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A secret voyage to expose a tragedy

A Times reporter, aided by boatmen who risked arrest, saw what the government didn't want seen in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

June 13, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

KONG TAN PAAK, MYANMAR — From the far side of a murky brown river, the only moving thing visible on the ravaged landscape was a tattered maroon cloth, fluttering listlessly atop a tree stripped of its branches.

Two Buddhist monks had torn it from the only material they had, one of their own coarse robes. Its message was just as plain: "Alive! Please help."

Tropical Cyclone Nargis killed 300 people in this village, wiping away almost every trace of the people, their homes and a monastery. Surviving monks went to a relief camp, but after nearly three weeks, they figured that what they had fled couldn't be much worse.

So they took some of the meager rice rations they received from the military, came back and made themselves a tent by stretching tarps over a frame of fallen trees.

In the two days they had been living in it, our riverboat was the first to stop. My interpreter went ashore first.

When he confirmed that no soldiers or government officials were there, I crawled out of my hiding place.

Over the last 16 years, I have reported on famine, massive earthquakes and a tsunami. Cyclone Nargis is the first natural disaster that required working undercover to write about the hungry, sick and homeless.

Myanmar's military regime is suspicious of outsiders, fearing they are spies or that their presence could expose the fallacy of the government's claim to be an all-powerful provider of development and stability.

The May 2-3 storm killed at least 78,000 people. And 56,000 are missing.

More than a month after the cyclone, the government continues to deny unhindered access to the disaster zone for foreign experts, such as medical and water-purification teams, threatening thousands of lives, especially those of children, pregnant women and the elderly, the United Nations and other agencies say.

In the cyclone's aftermath, the regime was so determined to keep prying eyes from a landscape littered with corpses and people begging for help that it set up checkpoints on the main roads into the Irrawaddy River delta, which took the brunt of the storm.

The names and passport details of those caught were recorded before the vehicles were turned back. Local people accompanying them were interrogated.

But it's much harder to police the boats that ply the delta's labyrinth of rivers and canals.

The younger of the two monks, U Nya Tui Ka, 53, approached our boat, one of four I hired to take me to the delta during a month of visits, and was shocked to see a foreigner poking his head from the hold.

He assumed that help had arrived. His despair gave way to a broad smile, and then to disappointment as the interpreter explained that I was a reporter.

There was an unsettling silence. Not a birdsong, a dog's bark or a crying child could be heard -- only the wind and a few buzzing flies.

Standing in the blazing sun, chewing on a mouthful of betel, the senior monk, U Pyinar Wata, patiently answered our questions. The monks could make do with the little food they had, he said. After all, Buddha had taught that without craving, there is no suffering.

But the monks were worried about a few homeless children in their care. Together, the monks and boys were the only people on their side of the river for miles. Without fresh water, the monks feared, the boys might not last long.

What they all needed most, said Pyinar Wata, 60, was a pump and some diesel fuel to run it, so they could empty a 150-square-foot reservoir of seawater and corpses and let it fill with clean rainwater.

He might as well have been asking for a rocket to Mars.

We had traveled with some boxes of antibiotics, bottled water, packages of cookies and instant noodles to hand out. But those had run out early on the trip. All I had left was a camera, a tape recorder -- and sympathy.

We were eager to leave to stay out of the military's sight. But the monks wanted us to take pictures of the reservoir, see where they slept and cooked on a mud floor.

Most cyclone survivors were the same. They talked for as long as we would stay, pouring out their souls along with the tea, coconut juice or water they offered from their meager reserves.

When it was time to move on, the kindest of them said we had lifted a great weight just by caring enough to stop and listen.

The 30-foot boats I hired normally haul sugar cane, bananas or rice. No crew was willing to chance two trips, so after each four-night journey, we returned to Yangon, also known as Rangoon, switched boats and set out again.

The boats are not built for comfort.

The holds are open to leave room for cargo, which meant my only hiding place was the cramped space beneath the top deck.

About 15 feet across and 8 feet deep, with a wooden ceiling and peeling turquoise paint, it was a dark, sweltering cell barely big enough to sit upright in.

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