CYCLONE NARGIS SURVIVORS AND SURVIVOR STORIES

NARGIS SURVIVORS DESCRIBE THE DEATHS OF THEIR LOVED ONES

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: "I still can hear my wife and children screaming for help," said a 32-year-old man from Labutta in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Division. The man, a member of the Karen minority group, is among about 300 people who fled the Irrawaddy Delta after it was battered by Cyclone Nargis and ended up in Thailand. It was shortly after 8 p.m. on May 2, when water began flowing into the man's house. The water quickly rose above the height of a person and swallowed up his family members. The man floundered desperately in the dim light, trying to hold onto his children. However, the children gradually lost their strength and were swept away. Although he managed to pull one of his offspring back, the child had already drowned. His wife, who had been holding their baby, also quickly disappeared from his sight. The man managed to grasp hold of some bamboo, which he clung onto until the following morning. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 5, 2008]

Nay Myo Zaw, one of CARE’s staff on the ground has shared some of the survivors’ heartbreaking stories. While distributing blankets to 600 survivors who were camped in a high school building in Pathein, the capital of the Irrawaddy Delta, Nay spoke to a grief-stricken fisherman whose life had been changed forever. Before the cyclone, he had a family of five: a wife and three children. He tearfully told Nay that none of them had survived. [Source: Care }{]

“Another man taking shelter in the camp explained the loss of his only son. As the cyclone tore through the village, his family desperately tried to protect their belongings. At the height of the storm, the man’s eight-year-old son ran out from their house attempting to stop the pig-feeding bucket from being blown away. As he did so, the water level surged and he was swept up in its path. The man tried desperately to save his son, but the flood waters were too strong and he watched helplessly as he was washed away. His wife and daughter managed to survive. }{

“While visiting one of the 27 camps in Myaung Mya Township which shelters approximately 10,000 survivors, Nay met a man who witnessed his neighbours’ house, with four people inside, be literally torn from the ground and blown away. Within minutes his own house was swept from its foundations by the floodwater and he and his family were drifting rapidly. The family managed to survive by holding onto a tree until the floodwaters subsided. “ }{

Cyclone Nargis Survivor's Stories

Relief Web reported: On the night of May 2, 2008, 13 year old Naw Phaw Sae was at home with her mother and siblings. Her father was already long dead, but by morning she would be an orphan. When the cyclone came in the middle of the night, her mother brother and sister were literally blown away. She survived by clinging to a tree until the morning. [Source: Trócaire, Relief Web, May 1, 2009 *]

“Stella-wa-sin-a was heavily-pregnant this time last year. The night Nargis came, a massive tidal wave smashed through her house. She managed to make a hole in the roof and climbed out. She clung on but eventually was swept away: but miraculously the waters carried her to dry ground.On that dry ground, while thousands around her were struggling for life, Stella gave birth to a healthy child. Even Nargis could not stop life asserting itself once again amidst the chaos. *

“In the Amar area, Nargis left in its wake a moonscape of flattened houses and trees. By the time the first aid workers arrived, the bodies of animals were still washed up on the shore line. The aid workers were greeted by the local communities who were very grateful to see them. In Amar alone over 500 people died. Most of them were women and children. Most of the men were fishermen or farmers, but now did not know what to do as the boats or land and livestock had been destroyed. *

“They had little protection from the heavy rain still falling. Their ponds that usually provided them with fresh water from drinking now had salt in them from the wave that came with the storm surge. With pools of dirty water, they also feared disease, particularly with the increased number of mosquitoes that the pools attracted. The aid workers were struck by how gracious the community were in their hour of need - even though their clothes had been destroyed by the salt water and many of them had had to use rice bags to cover themselves, they immediately offered the workers water to quench their thirst. *

“In Pyapon, a young mother struggled with her elderly father and children in the storm. She held her son by the hand and pulled him along while carrying her two year old daughter in her arms. She battled through the flood water to try and find safe ground. All the while she was being battered by the debris being flung from near by buildings and trees. For her young daughter the struggle became too much. With the cold and fear now entrenched in her body, she turned blue and stopped breathing. Her mother faced with the most devastating situation, thought that her daughter was dead and let her body drop to the water to enable her to pick up and save her son. The grandfather, some distance behind, saw the body of his grand daughter being swept by him. He picked her up and carried her with him to shelter. To his surprise he discovered there was still life in this young girl and she was in fact still alive. Against all the odds, the whole family made it to land and all survived. *

