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Slow recovery for Burma's cyclone victims

Aid trickles in, but locals struggle to find food before winter's harvest.

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New classroom: Children reviewed their lessons recently in a newly built school in the village of Sewa, Burma. The cyclone crushed the original school.

Anand Gopal

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The locals say things will never be the same in Mya Sein Ken, deep in the heart of the cyclone-savaged delta in southern Burma (Myanmar). Almost 300 people vanished when cyclone Nargis struck here in May. The torrent obliterated the rice crop, and locals worry they won't have enough food to survive the fall. The storm swallowed scores of houses, leaving hundreds homeless.

"I awake every day remembering what happened," says one villager from his temporary home, donated by aid agencies. "We are living on handouts, and I don't know when we will stand on our own again."

Everywhere across the delta, Burmese are still struggling to piece together their lives. While a modest but steady flow of aid has kept locals afloat, villagers warn that their troubles are far from over.

"Nargis destroyed our food reserves," says the villager. "We need to figure out a way to survive until December's harvest."

A recent joint assessment by the United Nations and southeast Asian governments found that more than 40 percent of households in the affected areas have less than one day's worth of food on reserve.

Locals also say that the storm destroyed more than a third of the infrastructure for fishing, a major source of income and food for residents here.

Seawater flooding has rendered 40 percent of the rice paddies in the area unusable, according to villagers. "It's too early to tell to what extent December's harvest will be affected," says an official with a prominent international nongovernmental organization based in Rangoon, who asked not to be identified.

But analysts with the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, say more than 900,000 people will need food assistance in the coming months and nearly 300,000 people will require relief until April of next year.

Infrastructure demolished

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Food supplies aren't the only casualty cyclone Nargis left in its wake when it tore through Burma's delta, a labyrinth of natural canals and rice paddies that functions as the country's rice bowl. The cyclone killed an estimated 135,000 and ravaged the area's landscape and infrastructure.

The banks of the delta's many rivers are still littered with the seaweed-encrusted remains of fishing boats. Bamboo from demolished houses are scattered like matchsticks along the shore, and every few miles a mangled wharf juts out into the water. Many of the smaller roads are pocked with craters, making them impassable and forcing locals to rely entirely on waterborne transport.

The few palm trees still standing along the denuded coastlines bow to the north, a reminder of the fury that came from the southern sea in May.

But the people here don't need many reminders. "I still can't sleep through the night," says Khim Myat Thu, a young schoolgirl. When the winds came, Khim scaled the nearest coconut tree while her parents raced to find a boat. She watched from the treetop as the waters carried away her mother and then her father.

In a village at the nearby Bogely Township, Saw La Tey and his family fled their house to a nearby high point, just as a wall of water came speeding toward them. Everyone managed to escape except his enfeebled grandmother.

Two hundred of the village's 308 residents went missing that night. The survivors squeezed into the only three buildings in the village that the storm had left untouched and stayed there for almost a month until building supplies arrived.

A steady trickle of aid

Aid to these areas came excruciatingly slowly at first, hampered by the government's restrictions on NGOs' relief work and apparently minimal assistance. "The government has not even visited once since the storm," an elder of the village of Mya Sein Ken says.

In the government's place, a network of more than 30 informal Burmese aid groups and dozens of international NGOs have been quietly delivering aid, often by boat, to many of the affected villages. Despite early fears that it would choke the aid flow completely, the junta has for the most part permitted Burmese organizations and local citizen groups to deliver these relief supplies.

Larger foreign organizations, however, are still victims of government suspicion and red tape, say aid agency representatives. Authorities restrict most foreigners, including journalists, from visiting the delta area.

A select few foreign NGO workers may visit the region after applying for a permit, but are still subject to the whims of the government.

Authorities also regulate the amount and type of aid that can be delivered. "Any monetary donations have to go through the government. Those who handle cash often have to pay under the table," says Burmese aid worker Hein Thein. "Donations made 'in kind' are the most effective form of aid because the government won't steal it." This includes educational supplies, basic foodstuffs, and construction materials.

This steady trickle of aid is allowing locals to resurrect their shattered villages. Across the delta, motley structures of tarpaulin and corrugated iron provided by relief organizations have replaced the bamboo and teak houses that the winds carried away.

In the village of Sewa, Nargis pulled the school clean off the foundation and tossed it aside, leaving a pile of bamboo sticks and mutilated chairs in its place. But today students recite lessons in a brand-new building that sits next door.

Relief supplies have helped villagers rebuild every house in the village, and all residents now have a roof over their heads.

But aid agencies say that while such aid has made the difference in averting the worst-case scenarios predicted in Nargis's wake, without a massive relief increase the situation will remain dire.

"Most of the housing is temporary and we still haven't shifted gears to provide any long-term solutions, such as permanent housing," says an official from a leading international NGO.

Survivors help one another

To fill the gap, local communities have banded together to ensure their survival. In Mya Sein Ken, villagers invited farmers from nearby villages that lost all of their land to plant their seed in paddies that survived the storm.

An informal loan network has developed, where some villages pool their resources to lend cash and goods to other areas in need.

In Sewa, hundreds of villagers scavenged for used building materials and rebuilt the destroyed stupa in the center of town, without a drop of outside help.

"We have no choice but to rely on each other," says the village elder in Mya Sein Ken. "We have to do what we can to repair our lives."

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