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Myanmar victims suffer in silence

Apart from the sound of children crying, the town of Labutta is strangely silent.
Getting supplies to survivors of a brutal cyclone in Myanmar is now a "race against time" to prevent a disease disaster, as many impoverished victims continue to await help a week after the storm, experts warned Saturday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Apart from the sound of children crying, the town of Labutta is strangely silent.

Traumatized by the ordeal of surviving Cyclone Nargis, few people have anything to say. But it is also fear bred by 46 years of repression by military regimes that keeps them quiet.

Although overwhelmed by the worst disaster in Myanmar's recent history, the junta has turned down foreign help and insists on using its ragtag infrastructure and poorly equipped military to conduct a grossly mismanaged relief operation for some 2 million people in distress.

And no one dares to protest. Few survivors wanted to speak to an outsider, as military trucks drove constantly through the town. Most cowered in corners.

On the outskirts of Labutta, 12 people were crammed into one tent pitched on a rice field. They were the only survivors from the village of Pain Na Kon and had fruitlessly searched Labutta for family members.

"We are family now. We are from the same place. We are together," said U Nyo, one of the survivors, his eyes red from tears and fatigue. "We need food. There isn't enough space in the town so we decided to stay here."

Aid agencies are also cautious
"There are certainly parameters around whatever we do. It is very sensitive politically, but within those parameters we are getting through," said Tim Costello of World Vision in Yangon, one of the few foreign aid workers allowed in.

Aid workers said critical supplies were reaching Labutta, a town of 20,000 people whose population more than doubled with 30,000 refugees streaming in from dozens of surrounding villages devastated by the May 3 cyclone.

But efforts to rush food and medicine from Labutta to lower-lying parts of the delta that were hardest hit have been slowed by the military's intense micromanaging.

"The government wants total control of the situation although they can't provide much and they have no experience in relief efforts," said a leading aid worker for an international aid organization. "We have to report to them every step of the way, every decision we make.

"Their eyes are everywhere, monitoring what we do, who we talk to, what we bring in and how much," the aid worker said in a soft voice, constantly looking around nervously as his assistant turned off all the lights except one dim lamp.

He agreed to the interview at night after being assured he wouldn't be named or identified in any way.

"We don't want them to see you here. They don't trust us, as it is," he told a foreign reporter in Labutta.

The town, about 600 feet inland, is littered with flattened thatch-roofed homes and fallen trees. But it fared better than most neighboring villages, with several structures withstanding the cyclone's 120-mile per hour winds and the tidal surge it whipped up.

But its ramshackle survival presents a picture of misery.

Schools, large houses and monasteries have become temporary shelters. Hundreds of survivors crowded the floor of a monastery's open-air hall lit by dim kerosene lamps and candles. Only a few houses, mostly those belonging to people connected with officials, have generators.

Other than the sound of hungry children wailing, the town was silent and grim.

People quietly ate whatever food was available while others tried to sleep. Most people were sitting up because there was no space to lie down.

Dead and missing
What lies beyond Labutta is the worst of the devastation, an area that remains difficult to access.

Fishing boats along the coast have helped ferry survivors to safety but can't make enough rounds a day to rescue everyone and the trip is a stomach-wrenching journey, said Maung U, a 36-year-old driver of a rescue boat.

"Each trip takes five or six hours through a narrow waterway littered with dead bodies," he said. "Every few meters (yards), you see another dead body, human or animal."

He said every family has at least two or three missing or dead, and many people had to leave the bodies of their family members in the water or in the fields.

Diesel supplies are running low and rescuers fear that time is running out to help the people stranded in remote delta villages.

"Some have been living on coconuts," he said. "But even those are running out."