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Yangon, Myanmar: "People tell stories of spending the night of the cyclone hanging onto trees all night long"
May 7, 2008
© AP Images
Souheil Reaiche, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Yangon, Myanmar, describes the situation in the country following the devastating Cyclone Nargis.
What assistance have you been able to set up already?
On Monday we distributed emergency items including plastic sheeting for shelter to several thousand people. Yesterday and today, we’ve managed to distribute a weeks worth of food to 2,000 people in the Twantey area, two hours away from Yangon. We’ve distributed diesel to schools and monasteries that have wells to access water, but no more fuel for the pumps. We also distributed food to 350 people who have sought refuge in a monastery. The needs are so important we try to combine our assessments and actions to save time. When teams went to assess the situation in Twantey, they took relief kits with them and one ton of food. This is lifesaving action.
Tomorrow we’re sending a team composed of a doctor, two logicians and a translator, to the south, to the area of Bagaley, seven hours drive away. This coastal area was very hard hit. According to their assessment of the situation, trucks loaded with basic emergency relief items and food will be ready to follow them.
What are your teams seeing on the ground?
People are extremely traumatized. One man, a sailor, told us his village had been completely destroyed. He said he had no news of the 4,000 inhabitants of a neighboring village, which is to this day still under water. People tell stories of spending the night of the cyclone hanging on to trees all night long, while watching their villages being destroyed.
© AP Images
People say Burma has never seen such a catastrophe; they have lost everything and have very little hope of receiving assistance. In the Twantey and Dalla areas, 80 percent of the villages are destroyed. Some villages are still under water and not reachable. All bamboo constructions have been blown away. These constructions represent the majority of houses in these villages. A third of the town of Twantey has also been destroyed.
It has proven impossible to reach the zones that are still flooded. They can only be reached by boat, and all local boats have been destroyed. We’re looking to buy boats in Yangon to bring them there.
In Yangon itself, our teams assessed the situation in different areas, including the Okalapa area, which is home to 4,000 people, in five square kilometers. They have no access to clean water at all, because all the wells are flooded or soiled, or there is no fuel to pump the wells. So they have to drink river water. To address this we’re setting up a clean water distribution program.
What are the main priorities?
Food, shelter and access to clean water are critical. The population affected by this cyclone was already vulnerable. They now live in extremely precarious conditions, without food or clean water, often sleeping outside. In addition, malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in this area. We’re planning a mosquito net distribution in the coming days.
What are the difficulties you face in the delivery of aid?
We haven’t encountered any problems or restrictions in doing our assessments or initial distributions. We are continuing to bring emergency relief assistance to the people affected and will extend our assessments. However it is clear today that with the limited means we have, both in terms of human resources and material, we are not currently able to adequately respond to the needs of the population. Following the government’s appeal for international assistance, it is essential that emergency visas are issued and that relief shipments are allowed to arrive. Additional MSF teams have been on standby for 48 hours, waiting for visas, to come to help us in the Delta.