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Irrawaddy’s anguish


A boy with no name struggles to cope with catastrophic events that have turned his world upside down.


The little boy sat alone in a corner of the monastery, his eyes focused on the ground. He said nothing, unaware of the hubbub around him, locked into a world of his own.

Sandar Aungr, 28, a Myanmar Red Cross Society volunteer, was scanning a crowd of cyclone survivors who had arrived in the town of Maubin. Some had been directed to the monastery and as they settled down, she looked for people whose needs were most urgent.

“What’s your name?” she said as she knelt beside the boy. “Where are you from? Is anybody with you?”

He looked up. “Don’t remember,” he mumbled. “Don’t know.”

She held him in her arms and he started to cry. Sandar Aungr cried with him. He did not need to tell her his story. She had read it in his eyes.

“I’ll stay with you,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy delta on 2 May, leaving more than 100,000 people dead or missing, affecting an estimated 2.4 million people, and resulting in overwhelming anguish.

Within two months, the Myanmar Red Cross Society, with support from the International Federation, the ICRC and partner National Societies, reached 500,000 people with 2,500 tonnes of relief items. They distributed 61,000 jerrycans, 1.5 million water purification tablets, 59 tonnes of rice, 62,000 mosquito nets, 27,000 hygiene kits, 93,000 tarpaulins, 59,000 blankets, 15,000 shelter kits and 24,000 kitchen sets. Programmes were also set up to improve hygiene, water and sanitation, and to trace missing family members. But long after the bodies have gone from the landscape, homes have been rebuilt, livelihoods restored and the physical wounds healed, emotional ones will remain. The harm may be less visible but it is no less real for that, and the pain will never ease for many. The best they will do is learn to cope with it.

For the boy with no name, coping may be a long journey. What happened to him, what he saw, he does not wish to remember. Perhaps his parents survived, perhaps brothers and sisters did, but his eyes suggest that they were swept away by the sea surge that came with the cyclone. Efforts will be made to find out. In the meantime Sandar Aungr works to bring him out of his nightmare.

She calls him Thar-nge, which roughly translated means My Little One. She hugs him a lot, shows him love and care, and asks other children to come over. Sometimes they do and he joins them in play. She is there in the evening to put him to bed.

He talks to her now, but only to her and when her work takes her elsewhere he goes back to his corner.

The stories of the boy and of countless others now emerging in the delta reflect the enormous need for emotional support and show why the International Federation is systematically integrating this kind of assistance into its US$ 50.8 million, three-year operation in Myanmar. Having someone to turn to, someone who will listen, share the grief and offer hope is of immense importance to disaster survivors. Early and adequate psychosocial support — in relief delivery as well as in structured programmes — can help affected people cope better and prevent distress from developing into more serious conditions.

It isn’t just the young who are especially vulnerable. Sandar Aungr has another anonymous survivor, a woman, perhaps in her 70s, who is paralysed down one side and has lost her power of speech.

“She is alone and she cannot tell me her name, where she is from or whether she still has family,” the volunteer said. “Someone found her somewhere and put her in one of the vehicles that brought survivors to my town. She must have spent many days in the wind and rain. She is very distressed.”

Although the woman cannot speak, Aungr is beginning to gain some information. She asks her questions to which she can nod or shake her head. Meanwhile the Myanmar Red Cross has spread her picture round other survivor camps asking if anyone can recognize her.

Nightmares are surfacing in other places. Sansan Maw, a Red Cross programme officer assessing needs and operations across the delta, found a 65-year-old woman clearly deeply disturbed in a Labutta shelter.

Like the little boy, she had withdrawn into herself. When she finally spoke she explained that her husband, her daughter, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law and her seven grandchildren had all been swept away by the storm surge.

Her 22-year-old son had saved her from the torrent by hauling her on to a passing tree. They had drifted all night in the flood and in the morning came to rest on a riverbank. They walked for miles to get home, fearing all the way what they would find.

Another son had survived but the rest had gone, their bodies ending up against the gates of a sluice. When the gates were opened, the bodies floated back and she watched them pass her by in the village.

Such is the anguish in the delta.

A boy displaced by Cyclone Nargis stand in his tent in Kyondah village in the Irrawaddy delta.











Sandar Aungr.

John Sparrow
John Sparrow is a communications consultant based in Malaysia.



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