Voices From the Heart of Myanmar

Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar on May 2nd, 2008, causing massive damage and killing up to 128,000 people at last count.

Added to the misery of the Burmese people is the military government's (known as the junta) reluctance to permit foreign aid workers to work freely in the country.

Since the cyclone devastated Myanmar, foreign aid has only been allowed in small batches because of the junta's restrictions on allowing food aid and equipment into the country.

Many international observers have criticised the government, alleging that its actions have raised the risk of illness and starvation among the 2.5 million people left homeless by the cyclone.

Here, ABC News publishes two accounts by a resident and an aid worker in Myanmar. In order to preserve their safety, we have decided not to reveal their names.

A Resident's Perspective on the Myanmar cyclone

The south of Burma was hit hard by Cyclone Nargis, a category 3 cyclone that hit the coast of Irrawaddy Division at midday on May 2, causing catastrophic flooding and wind damage, and then continued overland to devastate the former capital, Rangoon, throughout the night.

There had been threats of this cyclone all week as it was hanging around at sea and no one could predict which way it would go or where it would cross the coast. We had heard that it would hit further North and the mountains would break up the force of it.

Businesses closed early Friday when it became clear that it was coming in over Irrawaddy Division. This being flat delta area meant that there were no mountains to break the force but it was still predicted to be downgraded. It had been raining steadily for days and the rain got harder and the wind stronger.

The power went off at about 10.30 pm. Power cuts are normal and tend to be localized to share the power around (a roster system) but when I looked out of our apartment there were no lights anywhere and the street lights were off. This was our first sense that it was going to be bad.

My family, including three children aged 9 to 16, lives in an 11th floor apartment. We spent a worrying night trying to stop the windows blowing in and scooping up the flood of water that was being driven past the closed windows faster than we could mop it up.

We could not see out of the windows as it was night and the rain was being driven so hard but we could feel the building moving in the wind and hear the iron roofing sheets being blown off the factories over the road. The rain stopped at about 9 a.m. although the wind remained strong.

Outside, below, I could see most trees down, many buildings missing their iron roofs and the huge billboard over the road had been left a mangled mess on a building. A few hardy souls were trying to go out and I saw two bicycles being blown backwards.

Later, my husband went down to his office to see the damage there. It took him a long time to travel because so many trees and power poles were across the roads. He found that the office had suffered quite badly with a huge fallen fig tree from the neighboring property filling the yard and breaking the roof at the front. Water had spread through the rooms with computers and paperwork at the back.

The guard had spent a terrifying night in a car parked around the side of the building as he could see the tree was going to fall and could do nothing about it. Actually, this poor fellow was the day guard from Friday who had been unable to leave as the night guard had not been able to get to work on Friday night to relieve him. The night guard's house had completely collapsed.

I can't begin to describe what Yangon looked like the morning after. We have always appreciated how many trees there are and how green the city is, with lots of shade. Now I would guess that 75 percent of the trees have fallen down, on roads and houses. There is mess and branches everywhere. Even large old trees have been uprooted.

All the billboards and signs are in mangled heaps. Ironically, one of the very few billboards that remain standing is advertising a famous brand of chain saws, yet there are few in the country and the majority of the clean up and sawing is done by hand.

Many roads were blocked or barely passable, many cars were trapped in their own yards (if not flattened by falling trees). At first residents worked together to clear their own stretches of road. I was impressed by the quiet, uncomplaining manner in which people worked to clear up the mess and fix their houses with whatever materials they could find.

After some days convoys of army trucks began arriving and large groups of soldiers cleared the major roads with a few hand tools between them.

The fact that someone turned the electricity off to the whole city just before the storm hit probably saved countless lives as the power lines came down everywhere and there were wires on the roads and in the tree debris.

Yangon has remained largely without power since but now it is being restored in some areas. We got power at our flat on Thursday evening. Before that there was no water (which has to be pumped) and lifts in the flats did not work for some days.

We had filled buckets the morning after the storm, expecting the water to run out and we got by on that (and two buckets of dirty swimming pool water that we took up to flush the toilet) until the apartment building started running a generator periodically to fill the tanks so we could fill buckets from the taps. Now we have both water and power and feel very blessed!

Many people are still carrying water up in their apartment buildings and there are still queues for water in the inner city area. Working telephones are scarce. Prices of fuel, bus fares, taxis and all food have gone up dramatically.

It was hard to get most things as the major shops were closed and the small shops had very little stock. I thought it quite a triumph to find some eggs and candles.

Furthermore, with no power there was no refrigeration so food would not keep many hours in the heat. The ice factories have been unable to operate so we have avoided meat from the markets.