"We continued on to Gone Nyi Than Village, one of the ten villages which are under the Thin Gan Gyi Village Track. There were about 150 households in this village accounting for around 400 people. Now, only 31 people are left. The situation of the 31 survivors is extremely vile. The village has been flattened. There are no trees, houses, and trees lay fallen on the ground. Dead bodies are still in and around the village. The smell of decomposing bodies filled the air which makes anyone sick. In the river, which is just a couple of meters from the village, we found a capsized ship. With the help of the villagers, we investigated the ship and found out that there are 53 bodies in the boat. All of it was starting to rot. We carried the bodies to shore, buried them in a shallow grave, turned the boat upright, and used it as a transport vehicle to get necessary supplies.When we returned we gave the villagers 10 litres of water that we had bought in a nearby town. Upon arrival, the soldiers took the 5 gallons for themselves leaving the other 5 gallons to be shared by the entire village. This made the villagers very angry but they cannot do anything. If they try to confront the soldiers, they will either end in jail or worse end up dead." *

Survivors in Labutta

From Labutta, five days after the disaster, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar's rice-trading town of Labutta — the only spit of high ground in a vast watery landscape — became a refuge for tens of thousands who lived through the cyclone's fury, most losing homes and family members. The survivors made the journey in rickety wooden boats with makeshift sails fashioned out of blankets, dodging the bloated corpses of buffaloes and dead neighbors floating in the murky waters. It was a journey from horror to misery for most, who described desperate hours clinging to trees and debris, followed by days of waiting for aid to arrive. [Source: AP, May 7, 2008 ^^]

“Food, clean water and medical supplies were in short supply in Labutta where some survivors resorted to drinking coconut milk. Some survivors arrived half-naked, others wore clothes they scavenged from the dead. Those who made it arrived in boats filled to overflowing with survivors from the 51 surrounding towns and villages, most now under water. But each day there were fewer boats, partly because fuel supplies were disappearing. They plied through stinking waters, past bodies tangled up in mangrove trees and flattened thatch-roofed houses. ^^

“Labutta, located in a township with a population of 209,000 before the cyclone hit, was battered by the storm -- its communications tower was knocked over, the spires on Buddhist pagodas were broken, windows were shattered. Debris was piled on the streets and roofs were torn off. But many buildings were still standing and helping hands awaited the new arrivals. Hundreds of people were taking shelter at the Aung Daw Mu temple, where the monks were seen making places for newcomers to sleep and drying out blankets as children scurried about. A private charity group, the Free Funeral Service Society, had set up a couple of big woks nearby to cook for the people. "Aid still hasn't arrived," said 38-year-old Khin Khin Mya. "My mother, children and husband got separated ... Every day I wait for the rescue boats, hoping to see them at the jetty." ^^

“The town hospital was devoid of first aid supplies, medicine or other medical equipment, and no doctors were in sight. Desperate relatives tended to the injured with rusty sewing needles and thread. A man lay moaning in a makeshift bed, his leg crushed and foot torn off when he got caught between two boats. "There is no help and there is nothing we can do except waiting here for him to die," said his friend. Another man with a deep gash in his head had leaves and twigs embedded in his skull. ^^

“Back at the jetty, people peered at the horizon, waiting for the next rescue boat to arrive. want to try to help as many people as I can, but there isn't enough fuel to carry survivors," said one boat operator, Maung Hyay, whose vessel lay idle. Nearby, a man distributed soup to all comers. About 30 people gathered around. "Everyone please come and eat," he shouted. "Come, come, you need energy." ^^

Survivors in Bogale

Reporting from Bogaley, U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “ Buildings that remained standing were turned into emergency shelters and relief camp centers. Despite the destruction within days people were busy at markets and roads were filled military trucks and goods were transferred from boats at the ports. One survivor told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “We don’t have time to cry. If we cry, we will die. We have to do something at least [to ensure] our survival.”

