The earthquake in Sichuan has displaced the Burmese cyclone disaster from the news and invites grim death toll comparisons. Unfortunately, the Burmese government is showing no ability to cope with the disaster on their own, nor are they allowing much outside help in.
In this post, we publish two eye witness accounts of the cyclone disaster sent to Danwei by a Burmese citizen and by an American in Rangoon / Yangon. Both must remain anonymous for obvious reasons.
The second article by the American describes the storm and goes into some detail about the aftermath, including the author’s attempts to distribute aid in the countryside outside of Rangoon.
Below is an extract about one such aid mission from the American’s account; it explains the photograph reproduced above (taken by the author):
We passed one village en route that had a small red cross flag in a shack with many people waiting outside. Our convoy stopped and we found out they were distributing a very small amount of rice and milk to the villagers. This was a good place to donate some of our goods. As soon as we stopped a crowd of several hundred came around us and we began to fear a riot. In the chaos, we tried to organize the distribution.
In the midst of all this we suddenly found a soldier and perhaps military informant filming us. One had a video camera and the other was taking stills. This was more harassment to prevent aid from getting through, and at first sight of them (we had later realized they’d been tailing us for some time on motorbike), half our party stayed in the cars for fear of having their faces picked up and sent to who knows where else. The image of the authorities doing nothing to help starving and homeless people but instead pushing them aside to film us was burned into my mind.
The Cyclone Nargis hits Burma, May 2 2008
by Anonymous Burmese in Rangoon
Thanks for worrying about me and people from Burma. No one thought that this would happen in Burma. It was the first time in Burma at least within 70 years.
My mom said that was the first time in her life that she had seen the wind like this.
It was about 00:10 and we all were asleep though one of my friends had told me that a cyclone could come to Rangoon. We thought that it would be only like 50-70 mph as the weather report from the government-run media. Then, we heard the sound of wind.
Taking the roofs one by one. The palm trees were about to fall down and all of the mangoes from the tree falling down. We had been thinking that it would go away and get weaker within a couple of hours.
By 3:30 in the morning, the roof of my neighbors and the satellite dish were falling down. I was asleep when I heard the sound of “Buunnggg” from my roof. I could see outside from the window of my bedroom. The sky was like someone dropped red ink on it. It was light like dawn though it was only 3:30 in the morning. I got message from my friend that a big storm was in Irrawaddy Division with a speed of over 100 mph. We knew that people from that area would be crushed away.
About 5:30 in the morning, one of my neighbor’s roof was totally gone and there were trees and leaves on the road. We all were praying to stop the storm. But our prayers weren’t heard by the heaven. About 6:30 I heard my mom crying for us to come and shut the windows. I heard my sisters shouting to get some cloth to mop up water. The wind was blowing U-turn. From 00:10 to 05:30, the wind was blowing east to west and at 06:30 the wind was west to east. All the trees were falling down and there was heavy rain with the wind. Some families were soaked in their houses and there was nothing they could do.
All the satellites dishes were laying on the road and sheets of metal, which had been used for the roofing, were floating in the wind like leaves. I could see the water in front of my house. The road, the grass and everything was covered by water. With the wind and the rain, the big trees couldn’t resist anymore. Some trees were older than me and one of the trees, which was in front of my house, was about 40 years old. She could hold back any longer and fell onto the ground. It was finished by 12:20 in the afternoon.
It was like we were in the jungle just after the storm. There were trees and leaves, telephone cables and electricity cables. People were shouting. Some were crying. One of my colleagues’ sisters, she went back from Rangoon on Thursday and went to Labutta, one of the cities in Irrawaddy Division. The whole family was killed in the storm, my colleague’s sister, her husband and the two daughters. I met with a guy yesterday from Bogale which was the most destroyed area.
He had seen a sea of dead people in the river, no water to drink and no food to eat. Many families were killed and there were children bodies all over. People started to have affected diarrhea.
The government don’t allow the aid workers and humanitarian help from the States and the West to come.
I think that you can see the situation about us in the news and we guess there would be over 100,000 died in the storm.
We just got back the Internet connection on Wednesday. I don’t know if we’ll get the help or not (I mean the people who affected by cyclone.). But if you have a chance to talk about the situation in Burma with others, please mention that the government is like an animal and they don’t care what happen to the citizens. They care just for themselves. People from Burma, especially the people who suffered the cyclone, have nothing. Nothing to eat. No house to live in. Nothing to drink. Some nothing to wear. Nothing at all.
Some local people try to help to the survivors but the local authorities don’t allow them to help. What they mean is that the donors can’t give anything directly to the survivors. The result is, the donors don’t believe the local authorities and they know that survivors won’t get anything.
We all hope for the best.
A week in Burma after the storm
by Anonymous American in Rangoon
Friday – May 2 – Before the Storm
The afternoon meeting started on time, but we decided to end an hour early, at 4 pm. Some weren’t worried at all and wanted to finish the business at hand. Then came an email from another boss ordering us to end by three. Then with building anxiety we ended well before that even. In a span of twenty minutes, although the weather had not really changed from warm winds, the whole building was literally deserted with all lights off.
Not a half hour before they were packed, as they usually are. I was one of the last the leave, the rains had started, and I had difficulty getting a cab back home. I meditated and ate at home and got involved with creating a photo album for another project at work. I then went to meet a friend of a friend visiting from outside the country. Outside was a scene… the British Club had been canceled and the hotel bar we went to was full of Western business people, diplomats, and teachers. With the wind beginning to howl, people shot pool while sipping expensive martinis as 1980s American pop played over the faux-juke box. Wearing my Shan-style shirt and a lungyi and drinking lime juice, I felt more than a little out of place and stayed the requisite time, hiding behind a couple very bad games of pool before braving the street and returning home. I procrastinated sleep with an episode of “The Office” and then was in bed just after 11 pm, unaware that the world would change by early morning.
Saturday – May 3 – The Storm Hits
I had heard the winds howling something ferocious at night and though I didn’t wake up, it inundated my sleep. I don’t even want to repeat the gruesome images pervading my dreams– they were a mix of grotesque horror and bad disaster movies. Remembering that “this too shall pass” I continued to turn over on my other side and slip into another ill-fated dream. Finally just before 6 a.m. I realized the howling was too fierce and terrifying to continue sleeping through. My first glimpse of the storm was the tin-shack roofs flying off the buildings across the road, and I realized there were no more satellite dishes where once there were dozens. I don’t really remember how I spent the next hour. I remember checking the TV to see that all outside cable was down but that the phones were still up. I stayed tuned to the channel that gives a live feed to the downstairs lobby, and from what I could see it was still more or less business as usual. I watched the wind pick up, but noticed that visibility was surprising clear and there was no rain. The windows rattled and aluminum strips and satellites continued to be torn off and fly into the air. Scattered debris also went fast in surprising directions, and loud crashes sounded on the roof just above. Debris fell onto my porch, only to be taken off just as fast, and bricks came down overhead. The giant palm trees were nearly at 45 degree angles and the paper from billboards had been ripped away clean. I was a bit worried by the terrible sounds and sites, but still could see some buildings unscathed, and so felt secure in my own Western-style apartment. I thought of going to visit a co-worker and see what he thought, but I liked the silence I could have on my own to sit still, observe breath, and for one period I even laid down and tried to relax– after all, what was there to be done? Storm was a storm, what could I do about it? Then, in a span of perhaps 15 minutes, or maybe a bit more, everything suddenly went from a bit uncomfortable to very bad to completely terrifying.
