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A secret voyage to expose a tragedy

From a Times Staff Writer

From the far side of a murky brown river, the only moving thing visible on the ravaged landscape was a tattered maroon cloth, fluttering listlessly atop a tree stripped of its branches.

Two Buddhist monks had torn it from the only material they had, one of their own coarse robes. Its message was just as plain: “Alive! Please help.”

Tropical Cyclone Nargis killed 300 people in this village, wiping away almost every trace of the people, their homes and a monastery. Surviving monks went to a relief camp, but after nearly three weeks, they figured that what they had fled couldn’t be much worse.

So they took some of the meager rice rations they received from the military, came back and made themselves a tent by stretching tarps over a frame of fallen trees.

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In the two days they had been living in it, our riverboat was the first to stop. My interpreter went ashore first.

When he confirmed that no soldiers or government officials were there, I crawled out of my hiding place.

Over the last 16 years, I have reported on famine, massive earthquakes and a tsunami. Cyclone Nargis is the first natural disaster that required working undercover to write about the hungry, sick and homeless.

Myanmar’s military regime is suspicious of outsiders, fearing they are spies or that their presence could expose the fallacy of the government’s claim to be an all-powerful provider of development and stability.

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The May 2-3 storm killed at least 78,000 people. And 56,000 are missing.

More than a month after the cyclone, the government continues to deny unhindered access to the disaster zone for foreign experts, such as medical and water-purification teams, threatening thousands of lives, especially those of children, pregnant women and the elderly, the United Nations and other agencies say.

In the cyclone’s aftermath, the regime was so determined to keep prying eyes from a landscape littered with corpses and people begging for help that it set up checkpoints on the main roads into the Irrawaddy River delta, which took the brunt of the storm.

The names and passport details of those caught were recorded before the vehicles were turned back. Local people accompanying them were interrogated.

But it’s much harder to police the boats that ply the delta’s labyrinth of rivers and canals.

The younger of the two monks, U Nya Tui Ka, 53, approached our boat, one of four I hired to take me to the delta during a month of visits, and was shocked to see a foreigner poking his head from the hold.

He assumed that help had arrived. His despair gave way to a broad smile, and then to disappointment as the interpreter explained that I was a reporter.

There was an unsettling silence. Not a birdsong, a dog’s bark or a crying child could be heard -- only the wind and a few buzzing flies.

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Standing in the blazing sun, chewing on a mouthful of betel, the senior monk, U Pyinar Wata, patiently answered our questions. The monks could make do with the little food they had, he said. After all, Buddha had taught that without craving, there is no suffering.

But the monks were worried about a few homeless children in their care. Together, the monks and boys were the only people on their side of the river for miles. Without fresh water, the monks feared, the boys might not last long.

What they all needed most, said Pyinar Wata, 60, was a pump and some diesel fuel to run it, so they could empty a 150-square-foot reservoir of seawater and corpses and let it fill with clean rainwater.

He might as well have been asking for a rocket to Mars.

We had traveled with some boxes of antibiotics, bottled water, packages of cookies and instant noodles to hand out. But those had run out early on the trip. All I had left was a camera, a tape recorder -- and sympathy.

We were eager to leave to stay out of the military’s sight. But the monks wanted us to take pictures of the reservoir, see where they slept and cooked on a mud floor.

Most cyclone survivors were the same. They talked for as long as we would stay, pouring out their souls along with the tea, coconut juice or water they offered from their meager reserves.

When it was time to move on, the kindest of them said we had lifted a great weight just by caring enough to stop and listen.

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The 30-foot boats I hired normally haul sugar cane, bananas or rice. No crew was willing to chance two trips, so after each four-night journey, we returned to Yangon, also known as Rangoon, switched boats and set out again.

The boats are not built for comfort.

The holds are open to leave room for cargo, which meant my only hiding place was the cramped space beneath the top deck.

About 15 feet across and 8 feet deep, with a wooden ceiling and peeling turquoise paint, it was a dark, sweltering cell barely big enough to sit upright in.

