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Leave no fingerprints

Disaster | U.S. aid workers in militarized Myanmar are finding ways to lend a hand within the limits of a paranoid system

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Tim Costello, the director of World Vision Australia, was among the select few outside aid workers granted visas in the first week following Myanmar's cyclone disaster. He arrived in Yangon May 8 to witness both the horror of large-scale calamity and the grit of determined humanity: "Massive trees uprooted, literally roots lying across power lines, houses, and roads. The force of this was just extraordinary. And this was just the periphery here in Yangon, not the belly of the beast." It was also nearly a week after the storm subsided.

A deep weather depression formed in late April and intensified over the Bay of Bengal in the northeastern corner of the Indian Ocean. Fueled by warm waters and low atmospheric pressure, the storm gained momentum and peaked with winds of 135 mph as it smacked into Southeast Asia. On May 2, Cyclone Nargis raged through the Irrawaddy delta in southern Myanmar, also known as Burma. Reports from the remote region indicate that as many as 95 percent of buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.

Further north, the storm's last acts of fury decimated urban centers like the capital city of Yangon (Rangoon) before relenting near the country's eastern border with Thailand. The flattened path of death and carnage left behind ranks among the worst ever recorded in human history. The still growing count of bodies recovered from the wreckage is expected to eclipse the 100,000 mark. And millions more people now face threats of disease, hunger, and dehydration in the absence of shelter, food, or clean water.

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But even amid that chaos and suffering, stories of redemption and heroism emerged. Churches throughout the predominantly Buddhist nation have opened their doors to offer medical aid and serve as distribution centers for food and supplies. Many Burmese people, Christian or otherwise, have displayed courage in their struggle to survive and save those they love.

On his first day in Myanmar, Costello joined almost 600 indigenous World Vision staffers to distribute rice to thousands of hungry people. Among those served, one 12-year-old boy recounted through an interpreter that he and his 4-year-old brother were home alone when the storm reached their neighborhood. With water flooding the area to waist level, the boy lifted his sibling onto his head and made it to higher ground. "It's just people doing what they can to survive," Costello said. "There are an amazing number of courageous stories of Burmese people reaching out to each other in time of need and being generous."

But the longtime humanitarian and former Baptist minister had no such praise for the Myanmar government, which has hampered foreign relief efforts at every turn. It took two days for the Burmese junta to grant Costello an audience with a general, during which he pressed for greater access to disaster areas with limited success. "We negotiated a space with the military where we deliver the aid, not them. And we're getting through those military checkpoints. But where we are this far on is causing deep frustration and even guilt for our workers that they can't reach more people."

A steady stream of survivors from the country's southern coastal regions arrives in Yangon and other sanctioned foreign aid centers daily, but only the young, strong, and healthy are capable of such a trek. The elderly, sick, and injured remain without help in the hardest hit coastal areas. Meanwhile, scores of relief workers with stockpiles of supplies sit dormant in neighboring countries eager to respond but unable to secure visas.

Only recently have relief operations received permission to enter the Irrawaddy delta. A distribution center in Pyapon-a four-hour drive south of Yangon-now offers greater access to the most devastated townships in the country. But the late start and remaining government-imposed obstacles could leave hundreds of thousands without aid for weeks yet to come. And with the region's rice crop largely destroyed, that delay could cost many more lives.

Myanmar's military government can offer little defense for its behavior beyond lust for control and paranoia over outside influence or political sabotage. "The narrative is that the military created the nation, protects the nation, and will save the nation without ex-pats coming in to do it," Costello explained, his voice tensing with frustration. "It would be incredibly helpful if we could get ex-pats in because of their expertise in water and sanitation systems, but we just cannot get them in.

"Most countries understand we are not out to breech national sovereignty and only want to do for you what you can't do for yourself. The junta simply doesn't understand that humanitarian idea. They won't trust us."

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