THE IRRAWADDY DELTA, Myanmar — Tropical cyclone Bijli is menacing South Asia, picking up speed over the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. Packing hurricane force winds and heavy rains, the storm is expected to make landfall Saturday near the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Bijli approaches almost a year after the powerful cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar's recorded history.
On that dark day Ma Gan, nine months pregnant, ran from the raging storm and her collapsing home to take shelter in her neighbor’s water tank. Two days later, in a collapsed reservoir, baby Nargis was born into a world freshly ravaged, devoid of clean water, stripped of its harvest and shrouded by the fog of lives and homes lost.
Ma Gan, along with many others who had escaped the harrowing clutches of cyclone Nargis (after which Ma Gan's baby was named) on May 2, 2008, spent the following days in the huddled company of family and neighbors beneath whatever structure was left standing.
It would be days before any sign of help would signal the outside world’s acknowledgment of their predicament. During this time people ate the soggy, salinated remains of their rice harvests and drank water from canals teeming with decomposing bodies.
“After four or five days well-wishers came by with cars and dropped food and clothes on the road,” said Nu Myint Kyi, the owner of the land where Ma Gan and nearly 30 others took shelter after the floods. Myanmar aid groups and wealthy nationals distributed some relief to the victims, but those supplies didn’t last long, and most aid stopped after 10 days. “We survived on coconuts for weeks after that,” Nu Myint Kyi said.
The international response to cyclone Nargis was staggering. Countless countries pledged millions of dollars and supplies, and even sent tankers piled with food and other essentials into the delta. But due to heavy restrictions on international aid and, some would say, the iron-willed xenophobia of Myanmar’s ruling junta, it took foreign aid groups more than three weeks before they could distribute the rice, water, garlic, fish paste, clothes and various other necessities.
After a lengthy bureaucratic process and pressure from various organizations, the checkpoints began to open.
Ma Gan and her neighbors, situated in an accessible location adjacent to the main road leading from Yangon to Bogale, were on the receiving end of the first attempts at assistance. Not everyone was so fortunate — especially those who reside within the complex web of canals and tributaries comprising the Irrawaddy Delta.
Accessible only by boat, these villages were the hardest hit by the vast influx of water the cyclone created. And ironically, they were among the last to be reached by relief efforts. “After the storm, for 20 days, we had to survive off of coconuts and some soaked rice,” said Beh Saw Oo, a resident of Chong Sein Gi, a small river village south of Bogale where 300 of the 700 inhabitants were swept away during the storm.
Ko Khin Maung Aye, the village chief, lost his mother, father, wife, son, daughter, brother and his brother’s entire family. He only managed to save his youngest daughter by gripping her to his body throughout that fatal night. Being a landowner, he was eligible for rice seeds provided by the government to replant his fields.
“If you own land, they gave you rice seeds. If you didn’t own land, they gave you some money,” he explained. “I am all alone anyway, so I don’t need the money to rebuild my home. Now, I'm left with only myself to look after.”
Near Pyiapon, another town where Nargis claimed more than 5,000 lives, a monastery that housed 300 people in the storm's aftermath is slowly being rebuilt. Shredded wooden planks, crumbling statues and piles of bricks strewn about testify to the tragedy that occurred here a year ago.
“In that morning, people just kept coming and coming until the whole monastery was full,” said U War Ya Ma, the abbot of Thiak Kyaung Monastery. “But we could only feed people rice for three or four days. Soon even the rice was all gone.”
Four women who spent a month in the monastery after they lost their home in the storm have attempted to rebuild near the front gates. “We had to build our house with the wood and roofing we found laying around. People brought aid after three weeks and left it with the monks in the monastery. If we needed anything, we could go there to get it,” said Paw Myint Kyi, the eldest daughter.
Most villagers in the Irrawaddy Delta say they received aid, in differing amounts, for three to four months after the storm, though some say they received as little as two bags of rice. Despite the devastation, most say that they picked up the pieces within a few months. While diarrhea and other stomach disorders were common for weeks after the storm, few recall anyone losing their life to waterborne illness or starvation.
Throughout the reaches of the delta, you can still see fallen trees and the skeletal remains of former homes, but you can also see freshly painted walls, gleaming new corrugated iron roofs and tents in myriad colors displaying the names of organizations such as Unicef, UNDP, WFP, World Vision, MSF and Red Cross. People smile and wave as you drive past.
But despite these signs, life is not as it was.
“We used to have a tea shop but the storm took it,” Paw Myint Kyi said. “Without all our supplies, we have to struggle every day. Life has not returned to normal.”
For five siblings who swam across the river during the storm to survive, Nargis meant the loss of both their parents and one sibling. They found their father's body far downstream and buried him, but their mother's body was lost to the river.
“We are scared of another storm,” the eldest sister said, while looking away, “but we don’t have bad dreams about them. We do dream about our parents. They are always happy dreams.”