Grisly Job for Burma's Volunteers

A monk describes the grisly task faced by his team of volunteers in dealing with the bodies of those who died in Cyclone Nargis.
2008-07-06
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Volunteers cremate corpses of those killed during Cyclone Nargis.
Volunteers cremate corpses of those killed during Cyclone Nargis.
AFP

BANGKOK—Two months after Tropical Cyclone Nargis devastated large swathes of Burma, thousands of human and animal corpses remain rotting in towns and villages in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta region, a volunteer group said.

Working alone and with little fanfare for fear of detention or harassment by military junta officials, one 30-strong group of monks and local residents has been picking up the remains of people killed in the storm, and giving them funerals.

“This is a massive job,” the group’s founder, a monk who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the government, said. “There are so many bodies.”

Working with none of the protective gear that is customary in such circumstances, the volunteers are tipped off by locals about large numbers of corpses that remain undealt with.

Gruesome task

They spray the bodies, which two months after the May 2-3 storm are in an advanced state of decomposition, with disinfectant bought at a local market before attempting to move them.

The cyclone killed at least 78,000 people while another 56,000 are listed as missing.

“They are almost entirely decomposed down to the bones now,” the monk said. “You can’t tell which are men and which are women. They are beyond recognition.”

“It is quite gruesome. The bodies have become breeding places for flies. Those flies go to nearby villages and towns and create a health hazard,” he added.

He said the corpses were crawling with maggots, bloated, or burst open with their intestines spilling out from the abdominal cavity.

The monk and his helpers say prayers over them before cremating them using tires soaked in gasoline, he said. Firewood is too wet during the rainy season.

So far, the group had disposed of bodies along the banks of Kun Gyan Gon and Toe rivers in Rangoon division. They had also cleared large numbers near villages such as Taw Kha Yan Gyi, Taw Ku Gyi, he said.

The group has been working in and around Kun Gyan Gon township, Dadaye township, and areas along the Irrawaddy River. They reported that bodies remain scattered about, carried by wind and waves.

“It is very hard to handle the bodies. Once you touch or move them, the limbs fall off. In some areas, it is very difficult to get access to the bodies, as the terrain is full of trees or bushes with thorns,” the monk said.

Most of the volunteers, who include monks and laymen, are themselves storm survivors from the areas devastated by Nargis’ direct hit. Others are volunteers from the big cities.

The group has received no aid or assistance either from international disaster relief groups, or the government, he added.

“We have not received anything. We just bought gloves with our own money. We cannot afford to wear all the protective gear,” he said.

But the monk added that the volunteers were also unwilling to make themselves known to outsiders for fear of persecution by the authorities.

“We have been hearing about volunteers doing relief work who have been detained from time to time in different places,” he said. “We are afraid for our safety.”

Civic efforts

Prominent sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe was detained last month after he and a large group of entertainers including top comedian Zargana began training young people in the Irrawaddy delta to provide emotional support to cyclone victims.

Earlier, Zargana was detained after he openly criticized the military regime’s slow response in aiding cyclone survivors.

The monk said villagers in the worst-hit regions were unable to rebuild their lives, for lack of rice seeds in time for the late harvest, or animals to help work the land.

“Everywhere, all over the disaster area, people are still unable to plough and plant paddies,” the monk said.

He said that in Taw Kayan Gyi village, near Kun Gyan Gone township, government officials brought six power tiller machines, but that all were removed again after official media reporters were given a photo opportunity.

Original reporting in Burmese by Ko Ko Aung. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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