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Amid aid delays, locals in Burma (Myanmar) rebuild

Cyclone victims are rebuilding homes and collecting rainwater as foreign aid workers slowly spread out.

By a correspondent / June 2, 2008

Aid: At a monastery 16 miles from Rangoon, a monk prepares to announce that a food donation will soon begin.



Rangoon, Burma

Flying home, Burmese sailors are awestruck when they see the Irrawaddy Delta below them. Four weeks after cyclone Nargis hit, much of the delta is still underwater, a murky inland sea of swollen rivers and flooded fields, dotted with soggy clumps of thatch and bamboo that used to be villages teeming with children and water buffaloes.

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But then hope emerges: Workers are carving out a second strip at the sparkling new Mingaladon airport, where immigration officers stamp in planeloads of foreign aid workers and Burmese are returning home with handy tools such as electric chain saws.

A small number of foreign relief experts have been allowed into the delta in the past few days. Steve Goudswaard, an expert in responding quickly to disasters and assessing immediate needs, was the first foreigner from World Vision to venture into the delta, which has been off limits to most foreign aid workers until recently. He says it took him almost a week after United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon's historic visit with Burma's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, to finally get government permission to go beyond Rangoon, as local officials in the delta interpret the policy in their own ways.

"The government made a decision in principle, and then it had to work out the details later," he says, after returning to a hotel in central Rangoon from a two-day trip into the delta. "Nobody really knew how the agreement would be applied. It wasn't a simple procedure. We've been trying to work out the system at the same time as the government."

"We were told it would take 48 hours advance notice for clearance. Now we're finding out it's taking 72," he adds.

About 45 UN visa requests have been approved since General Shwe promised last week to allow in "all" legitimate foreign aid workers.

"We haven't been able to get the whole mechanism going. Progress has been slow," Hakan Tongul, deputy director in Burma of the UN's World Food Program, told Reuters.

Burmese leaders rejected criticism of its handling of aid efforts Sunday, after US Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused the generals ruling the country of "criminal neglect."