The pilots sat on the roof above me. One, to keep his hands free for frequent bottles of cheap cane liquor, pinched a steel pipe between his toes, deftly working the Chinese-made 18-horsepower diesel engine that spun a long-tail propeller sluggishly churning the water.

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The machine pounded like a jackhammer. And since the four-man crew felt safer staying away from land, it thumped day and night, stopping only when we slipped into storm-ravaged villages.

Their courage braced by the cane liquor, the crewmen felt their way through the night. They poked at shallow channels with a bamboo sounding pole, comparing what they could see of the ruined landscape with foggy memories of trees that once pointed the way.

Sunset was also the signal for the boats’ full-time occupants to come crawling out of the cracks. Cockroaches the size of mice and spiders with legs as long as crabs’ feasted on the crumbs of our food. At times, so many bugs skittered around that it sounded like a gentle rain.

A green vine snake dropped in one night from an overhanging branch. The long, thin snakes are agile and only mildly venomous. A bite would be very painful but not fatal. Just the same, it would have blown my cover pretty quickly.

A crew member who usually worked the hand pump to clear the constant flow of bilge water beat the serpent to death. Carefully keeping it at arm’s length, he tossed it overboard with a stick.

The bigger danger was that we’d be found out, which the crew feared would mean jail time. It almost happened twice.

While we were docked at the delta town of Mawlamyine Gyun, two policemen on foot patrol questioned the crew. The pilot said he was a rice trader, which apparently made sense to the officers even though the hold was empty and the cyclone had wiped out the rice crop.

They didn’t bother to look into my hiding place, where I was cringing under a rough blanket.

Another day, we nearly pulled into a destroyed village to ask directions as two army officers were ordering people around.

Just yards from shore, the pilot throttled up and made a sudden U-turn as I ducked back into my cell. No one followed.

Otherwise, authorities were usually nowhere to be seen in the remote villages where the suffering was most severe.

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Largely left to fend for themselves through weeks of living with decomposing bodies, scant aid and evictions from relief camps, many of the survivors began to lose something: their fear of speaking out.

Most are no longer afraid to openly criticize the military, to express anger that they once hid beneath a veneer of loyalty and obedience learned during 46 years of military rule.

Volunteers asserted new authority. An American aid worker, also working under cover, told of a local volunteer deliberately stepping on a military officer’s toes to deliver rice directly to villagers instead of following orders and taking it to the township council.

Tens of thousands of volunteers collected donations in the cities, loaded supplies into vehicles and boats and headed for destroyed villages. They came back with photos and stories of what they’d seen, short-circuiting the junta’s propaganda machine.

The regime’s English- language newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, praised the country’s leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, for staying away from damaged areas for two weeks after the storm hit. It said his “farsightedness and genuine goodwill” let relief efforts proceed faster without him.

When he did go, his “warm words of encouragement . . . made downhearted victims happy,” according to the report. “While watching the news and scenes of the Senior General cordially greeting the victims on TV, we, all the people, were pleased with the efforts of the government.”

But in the cities, millions have heard from foreign radio broadcasts and Internet news sites that weren’t yet blocked by the regime that the generals had refused to allow tons of aid on U.S., French and British warships to be brought ashore.

And they know that soldiers have forced people into trucks and dumped them back in ruined villages, and that despite promises to ease restrictions on entry to the country, their rulers are delaying the arrival of foreign experts and life-saving equipment.

Villagers are listening too.

One night, when several suggested we would be safer tying up to a tree in their creek than risking the busier river route, a man heard the crackling Voice of America and British Broadcasting Corp. on the interpreter’s shortwave radio. He joined him on the roof of my hiding place and listened for several hours.

At dawn, when the pilot was cranking up the engine to a sputtering start, the man returned to ask a favor.

He didn’t want food, medicine or water. He needed the radio so the whole village could hear.

So we donated it.

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The writer, who recently completed an assignment in Myanmar, is unidentified to protect those who worked with him.

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On latimes.com

To see more photos, visit latimes.com/myanmar.

To see recent Column One articles, visit latimes.com/columnone.


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