I don’t remember the order. I just know that the electricity went off and generator came on, and moments later the generator also came off. Now all TV was out of commission. I picked up the phone and it was dead. Now it was raining and there was zero visibility. Leaks also started to appear. At first there was some water coming through the floor and other drips coming from cracks in the corner where the walls meets the ceiling. Dust was also falling out of the vent. All this was mild and I tried to stay calm, find towels, and get a stop on it. Soon water was pouring through these cracks at greater quantity and streaming down the walls. Water was mixing with the soot in the vents and streaming onto the beds and tables, more so in the bedroom than anywhere else. The winds were also now ferocious, indescribable. For the next one to two hours, the only way I can aptly describe this howl was like that of a wounded, evil monster… this is no exaggeration. I have never heard anything like this sound in my life. When I looked outside at the pool, I saw the winds reaching into it like an invisible hand and shooting out water with such a force dozens of feet into the sky.
My windows were now “breathing” in and out and looked like they might shatter, like so many other windows had already, as I could see from my view. I had no contact with the outside world. I quickly packed a bag– something I’d put off doing before because it seemed to acknowledge this was really serious indeed– and stuffed in my money, laptop, iPod, camera, water, and energy bars. People will talk about, “What would you take if you only had five minutes and one bag?”; it was interesting later to realize I’d actually done it. I went to my door and tried to open it, but it was locked. I unlocked it and still couldn’t open it… the wind in the hallway had blown open windows and was so strong I had to use all my force to tear it open. When I did, I saw no people, but water all over the floor, darkness, and the ceiling just outside had been torn up with electrical wires dangling. The wind was so terrifying that I honestly didn’t know if I could withstand its force if I went outside. I quickly shut it, though my house was now filled with the smell of debris and even the air had turned gray and blurry. I went back to check on the water damage and it was getting more severe. My ears kept popping due to the intensity of the wind pressure getting through the window cracks. I used all the towels I had and finally found a thick bedspread that I placed on the floor. Eventually I saw my bedroom as a lost cause and a danger zone that could be torn away at any moment. I shut the door and put the bedspread in front of it, hoping that any severe damage here wouldn’t spread to the living room. Immediately my ears stopped popping. Sometime here as well I remember going to my kitchen and eating several bananas, and being rather proud of myself for being aware enough to give my body much needed sustenance. Who knew how bad things could get, better to have some stored energy for that. My nerves were now presenting a challenge. The monster was wailing, things were crashing on the roof, and the windows looked to break at any moment. The walls and ceilings were moist with water and part of the ceiling had even opened up to spill water below. I felt that with these winds, the whole wall and ceiling could really be peeled away at any moment. I chanced another look out my door and with the force of the winds, plus the caved-in ceiling and electrical wires, chancing an escape seemed not much better an option, especially given that I didn’t even know where the emergency stair case was.
I think it was here I realized there was a good chance I wouldn’t see this disaster through. If this was truth, then it was truth. I decided if this happened I’d sure rather have a calm mind than a terrified one, so I sat down on my living room couch and did anapana– observed my breath. I was aware of terrified sensations everywhere but tried to stay focused on the soles of my feet and breath to calm myself somewhat. I don’t think I had any equanimity of which to speak, though I was at least aware of that. With my mind the slightest bit more calm, I realized I actually had a decision… I could stay in my room or escape outside. There was literally no other choice. I assessed the risk of both and then determined that remaining was far riskier than staying. Fortified by the strength of my decision, I grabbed my bag and jolted out, actually locking the door as the outside wires hung down, and ran to My friend’s door. No answer. I still did not know where and if there was an emergency stair case, with the elevators obviously not working. I saw one sign that said “service area” and jumped over the doors (which were locked) to peer inside… nothing. Eventually I found the staircase and ran down the flights.
I was shocked on the bottom level to find no other residents. As I would later find out amid much confusion, my own situation was not a microcosm of the terror the storm was unleashing on everyone… rather, my room was literally the worst hit in the entire building. I ran to the counter and told the clerk about the dangers of my room… “it’s literally falling apart.” He asked me for my number and promised he’d call housekeeping (!). I shook my head. “You don’t understand, there won’t be anything to clean up. It’s disintegrating; you need to evacuate the whole floor because I could barely get out.” He assured me again that housekeeping would clean it up and I went away defeated.
It felt a lot safer watching the fury of what I later was told was a Category 4 hurricane that hit Yangon dead on, on the first rather than an upper floor (I later found out that it was a Category 4 as it slipped through the Delta and decreased somewhat by the time it hit Yangon). Safer even when local engineers started frantically pointing to the ceiling of the lobby and immediately cleared all the furniture from it. They saw water and were afraid that the entire building could collapse. By this time I found two colleagues, with some other foreigners. We ran up the ten flights again to collect another colleague whose room faced opposite than mine and wasn’t aware of how severe the storm was. He met us at the door in a towel and with debris flying around the hallway and us ducking for cover, he said he was fine and waiting for the electricity to come back on so we left. I took a look at my room, the ceiling down in front, wires hanging out and collected water on the ground and could only guess if the room still even existed inside.
Back downstairs we shared some yogurt and we took front row seats to the storm. One glass light fixture had fallen three stories into the lobby and glass was everywhere. Some locals braved the elements and ran to the apartment’s front door, which the staff unlocked to let in– I was wondering if it was going to be the gathering place for a number of such incoming refugees. I met the Managing Director and by this time had realized that the situation with my room was not typical… people were simply not understanding me when I explained the severity. He offered me an empty room to rest in and gave us plastic “hard” hats from his workers if we wanted to retrieve any more of my belongings. At that point, having my life and my expensive items in my possession, I was blessed enough, and anything else I considered a bonus. We retreated to our 4th floor room and had some Lipton’s as the storm died down. It was another eerie calm, and many of us had suspicions that this was the eye and the worse, unbelievably, was yet to come. When we finally had the energy, we grabbed flashlights and ran up and down the stairs, filling up suitcases and garbage bags with all my belongings. My friend said he felt like a pair of robbers, having to use heavy duty flashlights around my room and putting as much as we could into big bags and heading out as quickly as possible. I stuffed all my newly ironed shirts into a garbage bag and filled up another with the teas I’d so carefully organized. We made this trip 4 times up and down, my friend supplying the mental and physical energy when I didn’t think I had any left. Occasionally we ran into other colleagues from work who wanted to tour and admire the damaged areas of my room and made offers to help as they walked in the other direction.
