As relief workers fly to Rangoon (Yangon) with a ray of hope after three weeks of frustrated efforts to get into Burma (Myanmar), aid efforts are gathering momentum in the cyclone-damaged Irrawaddy Delta. Yet many workers are voicing fresh complaints about bureaucratic restrictions and government efforts to move people out of shelters and back to their devastated villages.
"The government is a bit more relaxed now that the [constitutional] referendum is done," says Marvin Parvez, who has been working in Rangoon with a number of agencies. "They were so fixed on the referendum, especially [junta leader Gen.] Than Shwe, it was blocking everything else. Now aid is getting there.
"The level is still not where it should be," he continues. "But given the unique context of Burma, it's good. Things are moving, maybe not at the speed aid agencies are used too, but it's moving now."
At the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, an immigration officer wears a jacket labeled "United Nations," while others peruse a list on a computer screen of reporters banned from Burma. Though many exasperated missionaries and members of smaller nongovernmental organizations are told to come back in two weeks, Burmese visa officers have largely upheld the promises of General Shwe and allowed larger numbers of aid workers, especially United Nations staffers, to obtain entry permits.
Given the scope of the cyclone – according to the Burmese government, it killed 78,000 and left another 56,000 missing – aid groups say an influx of fresh relief workers is badly needed to bolster, or replace, overworked staff. An estimated 2.4 million people have been left homeless and without adequate food.
"We're trying to replace staff who've been in the delta the last three weeks," says James East, Bangkok-based spokesman for World Vision, which has 50 staff and 50 volunteers in the devastated area. "It's exhausting working in that environment. Seeing children killed by disasters is probably the highest stress point. It builds up over time. We need to care for our staff, as well as the survivors."
In a written account from Doctors Without Borders, a young doctor described the travails of helping victims in the delta area of Ngapudaw. She and 15 others spent the first week on a rain-soaked boat, showering in salty water, with only one cellphone to call family and friends for support. "Our team spirit was very good," the doctor wrote. "But at night it was very difficult to fall asleep. I kept thinking about the horrible stories I had heard and at times I felt very unsafe, because of the bad weather and the fear of another big storm."
She said her team would wake at 5 a.m., put on damp clothing, and have some instant noodles and coffee. Taking smaller boats, they would pass dead bodies and animals in the water.
Excited villagers, seeing outside assistance for the first time, helped the team find houses to set up distribution systems. Doctors treated many patients with physical problems and those struggling with grief from losing parents and children. One patient's back was covered with lashes from winds that whipped him while he clung to a tree, tied by his longyi, for five hours while his family drowned below. "It is very sad," the account stated. "They are still afraid and many people come to talk to us just so that they feel a bit reassured that somebody has come to support them. It makes them feel a little bit safer."
While some villagers cooked meals for doctors, others had nothing to offer.
One elderly lady had lost everybody but her husband, and had consumed only a small amount of rice in five days. In a monastery, doctors met the only 14 people – a man, woman, and some children -- from a village that disappeared in flood waters. Some had no clothing at all.
After long days of consultations, the doctors returned to their big boat to share experiences. "During the first week in the delta, we still felt quite heroic, like we were really helping people in difficult circumstances. But during the second week, we all started to become much more depressed," the account continued. "Every day, we heard more stories, and saw more destroyed houses and more dead people. We were getting tired and the sheer scale of the destruction started to feel overwhelming."
Relief teams in remote areas are likely to encounter further challenges, as the government steps up efforts to move victims back to their original villages. The United Nations Children's Fund said Friday that Burma's government is removing victims from eight camps in Bogalay town, and others in Labutta town, and returning them to their ruined villages with meager rations or no supplies at all for people who lost their identity cards, the Associated Press reported. "The government is moving people unannounced," Teh Tai Ring, a UNICEF official told the AP.
Terje Skavdal, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters in Bangkok, "Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable."
According to previous reports, people have been moved ahead of visits by foreign dignitaries, to separate them from monks at monasteries, or to clear the way for voting places during a recent constitutional referendum.
Human rights and aid groups also complained Friday about bureaucratic procedures that hinder their access to victims. One foreign aid worker said that, in practice, it took at least four days to obtain permission from the Ministry of Social Welfare to travel to the delta, while others said it took 48 hours' advance notice. The International Red Cross was waiting for permission to send 30 of its foreign staffers into the delta.
Still says Mr. Parvez, the aid worker, "The ASEAN initiative [a donor conference] and the UN secretary-general coming down [to Burma] was a very good combination. It's a model that can be looked at for other solutions."