YAWAR THAR YAR, MYANMAR — The search for food begins just after dawn.
Each day, men, women and children fan out into paddies flooded by seawater, littered with corpses. Like prospectors working claims, they scoop up the muck in their bare hands and finger through it for grains of unmilled rice swept away by the cyclone.
When their luck is good, they discover red chile peppers or small onions in mud reeking of the dead. Then, they can have condiments with their next meal of rotten rice and coconut meat.
For more than three weeks now, the 149 survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis in this village have been living like stranded scavengers among the ruins of their own homes and the decomposing remains of their relatives. Ninety-one of them died in the storm.
Myanmar's military government, which has a relief hub just 10 miles north in the town of Bogalay, has not delivered aid to scores of remote villages like this across some of the most devastated areas of the Irrawaddy River delta. For now, the villagers' only hope is goods that arrive from time to time in an underground supply chain operated by Buddhist monks in Bogalay, who are defying the ban on private relief operations in the delta.
Monks say the government has loaded some of the villagers into trucks and shipped them off to work on forced labor projects.
Those who remain, once proudly self-sufficient rice farmers, have become desperate hunter-gatherers, scrounging in the dirt and debris.
"Now the only job for everyone in the village is searching for something to eat," said Ko Sein Lwin, 45, who before the cyclone hit was able to keep three daughters in a university, at $500 each per year.
"We're starting out life again, not from the first step, but from zero," he added grimly. "It's like going back to the Stone Age."
The death toll has continued to rise, to an official count of about 78,000, as this Southeast Asian nation struggles with the effects of the May 2-3 storm. An additional 56,000 people are missing.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Senior Gen. Than Shwe had assured him Friday that relief workers from any country would be welcome. But the regime has made no announcement itself.
It has said it needs $11 billion for reconstruction. But about 50 donor nations, including the United States, have made firm commitments for only $100 million, in part because of widespread distrust of the generals.
As the government tried to coax more aid from donors Sunday at a conference in Yangon, the country's principal city, Buddhist monks in Bogalay were secretly organizing six boats to carry out their next unauthorized relief mission.
After evicting thousands of people from Bogalay's relief camps, the government is trying to cut off the monks' aid to delta villages, said a local abbot, who is a leader of the underground effort.
He spoke on condition he not be named, fearing military reprisals against him and the relief operation, which thousands of survivors in remote villagers are depending on for support.
When they can, the monks gather donations secretly because authorities insist that all aid must be channeled through the military. On May 19, when private donors tried to deliver a few truckloads of supplies to the abbot's monastery, security forces attempted to turn them back.
"All the soldiers and police locked arms and blocked the street in front of our monastery," he said, as a military helicopter hovered before landing across the river. "The driver panicked, so I pulled him out and drove myself, shouting through a loudspeaker, 'Get out of the way or I'll hit you with the truck!' "
The abbot showed video, which he said a colleague shot with a camera hidden under his maroon robes, to support claims that the military is evicting cyclone survivors from private relief camps.
In one video, a soldier slaps an elderly woman in the face with a paper listing the names of the expelled. She was pleading for permission to stay in a Hindu temple over the weekend, the monk said. It was the last of several private relief camps operating before authorities closed it, he said.
"Most of these refugees are not educated," said the abbot, trying to explain the soldiers' disdain for the villagers. "They don't even know how to sign their names. They just use fingerprints. So the military thinks they're not human."
The evictions have resulted in a number of deaths, the abbot said. Dozens of survivors died May 18 when three riverboats capsized in a storm as they were heading back to villages flattened by the cyclone, he said.
Military officers told those returning to their destroyed villages to sign forms that said they were doing so willingly, the abbot said.
Soldiers herded thousands more onto trucks to be taken north to Mo Oo Pin, where they are being forced to make jute and do roadwork for less than $1 a day, the abbot said.
He said some of the laborers had made their way back into Bogalay under cover of darkness to ask the monks for food.