How one family in Burma (Myanmar) reconnected after the cyclone

Cut phone lines and travel bans have blocked survivors’ efforts to locate loved ones.

Wearing a black shirt of mourning, Myo Khin spends hours every day on Burmese blogs, hoping to find images of his missing relatives in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Mr. Khin was able to contact his mother, who survived cyclone Nargis two weeks ago in Rangoon, and even reunite with her in Myawaddy, a town bordering Thailand.

But for many Burmese families desperate to find loved ones, the delta is a black hole of information, blocked off by security officials who have stepped up control of the devastated area, and restricted foreigners to Rangoon, the main city in Burma (Myanmar).

Two weeks after the cyclone, Burma still lacks a way for families to locate missing persons. After the 2004 tsunami, Thailand helped foreign tourists and Thai locals immediately find people via websites such as "csiphuket" and notices posted at hospitals, town halls, and temples.

Frustrated by patchy phone connections and Burma's propaganda-heavy state media, Mr. Khin says he has had to rely on Burmese exile media, prayer, and "magical telepathy" with his sister, who he feared was among "several dozen" missing aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws.

"The lines are often cut everywhere in Burma," says Khin at his restaurant in Mae Sot near the Burmese border town of Myawaddy. For six days, he tried to reach his sister in Lapputa and at the family's home in Rangoon. When she finally walked into the home in Rangoon, he was calling. For 30 minutes, she gave a grim report: Their homes and villages were obliterated, as if wiped off the map by a wall of water.

"Now I know everything," he says. "Government TV was wrong. My sister said 95 percent of Lapputa is gone."

Before they could comfort each other, the phone line went dead, and he hasn't been able to reach her again.

Disconnected in Burma

Phoning inside Burma is difficult at the best of times. Lines are often cut due to power outages.

The government does not allow foreign agencies to import communications equipment from abroad; they can only purchase a maximum of 10 phones per agency at a price of $1,500 each, according to a UN report. Satellite phones, which are crucial for agencies to coordinate disaster relief, are banned in Burma.

On Friday, the Burmese government raised casualty estimates to 78,000 dead and 56,000 missing. A UN situation report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community has reached only an estimated 500,000 of the estimated 2.5 million survivors.

This has fueled fears that parents may never find lost children. "It's a real heartbreak to parents" seeking closure, says James East, a World Vision spokesman in Bangkok.

One family's journey

In the two weeks since the cyclone, Khin has since been reunited with his mother in Burma.

Khin's mother, Daw Htay, moved part of the family to Rangoon to give her son a better education. Mr. Khin went to the Thai-Burmese border to develop a trading business, leaving his mother in their Rangoon home with his sister, where they prayed for survival during the cyclone.

"I was very afraid," recalls Htay, with heavy circles around her eyes from several sleepless nights. "At other homes in our neighborhood, all the zinc roofs and satellite TV dishes were blown away. But everybody came to see our house, because the satellite dish was not gone. Our home was lucky."

Worried about food shortages and that nobody would take care of her, she paid double the usual price to take a mini-bus with seven strangers for the 12-hour trip to Myawaddy and then across the border to Mae Sot.

Her journey followed that of more than a million Burmese who have fled to Thailand in recent years. She was fortunate not to have to walk.

Thousands of ethnic Mons, Karens, and Burmans often trek days through the jungle and wade across the Moei River to reach clinics in Thailand. Their risks include cobras, tigers, and mine fields. Human rights groups claim that Burmese soldiers rape the travelers or force them into slave labor as porters.

Htay says she felt relief when she finally met up with her son. But then the two had a difficult decision to make: Do they continue to pray and hunt for missing relatives, or accept that they are in fact dead?

A week after the cyclone, they decided to hold Buddhist funeral rites to allow the souls of their relatives to journey from their dead bodies to new incarnations in the next life. They sought out Buddhist monks in Myawaddy to chant prayers and perform funerary rituals.

"We had to wait a couple of days," Khin says, "because the monks in Burma are busy."

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