ACT Feature: Cyclone Nargis
YANGON, June 4, 2008–“I felt that I had to help,” says one of ten dedicated young Burmese volunteers. These young people are supporting the survivors of Cyclone Nargis in the severely devastated Irrawaddy Delta region and their task is increasingly demanding.
On the heels of having just returned from their second trip to the Delta in southern Myanmar (Burma), the volunteers unload three barrels of diesel into a compound of one of the local organisations supported by members of the global alliance, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International.
One of the main tasks of these volunteers in recent weeks has been to recover the dead bodies still lying in the water after the cyclone struck.
“We did not feel well when we started to do this,” one 20-year-old volunteer says, staring at a wall in dismay. “But we knew we had to do this because the villagers were afraid to touch the dead bodies.”
In one remote village, volunteers reported that 135 people lost everything. “All of the houses are destroyed,” the student says. “We have removed 17 bodies and buried them, but there are still many left under the debris.” In another village they found eight dead bodies.
When the volunteers first came to the area, they met people in total shock and despair. “They were crying and angry because they have lost their loved ones,” another young man says. “On our first trip we saw so many dead bodies along the way that we could not count them,” he expresses with sadness.
On the visits to villages, the volunteers distribute much needed relief items to survivors including rice, salt, drinking water and plastic sheeting. They also help to rebuild some of the houses with the old wood and bamboo found strewn about by the cyclone. Four to five families can share one of the makeshift homes.
The volunteers report that all the school buildings in the area are destroyed as well, making it nearly impossible for children to return to school as planned at the beginning of June.
Many people in remote villages remained after the cyclone and most of the boats were destroyed. The families manage to survive on very little. “They dried their seeds and use them for food”, a young volunteer explains. “But even with the supplies we can bring in, it is far from enough,” he adds.
The volunteers report that the villagers need much more food and non-food items such as clothes, cooking utensils as well as support in clearing the debris and rebuilding their houses. “They cannot cope with this alone,” one of the volunteers says.
When another ACT supported local organisation first visited the Irrawaddy area they reported that survivors had hardly anything left. More than 1,300 of the 6,000 people living in an area with 40 villages had died — with 26 of the villages totally destroyed.
“The houses are destroyed, the cattle are dead and the seed is gone”, the relief workers said. The workers took all their savings to hire boats to bring the most vulnerable women, children and elderly to camps.
“While relief work is still going on, we have to already think of rehabilitation,” one relief worker shared, adding that there are around fifty days left before the monsoon planting season ends. Rice has to be planted before then, otherwise there will be a serious food shortage within six months.
Many of the people left in villages have survived on coconuts over the last few weeks. Local organisations report that they are desperately asking for seeds and diesel for their ploughs.
And while those who are living in preliminary resettlement sites do want to return to their villages as quickly as possible, many of the survivors are heavily traumatised. The experiences they have endured are hard to overcome.
In one village, relief workers met a young mother who lost her baby while she was clinging to a palm tree. The baby was crushed on her breast. Today, the young woman does not speak and walks around with a coconut in her arms pretending it is her baby.
As part of their overall and continued response, ACT members are mobilising community-based psychosocial support to help survivors cope with the emotional consequences of the immense disaster.
Relief workers and volunteers will have to come to terms with the aftermath the cyclone as well.
Some of the ten volunteers, who have just returned from the delta, recently finished high school and are still awaiting for their final grades. But, as soon as these young men and women heard about the disaster, they immediately threw themselves into the relief effort working more than twelve hours a day.
And they do not consider themselves heroes — they feel they are simply doing what they need to do. “We feel the responsibility to help,” one 23-year-old volunteer says.
ACT members Christian Aid, Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe and Lutheran World Federation contributed to this report.
Action by Churches Together (ACT) International is a global alliances of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide. PWRDF is a member of ACT.