The New York Times reported: “The water has not receded fully, and few aid trucks have made it here. Only one helicopter, from the Myanmar military, was spotted all Friday, dropping off packages of instant noodles around a devastated delta that needs much more. Win Kyi, a mother looking for a lost son, was crying, her body shaking and her arms outstretched for food, money, water — anything. “I have nothing,” she said, shuffling in a state of shock. “Everything is gone.” “The diarrhea is coming,” he said, echoing a grave concern among aid officials that the death toll could rise quickly if clean water and medicine do not arrive here soon. [Source: New York Times, May 10, 2008||||]

“Lacking alternatives, villagers are eating waterlogged bananas and other rotting fruit, he said. “Normally we have two meals,” Mr. Thein Tun said. “Now we eat only once.” Yet of the two dozen people interviewed in the flattened villages and flooded rice fields along the road, none said they were starving. Most rice reserves were soaked during the storm, but villagers have laid the grain on large plastic mats to dry. The rice has a musty smell, but farmers say they have no choice but to eat it. “It tastes bad, but if we can eat it we will,” said Than Tun, 43, a rice farmer. “If not, we will throw it to the pigs.” ||||

“Like hundreds of other farmers here, he has lived in an A-frame, three-foot-high bamboo structure along the side of the road since his house was destroyed. Many villagers fled to the relative safety of the road when the storm came because it rests on an embankment higher than the surrounding countryside. To help with immediate needs, the monastery in Painal Kone village distributed rice from its stocks on Friday. Some villagers, especially in areas farther south, said the government was also giving out rice rations. “Anyone with a broken roof gets one or two cups of rice,” said Htayl Lwin, a trader in duck eggs. At the entrance to his stilt house, built on the river that runs beside Bogale, his smudged and still-damp account books were laid out to dry. ||||

“About 400 people without homes have sought shelter in the prayer hall of a local monastery, including Ms. Win Kyi, who was separated from two sons when the cyclone hit. She also lost her house and all her water buffalo. Every day since then she has traveled to the police checkpoint to scour the list of names of the dead. On Friday, the police told her that one of her sons had been located, injured in the storm. When they were united, they hugged for a long time, she said. “He told me, ‘I’m alive. My whole body hurts. But I’ve come back to Mama,’ ” she said. ||||

The Washington Post reported: “ One bamboo stick at a time, survivors in hundreds of flattened villages are struggling to rebuild their lives. For shelter, they squeeze several families into a single tent. For drinking water, they collect monsoon rains that trickle off tarpaulin roof coverings into buckets or salvaged ceramic vases. For food, they cook communal meals with rice, beans and oil from handouts. Sometimes it is spoiled. On a recent visit, one village looked as if it had been carpet-bombed, a cratered landscape of muddy pools, debris and the remains of water buffaloes. A few hundred feet away, villagers sawed and hammered at planks salvaged from the wreckage. A teenage boy in an oversize shirt donated by a Buddhist monastery picked through piles of smashed wood. [Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008 >>]

Nine hundred forty-three people used to live here, he said. In the storm that came ashore the night of May 2, 660 of them disappeared. To reach his village required a seven-hour drive along a potholed, tire-shredding road from Rangoon to the rural hub of Bogalay, past four police checkpoints where documents were rigorously scanned. Against a backdrop of peaceful rice paddies, strange touches stood out: a patchwork of blue and red tarpaulins stretched across delicate palm-thatched huts; decapitated golden pagodas; and peaked iron roofs blown like dead leaves onto the roadside. From Bogalay, where electricity has barely crackled back to life, the journey continued aboard a motorized boat loaded with supplies. >>

Survivors in an Irrawaddy Delta Village

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times,“There is some aid coming in, but it is barely enough for survival, and all of it supplied by the agencies of the military Government. Foreign aid workers have still not been allowed into Burma in large numbers, and the Government’s suspicious xenophobia is in evidence. Yesterday aid agencies accused Burma’s “closed and stubborn” regime of risking millions of lives by refusing to allow entry to foreign aid workers, most of whom are still waiting to obtain permits. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, May 8, 2008 \|/]

“We need rice and we need meat,” said a man named Phone Dint, in the grounds of a Buddhist temple where monks in orange robes were hauling pieces of rusty metal sheeting to cover the exposed roof of their monastery. “Most of all we need money, to buy the iron to cover the roofs.” Burma’s wet season begins in a fortnight, when rains less lashing than the cyclone but still overwhelmingly heavy pour down over this lowland area. Without roofs villages like this will be uninhabitable. \|/

“On the road from Dala to Kungyangon, close to the Andaman Sea, I saw about a dozen army trucks, carrying broken trees out, and bags of food and cartons of petrol and diesel in. But people here desperately need building materials, and medical supplies to guard against the malarial mosquitoes and bacteria that, even now, must be breeding in the pools of flood water that serve by necessity as baths, drinking water and toilets. In the absence of such comprehensive help, people do what poor villagers have always done: they get on with it, using the few resources at their disposal. Opposite the monastery with the steeplejack monks, men with tattooed torsos hauled timber out of a swamp where their home had been, to build the frame of a new house. All along the road people are carrying things — planks, bags of rice, jugs of water, hammers and saws, balanced precariously on bicycles, motorbikes and on their own heads, backs and shoulders.

