"Kalaylay," said the boatman Myint Swe, pointing to something floating in the Pyapon River amid drowned and rotting buffaloes. "Kalaylay," he said, pointing to another. And another. Kalaylay is a Burmese word for "infant," and he was pointing to their tiny corpses.
We spotted at least two dozen bodies of men, women and children during the short voyage from the battered delta town of Pyapon to Myint Swe's village of Myinkakon, where last weekend Cylone Nargis claimed a hundred lives and flattened most houses. Today, six days later, government aid has finally reached the village: officials gave each household about two kilos of rice barely enough to feed a family for a day. Nearby villages have received nothing at all.
The junta claims otherwise. State-controlled media show high-ranking soldiers in uniform overseeing the timely delivery of relief supplies to a grateful people. But a tour of the cyclone-ravaged communities along the Pyapon River reveals the military's efforts to be criminally inadequate. Deprived of food, water, shelter and medical supplies, and stalked by disease, those who survived the cyclone might yet perish in its aftermath. A natural disaster has come and gone. A new, man-made one has already begun.
The cyclone raged for 12 hours, recalls boatman Myint Swe, and for three days afterwards the Pyapon River was clogged with bodies. Like hundreds of other delta villages, Myinkakon had few sturdy buildings to shelter in and no higher ground to flee to. And anyway, says Myint Swe, there was no way to outrun the storm surge, a wall of fast-moving water taller than the tallest man, which raced out of the darkness without warning and swept away tens of thousands of lives across the low-lying region.
When the surge came, Myint Swe had somehow bundled his wife and eight children into his small boat and tethered it to a coconut tree. Then he climbed the tree and held on. Below him, the boat below pitched wildly as his terrified family safely rode out the storm.
Today, his boat chugs past the village of Pankyun, where most houses have been razed by the wind and the water, their occupants drowned or gone. Fishing boats have capsized or been grounded. One has been lifted 100 meters inland, so powerful was the surge of water. A dead baby floats face-down in water amid more putrefying livestock. Kalaylay.
"We need food and medicines for stomach problems, headaches, diarrhea," says a young monk standing amid the ruins of his monastery in nearby Kwagyi village, where 42 people perished. Kwagyi has received no aid. Not a single government official has come, he says; they only visit the towns, not remote communities far from any road.
The villagers are perilously low on food. By sinking their boats and killing their buffalo, the disaster has robbed many villagers of their livelihood. Impoverished, they cannot afford to buy much food, especially with post-cyclone prices rising. They have a store of unhusked rice, which is damp and inedible, and many people now survive on coconuts blown down from the trees. Clean water is also scarce. Their well is now polluted with sea-water, so villagers take water from the river and boil it, or collect the rain flowing from the monastery's shattered tin roofs.
Villagers will retrieve a corpse from the river if it is recognized as a family member or a neighbor. The bodies of ten babies, all from Myinkakon, washed up in the days following the cyclone and were buried at a nearby cemetery. Unidentified or unidentifiable corpses drift along the river or snag in vegetation along its banks. "Nobody is collecting them," says Myint Swe. "They're just floating around." There is a rumor, repeated by Myint Swe, that soldiers are not burying the dead, but tossing them back in the river. Just a few feet from these corpses there are women washing their children in the river, or drawing it in plastic containers to use in cooking.
Some Kwagyi children have begun to develop fevers. There has been a spike in cases of stomach ailments and diarrhea, when before the cyclone there had been none to speak of. These are the ominous first signs that disease is stalking the villagers, whose poor diet makes them weak and vulnerable. They have no medicines until we give them what we are carrying: a few paracetamol and some water purification tablets. The villagers smiled and waved in gratitude when we left. It is the only aid they have received so far.
On the banks of the Pyapon River, survivors of Cyclone Nargis now lash together lengths of bamboo to make primitive shelters for families the junta is too incompetent or uncaring to help. Against the odds, without any domestic or foreign aid, new homes are rising on the sodden and shredded remains of the old.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Gen. Thein Sein the man nominally overseeing Burma's relief effort toured the delta by helicopter on Thursday, reported the junta newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar. He urged cyclone victims to "show resilience."