Myanmar's survivors surrounded by dead

From a Times Staff Writer

They are living with the dead.

More than two weeks after Tropical Cyclone Nargis wiped away all but one of this village's houses, decomposing corpses still lie on muddy pathways, or are trapped in eddies along the shore of the broad Pyamaia River nearby.

The stench overpowers every corner of U Thon Tun's badly damaged home, where 25 survivors have taken refuge beneath a leaky roof patched with tarp. The wind and the rain, which pours down on them every day, cannot erase the sickly smell.

The villagers, all tenant farmers, want to get past their loss, go back to work and earn money again before another rice crop is lost. But their paddies are ruined, they have no seeds to plant, and there are no tools to work soil flooded by the sea.

Without any tools, the villagers say, they can't solve another pressing problem: the corpses that are fouling the river where they wash themselves each day.

Soldiers sent in to gather the corpses suddenly disappeared Sunday, and villagers say they heard that the troops were refusing to dispose of any more bodies, leaving survivors no choice but to live with them.

"It's not 10, it's not 100, it's thousands of bodies," said Thon Tun. "We gave up collecting corpses around here. It's impossible to bury them properly."

Local authorities have provided small rations of food, but not the seeds, equipment and water buffalo that villagers say they need to start planting by the end of June. The water buffalo died in the storm that thrashed the village and flooded the paddies that now cannot be planted without the help of the buffalo.

Meanwhile, saltwater is poisoning the soil and fresh water reserves. Yet villagers have no salt, which is essential to a healthy diet, for their meager meals. The Irrawaddy River delta produces most of the country's salt, but the factories were destroyed in the storm.

So Thon Tun, 56, and the refugees who depend on him have a lot of time to sit and think, to breathe in the inescapable smell, and to worry what fate they may be condemned to suffer because they survived, only to face an agonizing wait for help.

"I didn't die, but I feel dead," said Hla Ye, 70, staring blankly. "The people killed by the cyclone are lucky because they don't know anything about what came next. I wish I could join them."

She turned, placed her withered hands together and bowed her head in prayer to a small statue of Buddha, surrounded by bouquets of plastic flowers in a sitting room shrine. She struck a triangular bronze gong, suspended by string from the ceiling, ringing it the traditional three times to share her merit with the world.

Then she sought solace in a deep puff on a long cheroot, rolled in an old scrap of newspaper. As she brooded, the sky over the delta darkened.

Lightning strikes and booming thunderclaps shook the wooden walls as rain and wind thrashed the region for several hours Monday.

"What we really want is to go back to work in the fields, but we can't do that," said Zaw Zaw, 28, whose only clothes are a pair of camouflaged shorts and a dirty T-shirt with the slogan "Keepin' It Real."

"We have to worry about where we'll get food, and clothes, and water. We're farmers. We know that next year is going to be worse if we don't start planting soon."

The seawater that washed away most of the village, killing 25 of its 45 residents, also soaked more than 900 pounds of rice seed. It's now worthless.

Local officials have provided small rations of rice, chicken-flavored instant noodles and cookies that don't provide the nutrition that the United Nations and other agencies say as many as 2.5 million survivors need for a long struggle ahead.

The steady rainfall provides drinking water, and the villagers saved 10 gallons of diesel from the storm to power a small pump, which they hope will drain their reservoir of seawater enough for them to fill it with fresh water again.

Save the Children, one of the most experienced foreign aid agencies in Myanmar, estimates that 30,000 children in the delta region were malnourished before the cyclone hit and could be starving in two to three weeks if adequate help doesn't arrive.

The military regime that rules Myanmar, also known as Burma, says that at least 78,000 people have died and that 56,000 others are missing since the storm's 120- to 150-mph winds ravaged the country's south in early May.

Ignoring intense pressure, the regime has refused to open the disaster zone to a massive international relief effort supervised by foreign aid workers. Officials here remain suspicious that foreigners would serve as spies. As a result, the military government has allowed only a limited number of relief flights, including several carrying U.S. aid. Most of the supplies are being distributed by the Myanmar authorities.

The government has closed the hardest-hit Irrawaddy Delta area to foreigners, except for about 160 Asian aid workers. The few foreign journalists that are here must work undercover, and the regime has ordered partially independent news media to report only official details of the relief effort.

Tight censorship has spawned a new industry: cyclone DVDs, which show the corpses, suffering survivors, and other realities of the storm's aftermath that the regime doesn't want its people to see.

The videos are selling well in urban markets, and people with access to the Internet and shortwave radio broadcasts are also hearing how hard the generals have resisted offers of foreign aid.

That includes 1,000 tons of food and shelters for 15,000 people sitting on a French naval vessel, waiting off the country's southern shore. The regime refuses to let the ship enter Myanmar territory because France won't hand the supplies to the Asian nation's military to distribute.

The resulting anger is growing in a sensitive year for the regime. This summer marks the 20th anniversary of a student-led uprising that the regime crushed, killing thousands of protesters.

The generals are used to shrugging off foreign criticism, and despite the scope of the current disaster, they have provided a tepid response to U.N. pleas for a full-scale relief operation. Military ruler Senior Gen. Than Shwe has refused to take U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's phone calls, or reply to two letters from him.

Ban plans to leave for Myanmar today, and the government says he will be given a tour of the delta region. Foreign diplomats were taken on a similar tour over the weekend, and they said they were shown model camps to support the regime's claim that it has the situation under control.

Survivors who went to collect their food rations near here Monday said local officials told them they would only be fed for two more months, and then they would be on their own. It's a warning in keeping with recent government speeches insisting that people must be self-sufficient.

But even if aid deliveries suddenly improved, and farmers got the seeds and equipment they needed, the first harvest wouldn't come until six months after they start preparing the fields and seedlings, they said.

As survivors here continue to wait for help, one of the few things that makes them smile is the name of what was once their village: It means "the pig gone with the water." Legend has it, villagers say, that the fast-moving creek next to their homes has washed away a lot of pork over the generations.

Nargis' storm surge was so powerful, said one man, that a wave at least 10 feet tall swept him five miles from home. It killed so much livestock that survivors are thinking of renaming the village Koway Myon: "the water buffalo gone with the water."

The joke ends there.

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