An unprecedented mission
Field officer Khin Khin Pyone, an engineer with UNICEF Myanmar office for the past seven years, is stunned as she walks through Laputta town three days after Cyclone Nargis storms through the Irrawaddy Delta
I counted seven villages. All the huts in them had collapsed. I thought, “How can I help them?” I couldn’t imagine what to do with this magnitude. It was so terrible, I couldn’t bear to focus on any one thing.
People sat on the roadside wearing only plastic bags. Children were naked. Many others were in tattered clothes. Some were crying. Some just lying on the ground
I couldn’t speak.
For five hours driving outside of Yangon there was little sight of destruction. But we went first to Pathein where there had been little damage. Then by the late afternoon, under a cloudy sky and about an hour outside of Laputta town, we saw first trees down, everywhere. The debris kept growing.
Then the trees turned into buildings as we entered the town. Nearly every building – pagodas, schools, shops, even the communication tower – had been destroyed. It had been three years since I was last here; it had been a pleasant town before. Now it was horrific.
I stopped the car to walk around. People were filling plastic bags with drinking water from the pond. I worried about its safety. People seemed shocked, sitting on the streets as if not noticing anything. The few people I talked with told me they had no food.
I felt overwhelmed by the need. I had to leave and went looking for the monastery compound where friends from the town had found shelter and where I would have to sleep also. All the guest houses were no longer standing. There were maybe 10,000 people living there. I had packed a mosquito net but couldn’t bring myself to open it. Everyone around me had nothing. I had ten bottles of water for the three-day trip and I couldn’t share enough of it.
People talked through the night. They talked of bodies and cattle, pigs, dogs flowing in the rivers. The river water smelled bad in Laputta town, and I guessed it was from the dead bodies still floating in it, I woke Tuesday morning to the smell of urine and faeces from the temple compound that only had two toilets.
My mobile phone had no service. No other phone lines were working. I was cut off from nearly everyone I knew.
In the morning I went to the hospital. Staff had tied tarpaulin as a makeshift roof. Every day 300 to 500 patients were coming for treatment. They had no medicines or bandages left. The Yangon Health Division and UNICEF had sent medical supplies by helicopter but they had gone through the stock quickly. I gave them a bulk of the medical supplies I had brought. UNICEF then sent in a truckload or more supplies and another is about to go.
I walked around watching the Myanmar Red Cross treat people and giving them the emergency supplies I had brought and first-aid kits. In a displaced persons camp I watched volunteers struggle to distribute boiled rice to more than 50,000, maybe 60,000 people. It was rice from the local rice mill that had been rained on. The boiling was to make it edible until relief rice arrived.
I watched Red Cross volunteers mix the water-guard solution that UNICEF had provided with water in a barrel collected from the pond before handing it out in plastic bags. The majority of the people in the affected areas of the delta region have had shortages of fresh water even before the cyclone and taking their supply from rain fall jars and ponds. Now much of the pond water has also likely been contaminated by the sanitation problems and smell from decomposing bodies. I stood mesmerized watching the Red Cross work and comforted by the protection UNICEF was bringing to these people’s struggle in a desperate situation.
Many children, three years old, four years old, were crying. I remember two or three too young to know their parents’ names or their village. The Red Cross is taking care of five children like that now. No one knows if their parents have died.
I’ll be going back in a few days. I don’t think this situation will have changed.