The winds and rains were steadily dying down, and we to some local hotels to ask if this was the eye or if it had passed… “Are we in the middle or the end?” No one knew anything. Phones, electricity, TV, Internet, even short-wave radio was down, and the authorities hadn’t given any information anyway, and were nowhere to be seen. Just lots of rumors. We didn’t walk too far, knowing the monster could raise its ugly head at any moment. We saw massive trees down, crushing cars and homes and wires. Other wires were held up by branches. Car windows had burst. Shop signs and road signs were torn and twisted apart and scattered. Trees everywhere… four lane roads barely had a single lane manageable.
I had no idea what time it was, it could have been noon or five pm for me. We were still anticipating an even worse storm ahead of us, and the government had by now sent a text message to everyone with a cell phone that this second storm was on its way. We went into a Chinese restaurant, amazingly open, and sat down to a monstrous meal. The only other people there was a Chinese family that seemed to be a sit-in for every eating scene I’ve seen from Chinese movies… everyone smoking and talking at once, a lazy Susan in the middle with dozens of dishes, seated around a huge circular table. We ate slowly and watched the winds continue to die down, feeling no relief in the eerie silence and calm, after which my friend retreated and I took a longer walk around town.
I had heard rumors of entire villages in northern Yangon swept away, and expected to find a deep, dark, morbid scene before me. Instead the Burmese were as Burmese as ever… looking at me and smiling, arms around their friend’s shoulders, sitting on their haunches on the corner. Downed trees cut off most roads, but people were already out with hacksaws trying to clear them. I couldn’t believe the size of the trees that had been torn from their roots… I wonder seriously what small percentage of trees are actually left in all of Yangon. I just couldn’t believe the light vibe– I had gone out with this rather maudlin attitude and was completely shocked by the lightness everywhere. I do find it interesting that I walked past a “fire station” with all trucks still inside… I didn’t see one instance of the local authorities doing the city clean-up work, only locals.
Sometime later I tried to meditate, though not very successfully. I got a Thai soup to go and ate that in my new room and finally got myself in the shower. I’d been wearing the same blue pajama bottoms all day and changing these and showering was somehow an effort of some sort.. I made another request to the front desk if they’d heard anything about the upcoming storm, and they replied that the government made an announcement that another one was on its way, with no telling how strong or when it would hit. With that, I went to bed by 9 pm, hoping to get as much sleep as nature would allow and prepare for the next onslaught.
Sunday – May 4
I’m now writing this at noon the following day, Sunday, with clear skies and ongoing anticipation of the following storm. I have no idea the state of Yangon or even if the people I work with on a daily basis are safe or still have homes. I don’t know the state of Yangon River either, which is nearby. I’m a little worried about a surge and flooding here. We are still out of touch to the rest of the world and I’m not sure when this email will get out. I’ve been put in a temporary room and it is covered sporadically with all my worldly belongings (or at least the ones in Yangon)… clothes, books, food, etc. We shall see what happens….
Monday evening – May 5
I just finished my evening sitting. It’s a sitting, not a meditation… there is very little observation going on, very much of many thoughts going in all their directions. I had a long morning sitting and for the first time since the storm, towards the end was actually able to really meditate.
I don’t even know what to write about the past day, two days, how long has it been? Taxis are costing 5-10 times as much, water is almost completely sold out everywhere, more restaurants are still closed, and electricity is almost non-existent outside where I live and has been for days now. People came this morning to our pool to use the outside showers and when the management found out, they cut the supply. Many co-workers have put the word out for other co-workers with no water to be able to come by here and use their shower and laundry machines.
I woke up early and had my long meditation today, braved another trip up to collect supplies form my old room and had a long meeting with the management about my eventual room assignments. I’m in two rooms now, will soon be in three. Word is that hundreds of thousands outside don’t even have one room. I’m worried sick about the local staff I work with, I’m worried that they are unharmed and their families are ok, I’m worried they lost all their belongings and have no place to sleep at night and I don’t know what or how I can find and help them. I watched CNN all morning and the Myanmar storm had now been elevated from a mere scrawl across the bottom (“Four killed in Myanmar’s capital as cyclone sweeps through”) to a 3 minute blurb. They still didn’t have any real information… 350 dead, little electricity, and flooding. Then the story went to the latest Obama-Clinton feud and I muted it in disgust… when was the world going to find out what was really going on here???
Taxis were out of the question, so I walked to work this morning, having to climb under and over trees. My office building was in sorry shape and nearly unrecognizable. I was greeted by a street light that had been snapped in two with wires dangling. Almost all the trees were down and it was hard to even walk the short distance for the guard booth to the main building. Internet was still down so I have no idea when this will ever get out. I was now quite concerned about water… my hotel informed me this morning that they didn’t know how long they could continue to supply drinking water to the guests, and I heard this again at work… a huge shortage was imminent, and this combined with severe food and fuel (which supplied generators as well as cars) shortages was quite frightening, especially considering that over two full days had now passed with the rest of the world none the wiser about what was really happening to us.
With this grim news, I plunged myself fully into clearing the trees from the office, and avoiding stepping on some of the hundreds of mangoes that littered the lawn. It was hard work, dirty, with thousands of ants and flying insects, though luckily no snakes in hiding… we are all afraid of the snakes reclaiming the city. At least the zoo seems relatively unharmed so there won’t be lions or elephants prancing around Yangon. There are few chainsaws so most of the behemoth trees that have fallen are being moved by man (and woman) power with hack-knives and two handled saws. I used these and several times they were so old they nearly buckled under me. The water was soon exhausted and we had to buy what we could find outside. The most important areas of the office were in good condition with almost no damages. In other areas, windows had been smashed through and water had leaked in. The resident cat survived, though seemed greatly in need of a bath and didn’t seem all too happy. As local employees and the foreign staff streamed in, anecdotes were shared and rumors passed along, none of them very enjoyable.
Finally a crew of us went over to Summit Parkview for lunch, where we must have had over a gallon of water apiece. On the way over we saw perhaps the most shocking thing yet: a car that had obviously had a tree fall on it in the middle. The entire mid section was crushed to the floorboard. The passenger was seated with almost his entire body hanging out the car– there was no door– and the driver was even more amazing. He was hunched forward, awkwardly standing as he operated the clutch and steering wheel, most of his body protruding out through the open front windshield. We were so shocked we all just stared without a word passed. I guess no one throws anything away in Myanmar if it can still somehow be used.
