When Cyclone Nargis devastated southern Burma a year ago, killing 140,000 people, there was great suspicion about how the military government would handle the disaster. The mistrust of the Burmese regime towards “outside influences”, plus years of sanctions and international condemnation, had led to a widely held perception that an independent, large-scale humanitarian response would be impossible, and a fear that the generals would siphon off aid for their own use.
But the past year has shown that, despite the challenges of working in Burma, the aid effort by organisations such as Save the Children was independent and effective. Hundreds of thousands of Nargis survivors received life-saving assistance across the Irrawaddy Delta. Villages are rebuilding jetties so they can fish again, preparing the land to plant paddy seed and redigging the ponds so they can collect rainwater to drink.
Many are still traumatised by memories of the horrors they witnessed. Aye Htwe’s brother and parents were killed during the storm. He now lives in an orphanage where, after Nargis, the number of children virtually doubled overnight. When he first arrived, staff say, he cried constantly. “It showed in his eyes that he was not normal,” one carer said. “He was very sad.”
Aye Htwe, who is thought to be about seven, remembers the cyclone clearly. “I was swimming with my mum and I held my mum’s leg [but] when I saw that she was dead I didn’t hold her any longer and I let her go in the water. I saw one of my brothers dead – he was so white.”
Save the Children works with orphanages, but aims, where possible, to place orphaned children with family members or local communities. To date, 73 per cent of those registered by the aid agency following Nargis are now living with family members and a further 16 per cent are living with neighbours or Buddhist monks.
Despite everything, they have been through, people across the delta remain extremely positive about the future. U Du Done’s wife and five of his children died during the cyclone, and his only surviving daughter suffered a miscarriage. His fishing net was also destroyed, and while he now borrows someone else’s he must give the owner two-thirds of the fish he catches as payment. “I feel sad when I think about the past, but the Burmese people are strong,” he says. “Most of us [in the Irrawaddy Delta] are dependent on aid, but we hope that one day we will be able to get back to a position where we once were.”
Save the Children is continuing to bring vital aid to tens of thousands of people across the delta, as well as supporting long-term programmes. The agency is also helping communities prepare for future natural disasters by encouraging children to draw maps of their villages and identify the safe places to shelter, and by giving villagers tuition and materials to rebuild damaged schools to withstand storms.
Htun Aung Kyaw’s school in Pein Nae Chaung village was damaged by the storm. “We really need a good, strong school like this one,” the nine-year-old said. “If there is another Nargis, the school will not fall down and people can come and shelter here.”
To donate to Save the Children’s Emergency Fund, please visit savethechildren.org.uk/donate/cef