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Disaster and hope

News of the Year | Hundreds have come to Christ following cyclone in Myanmar

Issue: "News of the Year," Dec. 27, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar-The winds of Cyclone Nargis intensified at about 8 p.m. on May 2, and most who lived on the expansive, low-lying Irrawaddy Delta realized they needed to find higher ground.

Zhing and some of his neighbors thought their only hope was to scale one of the many coconut palms on his plot of land. By clinging to the feathery branches, they might be spared.

The gales whipped the trees in every direction for nearly eight hours, repeatedly splashing and immersing those who climbed the trees in the rising Pyapon River. Around midnight Zhing's house collapsed. The night, it seemed, would never end. "If you let go," he said, "you would die."

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Thousands in the densely populated region perished in the winds and floods created by Nargis, a severe cyclone that became the worst natural disaster in the history of Burma, known now as Myanmar. Many more died in the days following the storm because water and food were destroyed or contaminated, and relief did not arrive.

The government, led by military dictator Than Shwe, prevented other countries, including the United States, and nongovernmental relief groups from delivering aid to survivors. This led to thousands of deaths that could have been prevented. Estimates of the dead range from the tens of thousands to as many as 146,000-all because of the difficulty in reaching and accounting for those lost in the Irrawaddy's vast network of waters.

Corpses were never buried because people did not want to touch them. "They became fish food," Zhing said.

Potable water turned salty, which wrecked soil in the area. "Nobody came for seven to 10 days," said a local worker. He and family members survived on coconut liquid and sealed tins of cookies they found floating in the water.

By the end of May Shwe allowed aid agencies in. The UN worked with the Myanmar government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-officially delivering 41,000 tons of food to more than 880,000 people. But that represents only a fraction of the Irrawaddy Division's estimated 6.6 million people. Government corruption and officials hoarding supplies are keeping more needy from receiving help. The government also is denying help to the Karen people because some have for decades sought independence, said local workers. All asked not to be identified by name because they fear government reprisals from one of the strictest regimes in the world.

The government established a lottery to determine whose homes are rebuilt first; so far the winners are those with ties to the government. Thousands are still in temporary shelters, which in many cases means little more than a roof. Some faith-based workers in the area have opened their homes and churches to provide housing. Most lived in simple structures in the first place-thatch huts that could be rebuilt in a day or so. But the cyclone destroyed raw materials and, without livestock or crops, few have the money to buy the bamboo and other materials.

But where private Christian aid is getting through, so also is the gospel message. Faith-based workers in the Irrawaddy said in interviews that they have seen hundreds come to Christ since the cyclone. One local church planter said 68 people are coming to his church about 25 miles west of Yangon. He attributes the sudden interest to the help they receive and trust that has developed: "When they felt the love of our Christian people . . . they were more eager to know about Jesus."

The local church planter said he makes excursions to the delta, bringing supplies to areas where local leaders can round up villagers. "Before we distribute our materials, we get to explain why we're there," he said. "Life is uncertain and it is very brief. . . . We have no control over it. . . . We believe there is only one hope, and that is in Jesus Christ."

Through the tragedy six months ago, the numbers of new Christians have swelled. One evangelical group said it has established 25 new churches during the last five years, but individual commitments to Christ were hard to come by until the last six months. A missionary who moved to the area in October 2007 said before Nargis he saw one new Christian believer, but since May 27 families regularly attend his services and 20 individuals have made professions of faith in Christ.

Zhing, who moved to the coastal region in March 2007, said before the storm he lived in a village where there was little interest in Christianity. Now, he says, 30 locals attend his church. "Seeds are planted," he said.

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