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Myanmar marks anniversary of deadly cyclone

A year after Cyclone Nargis swept away entire villages and killed nearly 140,000, people across Myanmar marked the anniversary Saturday with quiet remembrance and prayer.
Villager try to catch money thrown by donors during the opening ceremony of the first cyclone shelter in Pyar Pon
Villagers reach out to catch money thrown by donors during the opening ceremony Saturday of the first cyclone shelter in Pyar Pon township in Myanmar's delta region. Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster recorded in the nation's history.Str / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A year after Cyclone Nargis swept away entire villages, turned fertile rice paddies into wasteland and killed nearly 140,000, people across Myanmar marked the anniversary Saturday with quiet remembrance and prayer.

The ruling military junta, however, held no official ceremonies to commemorate Nargis, which was the worst natural disaster Myanmar has ever seen and one of the deadliest in recorded history. The state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper did not mention the cyclone in its 16-page edition Saturday.

"My sister and brother died saving my parents, and my life without them is never the same," said Hlaing Bwa, a 34-year-old fisherman, who lives in Thaunglay village in Haing Gyi island where the cyclone first made landfall before pummeling the mainland.

The cyclone struck with fury in the middle of the night of May 2, 2008, churning for two days and sending tidal surges as high as 12 feet some 25 miles inland. The government's toll has never been changed from 85,000 people dead and another 54,000 missing.

Most of the dead were in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, the country's once fertile rice-growing region on the southwestern coast, where tens of thousands of farm families sleeping in flimsy shacks barely above sea level were swept to their deaths.

"My parents have not recovered from the loss, but life has to go on and there is no use in crying," Hlaing said. "We cannot bring them back, but we will pray for them and we will share our merit-making with them."

Low-key ceremonies were held in homes, offices and in Buddhist temples and churches around the country to mourn the victims, many of whose bodies were never recovered or dumped in mass burial sites. A group of aid agencies in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, organized a photograph exhibit and invited the public to display their own cyclone pictures.

No seeds for planting
A group of doctors and other private donors marked the anniversary by opening a cyclone shelter for 1,500 people in Tha Gyar Hin Oh village at the mouth of Pyapone river, which opens into the Bay of Bengal.

Like many parts of the delta, the village is accessible only by boat and residents say they haven't seen foreign aid in months and desperately need some.

Hla Phin, a 38-year-old farmer, lives with her husband in a flimsy palm-and-thatch hut built from debris collected after the cyclone, which destroyed their former home.

"How are we going to survive if another strong wind comes?" said Hla Phin, who added that she has no money to hire farm hands, no seeds for planting and expects to miss the planting season that is already under way. "We have no solution and no help coming."

Myanmar's secretive military regime was widely condemned for denying foreign aid agencies access to the delta in the weeks that followed the disaster when some 800,000 survivors were homeless.

The junta also punished civilians, especially pro-democracy activists, who rushed to provide assistance without the military's permission.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called Friday for the release of at least 21 people who were imprisoned for providing cyclone aid and "shining a spotlight on government indifference to Cyclone Nargis survivors." They are serving prison terms of between two and 35 years.

Many still vulnerable
After global condemnation and a personal appeal by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the wake of the disaster, the junta relented and allowed foreign assistance, and now 90 percent of survivors have been provided with food, clean drinking water and basic shelter needs, aid agencies say.

But hundreds of thousands remain without jobs and housing, leaving many vulnerable to the coming monsoon rains and little to lift them out of poverty.

"Shelter is probably the number one challenge or difficulty faced by hundreds of thousands of families across the delta," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N.'s World Food Program, which expects to provide food rations for the rest of the year to at least 350,000 survivors.

The sea water that surged through the region inundated water wells, and many survivors still lack clean drinking water. The waves also turned almost 2 million acres of Myanmar's most fertile rice paddies into salt-contaminated wastelands.

Foreign governments and charities provided $315 million for food aid and emergency assistance in the months after the storm. But aid agencies say hundreds of millions of dollars more are still needed to rebuild the delta's decimated infrastructure and help farmers rebuild their lives.