Transport was difficult with even many major roads closed or severely narrowed, few buses and expensive fares. It is improving a lot in the city now, but it still looks like a war zone. The local people have remained calm and stoic and there have been few reports of trouble.

Our children's school has reopened, although it is held together with plywood and plastic sheeting and it is the only international school that has been able to reopen.

An Aid Worker Visits the Pyapon Township, Irrawaddy Division

The Myanmar government has restricted travel for foreigners into the Irrawaddy Division after Cyclone Nargis. This is the experience of one partner who traveled into the area:

We were invited to visit the affected area, which we had been to in the past, with a leader who was returning to his native village.

He had been visiting his home village with his eleven-year-old son on the night of the storm. As the wind and rain increased he had realized that there was going to be a lot of damage so he went from house to house in his community and persuaded people to move from their bamboo and wooden houses into the brick church building.

The next morning he went with his son into Yangon for help, traveling by boat, motorbike and foot, arriving cold, wet and exhausted in the evening.

We travelled to the Pyapon area, about four hours (180 kilometers) from Yangon, by car on the Wednesday, five days after the cyclone. We took 5 million kyat ($5,000) worth of essential supplies with us, including plastic sheeting, Water Guard (water purification treatment), dried biscuits, rice and medicine, including oral rehydration salts, pain medication and antiseptic lotion.

The road was passable but after driving for two to three hours we were stopped by a military road block. A helicopter had landed on the road because a high ranking official was visiting the area. After about an hour we were allowed to continue.

When we arrived in Pyapon we could see that most houses had been damaged and many had been laid flat.

There were people around the town and the tea houses, an important center of Myanmar community life, were operating.

We visited a church in that town that had been so badly damaged that only the frame was left standing. Only one of the neighboring houses was still standing.

We met an elderly lady there who was very distressed. She said she had lost everything and there was only God for support now.

After leaving some supplies for some badly affected people there we loaded the rest of the supplies onto a small boat and set off for more remote villages.

In the river we saw many dead animals: buffalo, pigs, dogs, chickens and we also saw human bodies. I have to say that after the first five human bodies I just stopped counting. They had been in the water five days now. It was very distressing.

Although the area that we were in was less affected than areas closer to the sea (where the water level had risen by 3 meters) the destruction was evident.

The water level had risen here to about 80 cm and gone down again after a couple of hours. The wind had been overwhelming. Most of the houses had been flattened.

There were lots of people along the river picking up the pieces of their lives. Some were cleaning and washing household items and clothing that had been muddied by the flood waters, others were trying to dry their rice stores in between the showers of rain that were making the recovery more difficult.

Someone would be washing in the river only 10 meters away from a dead buffalo or 50 meters away from a dead child floating in the river. No one was collecting the dead bodies.

At the first village that we stopped to distribute supplies they told us that on their side of the river 500 people had drowned or were missing and on the other side the figure was 200.

We asked what they had had to eat today and they said that they had had a little rice and salt. They did not have any vegetables or meat. Nearly all of their livestock and vegetable gardens were lost.

We asked them what they needed and they told us — clean water and medicine. They also said that they had received no help yet and no one had been to ask about their dead and missing.

The people we met possessed a strong coping mechanism and we were impressed by their capacity to continue on in a dignified way. Here, no one expects external help and people help themselves and others as best they can.

We saw boats pass by taking building materials to communities up river as people put back roofs and walls on structures left standing. Many were rebuilding using debris and any bamboo they can find.

Finally we reached the leader's home village, another half hour along the river. The death toll here seemed to have been around 70. It is likely that the leader saved many lives by moving people into the church during the cyclone. The church building had sustained only minor damage and was still being used as a shelter for many people. The atmosphere in the temporary settlement was calm and friendly and the inhabitants even thanked us for coming. They had very limited supplies of necessities but had not lost everything unlike others in some areas.

They had also kept or recovered various cooking pots and water jars. Many of these, however, were damaged and they needed containers to catch the rain as a source of clean drinking water.

Water will continue to be an issue as the shallow wells have been contaminated by the muddy flood waters and the pumps on the tube wells have been broken off. Rain water harvesting will be an important activity during the wet season that is just beginning. To add to the difficulties, the firewood supplies are now wet and the continuing rains are not allowing any real drying of fuel.

We found that another major concern for the people of this area was that this is the rice planting season and by June there must be seeds in every field. Now their rice is all wet. Rice that has been wet and dried is edible but can not be used as seed for the next crop. During the recovery process they will need rice seeds, farm implements and draught animals to prevent a famine from the loss of a whole rice season.

Returning to Pyapon at about 4 p.m. we were humbled by the generous spirit of the community there who had prepared a simple meal for us to share in.