and a small generator allowing clean water to be pumped. But without help, he said, he did not know for how much longer he would be able to feed people. "I have 1300 refugees who have lost their homes and have nothing left and needed a place to sleep, gather their small belongings, and a place to dry them," he said. "I am providing them with two meals out of the generosity of donors. I have two pregnant ladies and they are soon due (to give birth)."
Among those taking refuge in the school was Shwe Zin, nursing a stitched hand and bandaged head. "The roof came down on me," she said. "I got off lightly, but my 19-year-old son is at the hospital with serious head trauma. A fireman came to save us but he also got injured."
Few were prepared for the destructive power of the cyclone, which goes some way to explain a death toll in the tens of thousands. Last night more than 22,500 were confirmed dead, 41,000 still missing, and about 1 million people left homeless.
Large areas remain under water nearly a week after the storm that struck Burma late last Friday. "There are large swathes of the lower Irrawaddy delta completely under water. We are talking 5000 square kilometres under water. It's a vast area," said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the United Nations Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in Bangkok after a meeting of aid experts yesterday.
Burmese authorities had said the cyclone would hit much further north but, as the rain intensified, the meteorological department warned that it was changing course, gathering strength and heading for Rangoon.
Despite the warning, most people went to bed with little idea of what to expect. By midnight on Friday, 200 km/h winds were whipping Rangoon as the cyclone began its crawl through the city. It was not only the power of the storm that terrified; its staying power was deadly.
The storm felt like it went on forever, ripping at our sturdy house, shattering glass, ripping away part of the roof and dumping huge amounts of water into the exposed rooms.
A large mango tree threatened to crush my children's room, so we took shelter in the heart of the house and wondered what it must be like for most of the Burmese, who live in less-stout homes that would have been swept away.
By Saturday afternoon, when the wind and rain had finally stopped, the city was wrecked. Century-old trees had been uprooted, lamp-posts twisted and electricity poles snapped. The once green city had been transformed into an unrecognisable grey mess.
Only on Sunday did the police, fire brigade and military start clearing the main roads.
By Sunday night, people were queueing and sometimes fighting for nails in shops. Storekeepers were rationing them as angry customers were told their price had tripled.
"There is going to be blood," one man said. "The army and police are not helping … I will not be able to buy food next week."
Fears Burma storm toll could soar
Five days after a devastating cyclone struck, the UN has urged Burma to open its doors to foreign aid and staff.
More than 22,000 people were killed, says the government, but the top US diplomat in Burma warned that without speedy action that could top 100,000.
Amid the "increasingly horrendous" situation, there is a "real risk" of disease outbreak, said the head of the US embassy in Burma, Shari Villarosa.
Some aid has arrived but the UN says big obstacles remain for aid agencies.
Burma's ruling military junta has approved the passage of some aid, but other offers have been spurned while many foreign aid workers are being held in a queue for visas.
In the area worst affected by Saturday's cyclone, the vast Irrawaddy delta, survivors have walked for days past dead bodies to find help.
They are hungry, thirsty and vulnerable to disease - but roads are blocked and aid has been slow to arrive.
Footage of the aid operation in Burma from state-run TV
The last Burmese death toll, on Tuesday, said 22,464 people had now been confirmed dead and another 41,054 people were missing as a result of high winds and the tidal surge.
What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people. It is not a matter of politics
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Up to a million people are thought to have been left homeless in the crisis, which has left thousands of square kilometres of the Irrawaddy delta under water.
Shari Villarosa, the charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Burma - also known as Myanmar - said food and water were running short in the delta area and called the situation there "increasingly horrendous."
"There is a very real risk of disease outbreaks as long as this continues," Ms Villarosa said, according to Associated Press.
The death toll could reach or exceed 100,000 as humanitarian conditions worsen, she said - based on information from a non-governmental organisation that she would not name.
Accounts from the Irrawaddy delta have spoken of fistfights breaking out between survivors desperate to seize dwindling supplies of food and water.
Some are breaking open coconuts for the water inside, while others are driven to eating dead fish.
Poor sanitation, rotting bodies in the water, and flooding could all bring disease, aid agencies warn.
They highlight the risk of mosquito-borne malaria and dengue fever, along with water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.
Calls for access
The Burmese authorities have attracted criticism over claims they are refusing to provide visas to waiting foreign aid workers and have spurned some offers of help, such as a US offer to deploy three naval ships and two planes in the region.
The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the latest to voice such criticism, telling reporters:
"What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people. It should be a simple matter. It is not a matter of politics."
Earlier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged authorities in Burma to assist the entry of foreign aid workers and supplies into the country "in every way possible" - strong diplomatic language, says the BBC's correspondent at the UN, Laura Trevelyan.
Speaking to reporters, the UN's humanitarian chief John Holmes accepted that aid agencies had faced difficulties accessing the disaster zone.
But, he said, co-operation from the Burmese authorities was "reasonable and heading in the right direction".
EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION
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He dismissed a suggestion by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that the UN Security Council should adopt a resolution allowing aid to be flown into the country by force as unnecessarily confrontational.
Mr Holmes said 24 countries had pledged assistance so far worth $30m (£15m), and a flash appeal would be launched on Friday once an initial assessment of need was complete.
An assessment team was due in Burma on Thursday.
A stream of aid is now in, or on its way, to Burma:
The UN says a plane loaded with 25 tonnes of supplies and a small team of rescue staff will arrive in Burma within days
The UN's World Food Programme has dispatched an additional four planes loaded with supplies including high-energy biscuits
Chinese media say a plane carrying 60 tonnes of aid has landed in the biggest city, Rangoon
Planes from Thailand, India and Indonesia are also being dispatched
The WFP has already begun to distribute existing food aid stocks in and around Rangoon, and the Red Cross has a handful of expatriate and many local staff on the ground.
I feel absolutely sick to my guts about this. This is not just a natural disaster but also a horror of man's own making. This disaster and the incompetence of the Myanmar junta to even bother warning its own population-- and its expected difficulty in dealing with the relief process-bastards.
Later this afternoon I am going to take a look at donating to Médecins Sans Frontières Australia (Doctor's Without Borders)
-- they do good work in situations such as this.