Cyclone Nargis Survivors Ordered to Leave Their Village

The Washington Post reported: “In Soe's village, about four hours south of Bogalay, survivors gathered to greet a rare foreign visitor. During the storm villagers clutched floating wreckage or grasped at tree trunks or piled into a leaking boat and fled to a monastery in a distant village. Days later, local authorities told them to leave, handed them the equivalent of $10 per household and ferried them in military boats to another village hours upriver. Almost 300 have now made it back. “No one was supposed to be living here. The village is located in an area marked as uninhabited, a forest reserve, on the government map used by aid agencies. But field workers have discovered about 12,000 survivors in 60 villages across the area, all of them almost entirely wiped out. An estimated 20,000 people died.[Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008 >>]

“One-third of survivors around Bogalay suffer from psychological stress, according to Doctors Without Borders. Field workers from other groups reported meeting survivors who refused food or wouldn't speak. One man, found on a roadside, repeatedly hugged the invisible coconut tree to which he had clung when the waters rose. Others told relief workers that they were unable to sleep or could still feel the hands of sons and daughters slipping from their grasp. "It's like being born again every day. I am learning to live again like a child," said Hla Dwe, 36, a farmer and fisherman who lost his mother, wife and both children. >>

U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun:“Another badly hit town is Mawlamyainggyun, 13 miles northwest of Bogalay. Mawlamyainggyun has 9 wards and 101 villages. About half the town was destroyed and most of the villages were washed away. More than 10,000 victims from nearby villages arrived in the town on privately owned boats. In Mawlamyainggyun, about 10 relief camps have been opened for the victims. “There were more than 1,000 cyclone victims in my monastery. I gave them food and shelter. Yesterday, local authority figures came here and sent them back. I don’t know where they went. I have kept 10 orphans from among them.” [Source: U Ko Ko, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 2008 //\\]

“A monk from Pyitsimaryon monastery said: “There is a rumor that victims were transferred to neighboring Wakema town camp and that some have been sent back to their villages.” A pregnant woman I met, aged 43, said: “Now I am staying with my cousin at here house in town. I was about to have a baby. My husband and all of my relatives in the villages have died. I am left alone I don’t know what to do after my child is born. I was forced to go back to my village. When I arrived there, it was empty. No trees, no houses, nothing. No wood for cooking. I ate rice offered by the camps raw. I didn’t think I could survive there, so I asked the crew of this ferry to send me back to town.” //\\

Cyclone Nargis Survivors Search for Food and Shelter

About 2.4 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis were in need of some kind of aid. Drinking water was contaminated by dead bodies and animal carcasses. Medicine and food were in short supply. Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis headed out of Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta in search of food, water and medicine, but aid workers said that thousands will die if emergency supplies don't get through soon. Buddhist temples and schools on the outskirts of the storm's trail of destruction are now makeshift refugee centers. "Given the gravity of the situation including the lack of food and water, some partners have reported fears for security, and violent behavior in the most severely afflicted areas," the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, May 11, 2008]

In the delta town of Labutta, where 80 percent of homes were destroyed, authorities were providing one cup of rice per family per day, a European Commission aid official told Reuters. In a blow to the stumbling relief effort a boat carrying some of the first aid to survivors sank, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said. The boat was believed to have hit a submerged tree in the Irrawaddy delta. The accident highlighted the enormous logistical difficulties of delivering aid, with roads washed away and much of the delta turned to swamp.

Newsweek reported: “They line the roads running south from Burma's former capital, Rangoon. Aid organizations call them "separated children" because so many don't know if their parents are alive or dead. They're waiting for food, water and other essentials, delivered by private groups operating without legal authority amid a brutal dictatorship. It's all surprisingly open: drivers pull over and hand out cargos of noodles and water as armed soldiers look on. Then the kids return to the churches, temples and schools that have become makeshift refugee camps in towns across the Irrawaddy Delta. [Source: Newsweek, May 26, 2008]