Clearing the trees felt fantastic, for a lot of reasons I didn’t really understand. As one person put it, moving the trees was actually something we could do… “it at least gave us the illusion of feeling we actually had some control over something in front of us.” With evacuation plans being talked about through various officials and fears of riots around the corner, and no aid on its way, this illusion was more than appreciated. I wanted to get to some of the local meditation centers to help as well, though with so many other duties, cabs impossibly overpriced and buses not operating, I didn’t know how. I was especially fearful of a nearby village across the river, where I went numerous times, and which I heard may have been totally decimated.
I stopped off at the market after going home, and water was all sold out and it was as crowded as I’d ever seen it. Everybody was buying everything and lines stretched forever. I bought a number of drinks, rice, oatmeal, pasta, whatever else I could think of and carted it back home. I went back to my old room just as dark was falling, hoping not to see rats or snakes by then, and procured some more drinking water. With everything else it had been fast forgotten, and a large trashcan of half garbage and half water was still soaking, and water was still on the floors. There was now a sign, thankfully really, announcing how electricity was to become rationed. However, it didn’t seem nearly conservative enough, given the shortages I’d heard about and the fact that it was estimated to take one month to repair damages to the port. I rushed to do all my laundry while everything was still operating.
With all this it was still so remarkable what smiles I still saw on the streets, how diligently people worked with rapid repairs when the other choice was sheer devastation… as one person explained to me, “We are quick to accept reality because what else can we do?” The hotel staff worked around the clock as replacements couldn’t arrive in time, and I later found out that some guards worked 4 day nonstop shifts because no new guards were able to come. Even our conversations with each other were pleasant and enjoyable, such a contrast to the reality before us. At times I wondered if this was escape, release, equanimity, avoidance or relaxation, or perhaps a mix of all.
By the time I was home CNN finally awakened to the fact that this was a serious storm. It was amazing watching anchors realize the truth of something I had known and lived for days. I saw them stutter and show obvious shock, emotion, and confusion. Even as they brought up other stories I was amazed how uncomfortable they looked… they realized, finally, what was really going on here. Actually, I still found they didn’t realize how serious it was… that we are on the verge of a major and serious humanitarian crisis that needs immediate aid and attention. It didn’t feel like they understood how serious it was, but they had at least realized that it was not a simple storm. For the coverage, it sounded like the fact that the government suddenly raised the death toll from 350 to 4000 (with 3000 missing) was the key point here. I watched some fascinating news on this and was relieved that finally someone else in the world would realize what was happening, until the connection was suddenly cut. Who knows why?
Now it’s about 9.30 pm as I write this, I’m tired and have another very big and unpredictable day in front of me. An important meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow and I hope someone will at least come… I’m sick with concern for how they are. Of course the actual meeting won’t be taking place. Hopefully I’ll get to on the only Internet connection working city-wide. As anxious I am about my colleagues’ well-being, I’m sure my own friends and family are for me.
Tuesday evening – May 6
I don’t know what to write now. I am devastated today. Several times I’ve wanted to break down and cry. I just finished my evening meditation, it’s going on 9 pm now, and as I ended and began metta I was still fighting tears. It doesn’t feel like too much that I’m able to give and help others.
Today was full. I went to work and trees were slowly being moved around, materials and books transferred to different rooms. Over half of the participants in the scheduled meeting showed up, and 7 of 11 participants have been accounted for. Some lost their homes, but all were safe with their families. They had their stories of tragedy. One girl’s sisters spent four hours procuring water and finally were able to fill up two 5 gallon drums. Ques for gas lines are miles long, we could see them on the road. None of them had showered and looked pretty ragged, some still caring for their young children. A couple participants were leaving Yangon to return to their hometowns, though bus tickets were extremely expensive and they had no money left. I tried to press money into their hands but they refused, and I barely got away with giving some water and electrolyte packages. As I asked if they still had the training materials, all said that as soon as the storm hit, this was what they saved first. Honestly, every single one of them replied in this way. I was stunned. It reinforced the value of the methodology we are promoting, and touched me deeply about how they valued what we were doing together. We were all glad to see one another and didn’t know when that would be next. My workplace was to stay open this week, but due to the scarcity of fuel to run the generator as well as the number of guards unaccounted for, we’ll have to close it.
I tried to get over to the main office for the big meeting, though I missed the first car because I was waiting to meet my colleagues. We usually have a strong and large staff of both guards and drivers, but we have a small fraction now reporting for work. One of my colleagues offered to drive me, and I protested a bit at first. I knew the scarcity of fuel for her car and the immensity of this offer. She kept pressing and eventually I gave in. Her window had a large crack in it from the storm and I went with her to the Embassy, where I found dozens of expats and non-employees who’d just left the meeting. On going in they told me that they had been told to leave the country immediately, which was worse than the rumors I’d heard the day before. For reasons I can’t go into here, I knew the only way I’d evacuate the country is if a Marine contingency threw me on the plane to Bangkok. They had set up a few computer terminals with email capability for us and someone posted a sign of “Nargis Cyber Cafe.” You have to remember, electricity had been out everywhere else in the city since Saturday, so Internet was a real treat. I got on email, finally, and in a daze sent out emails to family, friends, and work. I don’t really remember what I wrote, and hoped it wasn’t too dramatic… how does one quickly describe what has taken me six pages so far? I met with a boss and he explained the evacuation orders, basically it was still our decision, and two colleagues were electing to leave with everyone else wanting to stay. The city was still in desperate and serious need of water and fuel, and with ports destroyed we had no idea when it would come. I realize as I’m writing this that my sentences aren’t really connected and I don’t know what to do about that. I think I’m leaving it this way as I don’t really know how to change it, and it really reflects the scatteredness of my mind now anyway. I’m watching CNN now, which surprisingly is covering the events better than BBC, and is going into such depth, finally, that it is making me realize the scale of this disaster. It is challenging to hold back the tears.
I caught a car back to the office and heard that another colleague, living in northern Yangon only had 3 hours of electricity a day, and only lake water for their rooms (which military trucks had been taking more and more of for some reason). Worse, all rooms had flooded and trees had fallen horribly, and the management warned the guests they might have to completely shut down the hotel and kick out the guests imminently.
As some expats here want to escape and other are dipping deeper into alcoholism (I’ve smelt it even in the early morning hours), my colleague and friend that helped me escape from my room went and bought a two handed saw. After getting back to the office, he greeted me by saying “Hey you wanna go saw some shit up?” We went first to the outside food stall by the office we usually went for lunch and went around the corner to the family’s home. One older woman was caring for several young children and had the house collapse and was now staying elsewhere. They had by now gotten their trees cleared.
We walked along past the some embassies, my friend having the huge two-person saw bouncing up and down on his shoulder and getting cheers from the locals. We passed monks and laypeople cutting down huge trees by hand, with rusty saws and machetes. We also passed the military, who equally cheered us, though every time we saw them it was often one person hacking away a tree while two dozen sat around him eating or smoking… inexplicable. We crawled under and over trees and started sawing away at several downed trees in a compound we later found out was a primary school. As I later realized, the work that two people could do wasn’t a whole lot. But it felt like we brought forth an energy… seeing two foreigners walk in with a saw and a work ethic and start helping out seemed to encourage an energy and motivation that wasn’t there before. After an hour we were able to completely clear out the driveway of the school so that cars could get in. Next we stopped at a Buddhist monastery and again, as we jumped in there seemed to be a visible leap in the local monks to do their share to support us, and frequent (and precious!) bottles of water and cups of sweetened tea were passed our way, along with pleas for us to return the following morning.
