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Burma's popular mobilisation

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Latest update : 2008-06-06

Since the passing of Cyclone Nargis, the people of Burma have been struggling to channel aid towards those in need, just as the country's military junta rebuffed foreign offers of help. (Report: A.Boussat and A.Beaumont)

Roads like this one leading to the Irrawady Delta are typically lined with hundreds of people who lost everything during Cyclone Nargis... their loved ones, their houses, their fields and their cattle. They're waiting for help, but for now have to make do with small hand-outs. Burma's military junta is blocking most of the international aid and has prevented foreigners from accessing the most devastated areas in the delta.

 

The delta is under strict surveillance and, along the roads, many military checkpoints have been set up. I had to hide in the back of a truck and travel at night to get there. "For the one-hour journey, do not show yourself, get under the covers. For one hour. At the checkpoint, do not talk."

 

After one night on the road, my journey continues, this time by boat. Its the only way to get around in the Delta. Close to the sea, tsunami-like waves engulfed entire villages. Three weeks after the cyclone; only a few Burmese volunteers have managed to distribute food, but it's barely enough to survive on. The stench of death permeates the area.

 

"Dead bodies are everywhere. There are too many of them for us to pick them up. All we can do is push them down the river so that they'll be carried to the sea," says one volunteer. "How do you think we feel? It's depressing to see all these dead people and destroyed houses." "First, we need to find food and a roof for over our heads. Then, well deal with funerals. For now, were too tired and we don't have time."

 

Ashin is the chief of a large village in the Delta. He offers to take me around and show me the extent of the destruction wrought by the cyclone. Low-lying areas along the coastline were badly hit. Only a few pieces of soaked wood remain where a village once stood.

 

The seawall was not strong enough to contain the giant waves. It was built 40 years ago and was only 2 metres high. "First, roads need to be repaired to allow for rescue teams to arrive. But we can't do it alone. The problem is that we're by the seafront, and there is no major road going though here. We're isolated."

 

Many fishermen are among those who survived. They lost everything and know they can only rely on themselves to go on. "The sea took everything away, all our boats. It came up to here. Our neighbours in the next village still have boats. We'll have to work for them but we won't make much money. What we really need is to get another boat. But for now, we don't even have enough to buy food and I doubt the government will help us out."

 

In this village, five days went by before the government distributed half a kilo of rice per resident. And since… nothing at all. "Much of our rice supplies were destroyed. We still have a bit in storage but not a lot. The supplies were damaged by the water and, on top of that, we can't find enough dry wood to cook with."

 

Today, villagers learn that help is on its way. It doesn't come from the government or from international NGOs, but from individuals acting in solidarity. It's the second time in three weeks. It won't be much, but everybody wants to put down their names on the list of beneficiaries. "Last time around, we got half a liter of oil per family, a small bag of lentils, a bit of rice, onions and tea." "Many died and I'm alive. I don't know whether I should be sad or happy about it. I don't know how to feel anymore."

 

In this village, getting aid is a matter of life or death. Seawater flooded the rice paddies and next year's harvest is uncertain. Many farm animals drowned. And yet, nobody wants to leave the village; the only place they've ever known. "There are enough of us left in the village to support one another. Refugee camps where people get help are too far away. We don't have the means to get there." "I dont know any other place, I've always lived here. I don't know where the refugee camps are." "We want to stay here, we have to plow the fields and plant rice in July. But we don't know if the rice will grow because the soil is gorged with salt water. We'll try anyway."

 

Another consequence of the cyclone: incessant rain, well ahead of the monsoon. Living without shelter has become all the more difficult. Foreign aid and governmental help do reach some villages, albeit in small quantities. If people have survived until now, its mainly thanks to private donations.

 

An hour and a half away from the coastline, donations from Northern Burma have reached this town. Hundreds of families from neighbouring villages have come to receive their share. Their names are being called, one by one. Clothes, biscuits and rice are methodically distributed… allowing people to get by for a few extra days. "Here we have a family of five". "Put this away ; we won't give it to them ; just give that amount. We are to be fair and accurate. Villagers must receive the same quantity of aid. No exception should be made." "Call in the guys that brought in the donations. They should oversee the distribution."

 

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese regime continues to block a great deal of foreign aid and claims that the situation is under control. As a result, most people in the Irrawady Delta have yet to receive assistance.

 

In the capital Rangoon; government propaganda is falling on deaf ears. DVDs with footage of the disaster filmed by local amateurs are sold on the street. Shocking images and eyewitness reports have unleashed a great wave of national solidarity.

 

Friends, families, private companies are all pitching in to buy food and basic supplies to send out to the delta. And every time, they receive a hero's welcome even when all they're handing out are a few biscuits and clothing. "Thats our own clothes that were giving". "Your own?" "Yes, we collected them from our families".

 

A simple gesture of empathy. But for some, providing aid to the victims is also a way to defy the junta. This man speaks out against the regime. We decided to blur his face for his own safety. "Its hard to know whats really happening in the delta. We heard yesterday that the authorities have forbidden refugees from being transported to Rangoon…Because of the risk of sickness and epidemics…But maybe they're only rumours… It's hard to know because the regime does'nt release much information. That's their way of governing. They never want the people to know what's happening." "And you have the impression that people are angry ?" "Deeply angry….. We're disappointed, angry……All the more so since we heard that only some of the humanitarian aid got into the delta. We want to help but its forbidden."

 

Faced with mounting international pressure, Burmese authorities have eased their position, although they're only allowing a few foreigners to get into the country. The government cannot meet the population's needs on its own and anger is growing in Rangoon. "Waters becoming very expensive." "Prices have soared since the cyclone."

 

Anger is palpable but people are not ready to mount a rebellion. Last fall's riots were crushed by the military, discouraging many.

 

In and around Rangoon, soup kitchens are mushrooming. A group of friends known for their heavy drinking decided to go dry for a while to buy food for those in need. "We stopped drinking and with the money were saving were giving away rice."

"They're offering cooked rice everyday. They're keeping our morale up. They're helping children orphaned by the cyclone and people that lost their house." "Nobody comes here to help us out." "Shut up, stop talking".

 

In Burma, where most people live in fear of police repression, monks play an essential spiritual and social role. After the Cyclone, they lived up to their reputation and organized many food distributions. They also welcomed victims of the disaster in Buddhist temples. The junta prevents any such big gatherings for fear of demonstrations. This widower knows she'll have to leave soon but she's lost everything and has nowhere to go. "I must find somebody to lend me some money to rebuild my house." "Who will you ask ? We're all in the same boat, nobody has money to lend away. I don't know how we'll manage."

 

The junta says the emergency and relief phase is over and that the country is ready to rebuild. But the UN estimates that close to two and a half million people are in urgent need of help. Private donations continue to reach some in the Delta, but it'll take more than hand-outs for those in need to get by and eventually recover.

 

Date created : 2008-06-05

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