Cholera and Other Health Concerns After Cyclone Nargis

About two weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, Reuters reported: “Some cholera has been confirmed among survivors of Cyclone Nargis, but the number was in line with case levels in previous years in Myanmar, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said. 'We do have some confirmed cholera,' Ms Maureen Birmingham, acting WHO representative in Thailand, said of the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta where cholera is endemic. 'We don't have an explosion of cholera. Thus far the rate of cholera is no greater than the background rate that we would be seeing in Myanmar during this season,' she told reporters on Friday. [Source: Reuters May 16, 2008 <>]

“Diarrhea, dysentery and skin infections have afflicted some cyclone refugees crammed into monasteries, schools and other temporary shelters after the devastating May 2 storm. The first sign of cholera, which is spread by drinking contaminated dirty water, is 'rice water' diarrhoea leading to chronic dehydration and possibly death within a few hours. Without treatment, it can spread rapidly through populations of displaced people and kill as many as one in two victims. <>

“The WHO has sent emergency health kits to the devastated region and was providing bleach and chlorine tablets to treat dirty water. Corpses are still rotting along the banks of the Irrawaddy river two weeks after the disaster which killed up to 128,000, but the WHO said they pose no risk to public health. 'There has never been a documented case of a post-natural disaster epidemic that could be traced to dead bodies,' the WHO said in a statement. It said the peak danger period is between 10 days and one month after a natural disaster due to the heightened threat of unsafe food, dirty water and poor hygiene and sanitation in overcrowded shelters. <>

About four months after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, Margie Mason of Associated Press wrote: “Health experts are scrambling to prevent widespread illness after reports of malaria outbreaks and diarrhea surfaced in areas of Myanmar hardest hit by a cyclone, U.N. health officials. Early estimates indicate 20 percent of children in the most devastated areas are suffering from diarrhea, and the situation could worsen, said Osamu Kunii, UNICEF's chief of health and nutrition. "Most of the area is covered by dirty water," he said. "There's a lot of dead bodies and they have very poor access — sometimes no access — to clean drinking water or food." Water purification tablets are unlikely to help because much of the water supply has been contaminated by saltwater, he said. [Source: Margie Mason, AP, August 2008 ><]

“It was unclear how many people may have malaria, but the mosquito-borne disease is endemic to Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, deputy director of the World Heath Organization's Southeast Asia office in New Delhi. She said 10,000 mosquito nets were being sent in. "Safe water, sanitation, safe food. These are things that we feel are priorities at the moment," Singh said. ><

But despite all this the feared 'second wave' of fatalities from disease and lack of relief efforts never materialized.

Cyclone Nargis Orphans

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, “Aye Myat Mon and her little brother, Ye Htet Kyaw, who clung together during the terrifying hours of Cyclone Nargis, are two among a multitude of lost children in Burma. Across the Irrawaddy Delta, countless parents and children were pulled apart by winds strong enough to uproot trees and waters that rose above the roofs of their bamboo houses. Children spent the night huddling in branches, drifting for hours in boats, or clinging on to driftwood to end up kilometers from where they began. Those who survived were given over to aid workers. A little more than a year later, Aye Myat Mon, 6, and Ye Htet Kyaw, 3, are the only remaining orphans of the storm. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, May 7, 2009 <=>]

“Aye Myat Mon remembers clearly the night the storm came. "It was so noisy, as loud as the sound of a car," she says. "Dad was outside and mum went out to look for him. But the storm got stronger and stronger, and we were all separated. And then the house fell down and my big sister and little brother and me ran outside." The three children took shelter and when the storm receded their parents and house were nowhere to be seen. The uninjured siblings walked back into the devastated village of Pan Chin. <=>

“Aye Myat Mon and her siblings were taken to the regional capital, Labutta, where their names were added to a long list of children separated from their parents. The Government reluctantly admitted organisations such as Unicef and Save the Children to work with the local Red Cross in sorting through 1000 names gathered for the Labutta district alone. Many parents had given up their children for dead and of the 535 families reporting missing children, numerous matches were made. Names were consolidated into a database containing as much detail as could be extracted from the children: names of village, parents, relatives and photographs of the children. <=>

“Armed with these, a team of 30 locals travelled by boat, scooter and on foot to track down anyone who knew the lost children. "There were many, many cases where they went into a village, showed a photograph and found a mother who thought her child had died," an aid worker said. In half the cases, both parents were found to have died but relatives and friends were identified and many of those were willing to take care of, and in some cases, adopt a child. But no one could find relatives of Aye Myat Mon and her siblings. The problem was not just that they were almost certainly dead, but they had been migrant workers without strong local roots. <=>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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