I worked as much as I could, though with a mix of rain and humid heat, my muscles gave out and soreness struck in. Like an ox, my friend pressed on with an impressive work ethic. He was a sight… burly and muscular, a Burmese speaker, and with this shirt off the sweat running off… kind of like a softer Rambo as I teased him later.
Ugh… I’m exhausted. I have to get to sleep for now…
Written Friday evening – May 9
Wednesday – May 7
It’s been three days since I’ve had a chance to write and three days is an eternity around here. It’s been three days that the junta has been denying aid to almost every relief group that wants to give it. It’s funny, when I began writing to record my experiences here, I had been making a conscious effort to steer my writing away from anything political and just focus on the fact that there was a terrible storm and that it’s been affecting people greatly here. This is because to write about the political aspect of this situation puts myself in risk– it could mean arrest, deportation, or denying of future visa. It puts in jeopardy my work which could ultimately effects thousands of people. (Of course I have no intention of posting any of this or identifying myself, and hope this will not happen, but there is always a chance. Doing so certainly puts me at even greater risk) Given the events of the past three days, I don’t see how this is possible any longer. I just can’t see this situation in any way but as a crime against humanity. I have just returned from my evening sitting, which given the denial of aid on the government’s side, I had no success in ignoring the thoughts plaguing me and remaining with sensation or even breath. I get up from the sittings hardly more refreshed than when I started…
On Wednesday morning I met with a family of a Burmese friend living in the US who had not been able to call. I met the father and brother and assured they were safe and their house sustained minimal damage. Then, saw in hand, my friend and I walked just several blocks south to get to the jetty that would take us across Yangon River. As we crawled under monster trees that were still lying flat and avoided electrical lines that had been put up amidst balancing bamboo poles, we got cheers from just about everyone we passed, here we were two white foreigners with shorts and sneakers walking quickly towards the water. It might have been amusing had it not called attention to how little aid was really coming in that we actually represented some of the little help that was around.
As we got in to the jetty, we were quickly denied entrance and told to go to a side office, where a man resting back in his chair drinking coffee demanded that we pay him $4 to embark the 10 minute ferry ride… a boat that for locals is about 10 cents. In Burmese, we explained we were not tourists but lived here, that we were going over to give aid by helping to cut downed trees. It all fell on deaf ears. At this time, a French NGO ran behind us and said “The boat’s leaving, we’ll pay tomorrow!” My friend and I looked at each other and we said, “Yes, us too, we pay tomorrow!” and took off in their direction despite yells back that we were not to get on the boat. As we pulled up small plastic chairs on the boat and waited to see if a retinue to authorities would come to harass us more, we had no idea this was only the beginning of the trouble to be faced in trying to give aid.
As the boat pulled away, I suddenly felt a kind of panicked pain in my stomach… maybe it was the run on the boat or all the water I drank in the morning to hydrate myself from the oppressively hot weather, or maybe it was that I was headed to a place that could be devastating beyond anything I could imagine. Well, no way to turn back now. I turned attention to respiration and soon felt the panic passing away…
As we arrived on the other side, the opposite jetty had been completely washed away. We parked down the river and saw sunken boats and ticket booths washed far ashore. There was no dock, so we saddled up alongside another boat, and all went (there were hundreds on board) to the top deck of our own boat to cross into the new boat’s lower deck. We then had to climb onto the upper deck of this boat, and here we found a small slit less than two feet in length where everyone had to climb through in order to get ashore. Later we found out this was low tide and the entire docking protocol had to be altered according to low and high tide. Once ashore, we had to walk perhaps 20 minutes just to get to the town where the boat usually docks. Here we found motorcycle taxis and negotiated a price of about $2 each to take us to the village. Some explaining… this is a small village I had visited a few times before. The village is quite removed, but there is a local family I know there that I would visit and they would look after me for the weekend, cooking me vegetarian food and providing me a place to stay when I wanted to get away from the city. I had heard that this area was in much worse shape than Yangon, and was quite worried about my friends. My friend had agreed to go with me to help out here, and amazingly still had the saw with him on the 30 minute motorcycle ride. As he told me later, it was one of the stupider things he’d ever done and was quite happy that he managed both trips without cutting any of his fingers or neck off.
It was a painful ride out there. These were lowlands and rice-producing areas, with few trees, much like the pictures of the delta regions that many of you must have seen by now. I saw homes that were suddenly in vast ponds of sitting water where previously it had been dry. They were islands, sometimes with their roofs or walls torn off, and the occupants had to wade through diseased and dirty water simply to get to the road. I saw bamboo huts that had been completely torn apart, and entire neighborhoods where almost all that was left were strips of the thin bamboo. The contradictions and confusions of the country were deeper yet as we rode along, with all this obvious destruction, people losing the very little they had to begin with, and no sign of any government help whatsoever, I didn’t see a single depressed face. People smiled as they saw foreigners and shouted hello and waved happily. As I saw images before me that made me have to hold back the tears, I didn’t know how to process the fact that the moving humans within these images didn’t show any facial signs of the devastation that the scenes so evoked. Simply, I didn’t know what to think. And I still don’t. And if it is so misunderstood to someone living within this country, I just can’t imagine what it must seem to the rest of the world, watching from television or reading over the Internet, and especially when the restriction of where foreigners can go and what they can do is so limiting, to say nothing on the total ban on getting information out. As I have said, if this very writing ends up in the wrong place, it is not good news for me.
Soon after we arrived my friend and I realized that there were few trees to cut, and we decided to have my friend show us around and take an assessment of what we heard and saw. There was very ugly looking standing water all around and we reminded each other to avoid this. When we asked if there was any electricity or government help, we got a polite smile and an expression I could at least begin to recognize… “What a question, kid! Of course not, how seriously am I supposed to take something like that?”
My friend from the village then turned and asked if I knew Rambo. For those that don’t know, the recent Rambo movie took place in Burma and features the ex-commando fighting the military junta. While it is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life, it is a ray of hope for so many people here… I’d had encounters with other Burmese who whispered silently to me about the movie, carefully looking to either side before saying anything as this movie is serious contraband and merely talking about it in public could land you in prison. I keep my own copy in the safe in my room along with other sensitive books. I don’t know if Stallone intended it when he made this recent installment, but the storyline really seems to follow the line of the junta’s worst fears and the people’s greatest hope: that an elite team of American Special Forces will single-handedly liberate the country. If the US had invaded here rather than Iraq in 2003, I think everyone agrees that they truly would have been welcomed and celebrated as liberating heroes– complete strangers on the street have asked me why we won’t do this.
