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Help scant in Myanmar village deep inside delta

Peering out from under the hood of his raincoat, the boat skipper squinted as he tried to steer his small wooden boat through the narrow, twisting channel.
Myanmar Cyclone
Due to the lack of aid and relief after the cyclone that ravaged Myanmar, many survivors in the remote village of Pyinmagon collect rainwater in large ceramic pots, using broken pieces of corrugated roofing as funnels.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Peering out from under the hood of his raincoat, the boat skipper squinted as he tried to steer his small wooden boat through the narrow, twisting channel leading to a village deep in Myanmar's cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta.

Pyinmagon's location is typical of the delta, and cause of the region's still unfolding tragedy: The rice-farming village can only be reached by boat, a trip of up to two hours, depending on the tide, from the nearest town of Bogalay.

Most of the journey requires slow maneuvering in shallow waters known to be inhabited by crocodiles. So, a month after Cyclone Nargis struck, Pyinmagon's 801 survivors have been left to basically fend for themselves.

"I don't know why nobody came, maybe they were discussing it for a long time, maybe they had problems trying to deliver the help," said Myint Oo, 55, the village chief, standing Thursday outside the Buddhist monastery where most of the survivors are being housed.

The village, which sits in the middle of an almond-shaped island that splits the Bogalay River, lost a quarter of its people, and all but three houses and the monastery were destroyed. Its livestock, rice supply and crops were wiped out, and its only drinking water source was polluted by salt water and debris.

The military regime's response to the crisis has been slow and inadequate everywhere, but never more so than in places such as Pyinmagon.

The stream connecting the village to Bogalay River is only 4- to 6-feet deep, making it impassable to most vessels carrying big shipments of aid. Only narrow wooden rowboats or those powered by a small diesel engine with a propeller attached to the end of a long shaft can make the trip.

Short palm trees, patches of mangrove and thick long grass grow on the tall muddy embankments along the channel, blocking view of the route ahead. The monsoon season's daily heavy downpours have also hindered travel.

'Rice will run out soon'
When no help came in the first week after the storm, the survivors lived on what little rice they could salvage, although much of it was damaged by sea water carried by the cyclone's 12-foot storm surge. They scavenged for vegetable scraps and caught rats, but still many went hungry.

By the second week, only 50 sacks of rice from local authorities had reached them, but that was depleted almost immediately, Myint Oo said.

The headman said an international aid group told the villagers it would provide rice for them for the next six months, but he was not hopeful the pledge could be fulfilled. Pyinmagon is a more than seven-hour journey by car and boat from Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city.

"We are worried it's not going to happen because everything has been uncertain," he said. "I'm afraid our rice will run out soon."

On Thursday, nearly a month after the cyclone hit, the village received its first private donation, a local trading company that brought clothes, he said.

Other basics are sorely lacking
The small reservoir the villagers once used for drinking water was muddy with silt and sea water carried from the river during the storm, and a large fallen tree still lay in it. Villagers have been taking boats to fetch water from a lake in Bogalay and have collected rainwater in a few large ceramic pots, using broken pieces of corrugated roofing as makeshift funnels.

Villagers pointed to a large wooden box that used to store feed for their animals, emptied by the storm. But that was of little significance since their herd of 1,000 water buffaloes, 80 pigs and 400 chickens had all perished.

Though donations of food would be welcome, the survivors said they want to quickly regain self-sufficiency.

"What we need is buffaloes and seeds to grow rice again," Myint Oo said.

Shelter is also an urgent issue. Villagers worked outside in the rain, tying bamboo poles together to make temporary huts, but the headman said they could not be used unless they received tarpaulins or plastic sheets to waterproof the roofs.

In the meantime, the survivors have been sleeping on mats on the wooden floor of the monastery. Short, round wooden tables, cabinets, kitchen utensils and other salvaged pieces of furniture were also stored there.

Without mosquito nets or blankets, the survivors were defenseless against mosquitoes, which thrive in the rainy season and carry diseases like dengue fever, which is endemic in many Southeast Asian countries.

A Myanmar Red Cross team visited the village last week for the first time, survivors said, but it was too late for three of the villagers — a man and two children — who they said died from diarrhea and food poisoning.

One of Mar Mar Oo's twin daughters has been running a fever and coughing for 15 days.

"The medical workers gave her medicine, but I don't know whether it will last until the next doctor comes," the young mother said, frowning as she tucked the 3-year-old girls under a pale blue cloth for an afternoon nap in the monastery.

The monastery's corrugated metal roof was riddled with holes that let rain drip in, forming puddles on the floor.

For farmers, rain is usually a blessing, but these days, it's also a curse that haunts many survivors.

Curled into a tight ball in a corner of the monastery, Kyin Mya jumped as raindrops fell from the leaking roof.

"Is the wind strong? Is the wind strong?" the 59-year-old woman asked, her eyes wide with fear, her hand trembling as she tried to eat a biscuit.

Her husband and 5-year-old granddaughter drowned as they were carried away in the storm surge.

Echoing a common fear that speaks of the trauma experienced by the survivors, Kyin Mya asked: "Do you know if another storm is coming?"