Anyway, I was taken aback why my friend in this rural village would ask me about Rambo, and then she began adding, “from Spain, from Spain.” I realized a Spanish person was staying in the village meditating at a local temple and she was taking care of him, and who knows what his name really was, though it had sounded like “Rambo” to me. Just at that moment an older man wearing all white approached us. We told him we were coming from Yangon and were here to help.
“Oh, these people don’t need your help. Look at them, they are always so happy and smiling, just ok to do this work themselves.”
This was a common cultural stereotype my friend and I had just been talking about… the Buddhist nature of Burmese that allow them to smile in just about any situation. I had read accounts of the horrible atrocities that the Japanese committed here in WWII, and how many soldiers left feeling that the Burmese liked the Japanese very much based on these smiles. Rather, as more embedded officers tried to explain, their deep Buddhist ethics encouraged them to not return hate with hate but let go of it by recognizing it as the burning ire that it was.
I went on to tell Mr. Rambo that we had come to see how they were managing and to see what we could do to help. He told us this was not advisable, as we were not here in this country to interfere in such matters as relaying information. He had no idea the scale of the storm, and thought perhaps a dozen had died, and was surprised to hear it was in fact 22,000. (We would go on to give this figure to others we met in the village, for they were so cut off we didn’t know if this staggering number was getting through, though most had heard on short wave radio. We also told them that nations of the world were trying to send aid, but after almost 50 years of military rule this only got polite smiles)
“Actually when the storm hit I was supposed to come here from the monastery to get my breakfast. So this is what time I am supposed to eat so I came. Everything was flying in all directions and so many people are yelling at me like ‘hey you crazy’. But this is the time I am to take my breakfast.”
We told him we were going to take a tour of town to see the damages and asked if he wanted to join us.
“No, actually I think I would much rather eat,” he answered with a very peaceful smile.
The encounter left me a bit shaken and I had to process what just happened for hours. Off the bat, it felt just like a scene from Apocalypse Now, where the reality of the people I am meeting have absolutely no bearing on the reality I am coming from. As I thought about it further, I realized he represented perhaps the very worst possible stereotype of a meditator: the entire world is literally falling down around him, homes are caving in and help is urgently needed, and he continues to look after only his own peace. It was actually terrifying to contrast the internal peace he was seeking with the incredible misery and suffering all around him, and his apathy towards this. I’ve also seen just the opposite: activists crusading for different causes who themselves are so miserable and agitated that they bring hardly a breath of peace anywhere they go, and usually do the opposite. So where’s the middle path? I thought of how meditation was affecting my own volition and awareness in what I was doing… the informed sense of action it was providing, or at least trying to provide, though with the scale before me, my sittings were not very much concentrated indeed. I was aware of the addiction to sensations that dramatic situations can bring, and while in them was trying to remember their impermanent nature, and to check my volition of service rather than excitement.
We saw the local public school, which I had seen earlier hosting thousands of young kids, only this time the roof had been ripped off, windows blown out, and it was in an island of murky water. The only thing left in good condition was a marble slab that read: “Our Vision: To create an education system that can generate a learning society capable of facing the challenges of the Knowledge Age.” As we joked later, at long last we were allowed on the grounds of a public school (foreigners are strictly prohibited from setting foot in any public educational institution).
We saw many more crushed homes that had been completely demolished due to fallen trees or heavy winds. Homes that were anywhere from 50-90 percent demolished still had families living in them, even if it was only a skeletal structure. In many places we saw laundry drying outside, and I wondered where it go when the rain started up again. We made our way gingerly around, doing our best to avoid the muddy water that was built up in many places.
We visited the local hospital, where all the medicine that survived was drying out in the sun, along with cotton balls, gauze, and needles. The operating room had been badly damaged and there was only one doctor on duty. There was a small generator with hardly any fuel left, electricity was gone and wasn’t returning anytime soon, and much of the roof had been blown off. We met with him and saw some patients, who were lying on hard wooden boards, and asked him what he needed. “Everything”, he said, and as we pressed for more details I didn’t know where to go next. I’m not an aid worker, and I know only enough about health to monitor my own body. I don’t know what to ask. I don’t know what to look for. We met one woman in the hospital who said that she lived in a small village of 60 homes and that all were destroyed and nearly everyone dead and that many other villages were also swept away.
Before we left he looked both of us in the eye and asked if we come back with supplies. Like so many other buildings, the hospital too had murky standing water on three of its four sides. We took pictures but did so cautiously, and at any sign of military presence my camera came off my shoulder and in my pocket. Our friend was probably taking a risk merely by showing us around. It is just amazing that all of the government’s energy is going into monitoring foreigners and relief, and nothing is going into the people. More on this later.
There were several times on our walk I had to turn away to avoid crying, and my friend said the same for his experience. He was extremely worried about the health consequences and the fact that there was absolutely no sign of any aid coming to these people. I started to fear that there could soon be catastrophic and even apocalyptic circumstances if something wasn’t done soon. I had been emailing a meditation teacher in the US and at one point asked about what to do with the immensity of the emotion I was feeling. He discussed the difference between compassion and sympathy and reminded me that my as well as these people’s experiences was based on the laws of kamma.
I remember hearing a similar answer after talking with teachers in Europe after visiting Auschwitz Concentration Camp and reflecting on this madness and tragedy. It was another fine line here that was tricky to navigate… the Western sense of justice, of wanting to speak out about the horror of 12 million people dying at the hands of the Nazis or 100,000 perishing just miles away now and 2 more million at risk simply because aid was not being allowed in. I didn’t want to make it an intellectual argument… the laws of kamma versus the logic that this is a crime and action must be taken somehow, rather than chalking it up to past lives. So rather, I accepted my wisdom was simply not present to figure it out… the only thing I could make sense of was the truth of the reality before me. I was emotional, and I could accept this and understand its changing nature. I wanted to help, and I could check my volition of service and make sure that this help was being tempered with as much awareness and equanimity as I could muster. There was no need to convince myself of anything else.
We walked under one covered awning on the way back that had a dozen oxen here. These had survived and were being stored here for safekeeping. As one family told me, as soon as the storm hit they moved their two oxen inside their home. It was their most valuable possession, worth the most money, and certainly if a cyclone was hitting in the US you can imagine people wanting to park their BMW in the garage first.
When we got back to my friend’s house, we decided we should leave right away back to Yangon. We had some vegetarian food she had cooked for us and then took the motorcycle 30 minutes back to town. We followed a Burmese family to find a local man with a boat who could ferry us across the river. He flatly refused and more money fell on deaf ears. He was terrified he’d be arrested if he helped foreigners cross the river. We grudgingly walked away as he took the Burmese family into the boat, hoping we could still catch people by the time the workday was to end.
Normally the ferry leaves every twenty minutes, though now it was only a few times a day. As we approached the makeshift dock, a man spotted us and quickly jumped inside and slammed an iron door. Talking through a small window, he told us to go away until the boat came at 4 pm. It was starting to rain and we asked if we could wait inside where it was covered, and he told us through the iron door to go away until 4 pm. I later complained to my friend, and he responded, “Hey, he’s doing exactly well with what he’s been trained to do, that’s it.”
We found a tea shop and waited for over an hour. Eventually we met some people from a French NGO, and a couple of British people, and these were the only foreigners we saw the whole day. And as I wrote before, the authorities were engaged only in monitoring and intimidating anyone visiting these areas.
My friend and I wanted to get the photos we took back out to the rest of the world to show people what was happening south of Yangon River, literally just minutes from downtown Yangon. Yangon was getting cleaned up rapidly, and it seemed that the government wanted to use this to show how well it was responding to the cyclone. Here was a different story. We rushed over to the office to do this, and I should probably leave it here for security reasons.
We left the office in high spirits, and I could feel myself getting addicted to the sensations that such a rush of a day had produced, and feeling like I was actually doing something very important. Word spread fast to several people and already an aid run was being planned for this village tomorrow. I’d also had a moment to check email and had another deluge of people from so many areas of my life writing about, well so many things. We began to walk down the street of the office, perhaps wanting to walk off the rush, but thought better of it as there were still no working streetlights and power lines were down everywhere. We took a taxi back to our apartment and with a fever growing for my friend, ate at the expensive Chinese restaurant. I retreated for an impossible hour sitting, barely realizing what I was supposed to do than mentally reconstruct the day’s events.
Thursday – May 8
I woke up Thursday morning with a small feeling of peace that I had several hours of non-activity ahead of me. I don’t remember the last time this was the case. I had worked a full work week and the storm hit Saturday morning… I literally don’t remember the last time I had stopped. With so much activity outside I was still occupying three rooms and the hotel was understandably losing patience with me, calling upon me in late night and early morning to finally move into just one. I was going to have a leisurely breakfast, move out slowly and carefully, perhaps sit a bit longer and then after lunch be picked up en route to our aid run south of Yangon River. That’s when the call came… a top official demanded that all the employees come to the office immediately. I dumped the rest of my tea out and called my friend, who was still feverish. I called the hotel and told them I had 30 minutes to move out entirely and that if they wanted me to do it now, I needed help. Nothing was packed in the other room… there were dirty dishes and a full refrigerator, clothes and books scattered on the floor, work materials in various corners… all that had been saved from my original apartment and dumped here for a moment. We went at lightening speed to move everything and dump it in an even more disorganized way here, I changed from pajama bottoms to a lungyi and my friend and I hopped in a cab to arrive just a tad late to our meeting. My heart was racing the whole time… what could be so important? Are there secret plans to invade Burma and we could be hostages? Is our government chartering a plane and demanding we leave immediately? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good news, and I still felt the only way I’d leave the country is with marines forcing me on a plane. With so many aid workers and journalists denied entry from all over the world, we who are here simply could not leave… it was not ethical or moral to do so.
As it turned out, this was all the madness of a roaming monkey mind… the news wasn’t urgent, and was (for the most part) not bad news… the office may be able to open as early as next week. I rushed to other meetings, ate more bad and overpriced food at the office cafeteria, and tried to make sense of the flood still overwhelming my inbox.
We left the office just after 2 pm. We had suddenly turned into a three car convoy of black SUVs, and were carrying almost a dozen people, several being aid workers, along with much rice, drinking water, medicine, and hundreds of eggs donated from a local farm. Many had heard about it and wanted part of the action. The bank across Yangon River is only a few minutes by bus, but with the car ferry out of commission, we had to take the bridge. It took perhaps a poorly-planned hour for us to even find the bridge and drove back and forth in the wrong direction for a bit, and in the process saw that there was some flooding in southern Yangon I hadn’t seen anywhere else in the city. After crossing, the road immediately got worse and the homes turned from concrete to bamboo shacks. I hadn’t come this way before so didn’t know how to get to the village. Luckily, the initial road went straight with no forks or turns for dozens of miles. We crossed one very nice and expensive bridge, called a “Chinese bridge” whether it was or not to implicate the cozy ties of Chinese businessmen to the junta. (just about anything in Myanmar that is well-built and expensive looking is called Chinese, in a rather derogatory way for the sinister role that Beijing plays in its support of the junta)
We passed one village en route that had a small red cross flag in a shack with many people waiting outside. Our convoy stopped and we found out they were distributing a very small amount of rice and milk to the villagers. This was a good place to donate some of our goods. As soon as we stopped a crowd of several hundred came around us and we began to fear a riot. In the chaos, we tried to organize the distribution, and in the midst of all this we suddenly found a military soldier and perhaps military informant filming us. One had a video camera and the other was taking stills. This was more harassment to prevent aid from getting through, and at first sight of them (we had later realized they’d been tailing us for some time on motorbike), half our party stayed in the cars for fear of having their faces picked up and sent to who knows where else. The image of the authorities doing nothing to help starving and homeless people but instead pushing them aside to film us burned into my mind for days later, but what to do. Despite my initial motivation to come here as simply a meditator and then as a regular worker, it’s hard to have a conscience and live in this country without doing several things that put your return visa prospects in serious jeopardy.
By the time we pressed on, two of our SUVs headed back to Yangon and we continued on to the village from yesterday. When we arrived, we had less supplies, and people commented that they seemed quite a bit healthier here too. We delivered a 75 kg bag of rice to be distributed to homeless families staying at the monastery and medicine and bleach to the hospital, which thankfully reported that they had so far not seen an increase in diarrhea. As we were coming home in the dark and chaotic streets, we heard yelling and commotion and our driver was muttering to himself. A small child had just stepped under the tires of an onrushing truck and the mother was crying hysterically as they carried his lifeless body away. “A cherry on top of my day,” he said, quickly guiding us away from the scene.
Other members of our party commented that things at the village I had visited yesterday with my friend really weren’t so bad, and that other villages were more in need. Thinking about the villages we’d seen, I had to agree. As we made our way back to Yangon, I was quite conflicted and didn’t know how to think through my confusions. As I said, I’m not an aid worker and I’m not a journalist. And I’m certainly not an aid worker or journalist with experience working in a disaster zone. And yet, there neither of these professions are now in Myanmar, which means that aid cannot be assessed or given and information cannot come out to the rest of the world. It seems that I can’t help but try to do my part to help in these areas, but the danger is that I really don’t know what I’m doing. As one of the drivers pointed out, the circumstances were pretty dire here even a week ago. Even before the cyclone hit, people were living in more urgent and dangerous conditions than perhaps New Orleans after the hurricane Katrina. When I ask people what they need, what they don’t have and what they urgently require, there seems to be a cultural and linguistic gap that I can’t get through or understand quite yet. Sure, this same gap exists in my field, but I know how to do some things and I know what to look for and how to set and reach objectives to bridge these gaps. Here I just feel lost, and frightened that I’m doing or reporting the wrong thing in such an urgent situation. They needed rice and medicine before the cyclone hit and they still need it after, and I have no idea what to do about this. I don’t know how to impart that so many of these people had so little before the storm and were very much used to harassment by the authorities, and expecting no assistance from their government. I don’t know how to determine how much worse it is now, in specific and exact terms, than it was before.
This is really the key situation going on here now that I want to try to explain. It is the reason why I can’t just talk about the storm that Mother Nature unleashed because what is now happening is truly a Crime Against Humanity, and to not see it for what it is, is immoral. It’s the people living by the Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany trying to “avoid the political”. I don’t see how this is possible.
I’m writing this now on Saturday morning, May 11, and it’s now been a week that Myanmar is not allowing anything but the smallest of aid into the country. They say that they want to distribute the aid themselves. At the best case scenario, this means that they want the people to see them handing over much needed aid so that they are grateful not to foreign powers but to Big Brother. This best case scenario, sadly enough, is probably too much to hope for. In all likelihood I would imagine that most of the aid will be confiscated and used to make a profit and will never go where it is supposed to. I’ve already talked about the harassment we faced in two days of going south of Yangon River, and I heard another story about a foreigner purchasing an entire truck full of eggs and being pulled over by the police and them confiscating the goods. There is one aid group the government did allow in, and they have materials to make temporary houses that can fit up to 10 people comfortably. Sadly, they are not allowed outside of Yangon. They are sitting in a nice hotel and have been for days, furious that people just one hour away are exposed to the elements and that day after day they are stuck, not able to help them.
Here’s another grim story from the past. Two years ago, a bomb went off in City Mart, a Western style shopping center. Some victims were rushed to the emergency room where they had to wear special protective clothes to keep their open wounds from being infected. The government wanted to visit them to get photo ops that they were helping, and demanded the protective layers be removed. Shortly after, every single one of them died from infection.
I’ve seen the pictures of the army giving the aid to villagers. Knowing something about Burmese culture, it follows the very traditional donation-giving ceremonies to Buddhist monasteries, or the “gifts” (e.g. bribes, but that’s another story) that students are to give their public school teachers in order to pass. If you watch, you see the military members standing on one side as villagers are on another, half their bodies facing a crowd. The military man holds a box of aid at chest level and the villager takes one side of it. Then, before the villager is even allowed to take the box and distribute the food or medicine, both look towards the crowd and photographs and speeches continue. These are blatantly following all the formulas of the photo ops.
The stories go on and on. The fire that the government started in a Mandalay shopping center months ago, killing dozens. Apparently an astrologer had predicted that its new state capital, Nay Pyi Daw, would not last more than a few months. To trick fate, they decided to burn down a shopping center with the same name. This is the rumor, anyway. Burma is a country of rumors. With no reliable information, state controlled media, and links to outside sources few, rumors try to predict and tell which way the winds are blowing, and post-cyclone rumors have been out of control.
Some of the reports, especially about aid, I see on CNN and BBC mirrors my own experience and feelings. We need aid workers in here who have experience and know what they are doing. They must be allowed to enter and deliver the aid personally and assess the situation. The authorities are doing nothing here, and the organization of existing aid organizations is atrocious. There are dozens of foreigners now in country who want to volunteer and literally can’t find a way to do so. For many NGOs already here, this is not accidental. They can only do their work by staying under the radar and not being known, so when a disaster such as this hits, there is necessarily no way for them to communicate with others or vice versa. Also, so many phone lines are down that this is another factor preventing a coordinated effort. The aid runs that do happen run into government interference. For a massive effort like this, it is imperative to have a vast networking of individuals and organizations that are sharing vital information and supporting one another’s efforts. In this country, meetings of more than five people are illegal and sharing any kinds of information risk jail time or worse. Even for those of us in the country, and even for aid workers I met with experience, actually finding and connecting with NGOs have proven almost impossible. Expats here sit around in hotel rooms trying to compare notes about what leads there are for where we can go and what we can do.
Dan Rivers was one of the only foreign journalists to get in after the cyclone, and apparently the Burmese authorities have been infuriated this happened and are trying to find the poor sap who unwittingly gave him a visa. As he reported from the Delta, a massive hunt was on to find him and deport or arrest him, with his picture distributed to local villages. The government was now very energetic, though directed at stopping a journalist rather than helping its people. (An interesting aside is that he was denied entry during the September protests because CNN was one of the only media outlets to demand that a normal visa be applied for, rather than a tourist visa. Because of this, every other September journalist has been blacklisted and could not get in now. Four BBC guys got as far as Yangon Airport, were discovered, and sent back on the same plane. Because Dan Rivers’ name was not on this list, he was able to actually report for a week. Not now)
On Friday morning I woke up and finally did have a few hours of respite. I sorted my socks from my toiletries and separated the noodles from the CDs, while watching CNN consistently to hear over and over about the denials of aid. This against my friend’s smart warning to “cut myself off” from the TV news. Apparently France went to the UN Security Council proposing that they send in aid whether or not they have permission. China vetoed this by saying that it was an “internal matter” of Myanmar and that 2 million people being on the verge of unimagined catastrophe was not the business of anyone but the junta. What else? I went to the office, went to several monasteries and assessed damage here, back to the office for an awful meal of cheese sandwich and fries, back at my hotel just as a Yangon international school was hosting a year end bash by the pool. It was dozens of white expats with dozens more bottles of hard alcohol and beer, and talking about trips being taken to Switzerland, France, and the US in the coming summer. I had another hour of intense thinking on the cushion and a late bed. Oh, another note… one monastery estimated its damages at $3,000; at another people gave that polite smile and shared the impression of “you’re not going to be able to give enough of what we need done.” To make matters worse, donations cannot be given by bank remittance because the government will siphon this off. Visas are being denied so money can’t be bought in, and officially, people can’t bring in more than $1,000 anyway. To make matters still worse, banks are largely non-existent, as are credit cards, checks, and traveler’s cheques. This all leads to a very challenging way to actually get any money donated directly to these organizations.
I’m now writing this as afternoon is approaching. The aid efforts are not being coordinated, and I’ve been trying to get in touch with a couple of them. Rather than run around yet again, which is what I want to do, I decided to work on this document for a few hours. It keeps me resting when I probably need it, and I’d like to be able to tell people something of what is going on here than the quickly-composed email messages. Do I help out at the monastery next, which desperately needs it, or do I look for humanitarian missions to join? Do I head out to the office to get this off ASAP, or do I get my pictures in order first? Do I start my work next week if my colleagues are ready so they have some normalcy back in their life, or do I encourage another week hiatus so that I am helping out where it is needed first?
I don’t know.