Villagers helped her down. Then, she waited a week for outside help, eating wet rice and sleeping among corpses of 400 neighbours, many of whom died while sheltering in a church from a storm they never expected. Karen Baptist Church members took her to Rangoon and sheltered her in office space for two weeks along with 486 other survivors. This week, soldiers forced most of them – but not her and another pregnant woman – into five buses, returning them to the obliterated village, each with a bottle of water and five dollars worth of local currency to survive on.
A month after Cyclone Nargis, the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of survivors has become the most divisive issue in a country already wracked by poverty and disease. While some say the government is right to clear out refugee camps in overwhelmed towns, returning survivors to rebuild homes and schools for a million children who missed the first day of classes this week, others say it’s too early to send them back to fields still reeking of death and tainted water. “They are being forced to go back to villages which are not ready yet,” says a veteran Burmese aid worker, who just returned from Paw Law Eh’s village in the far southwest Irrawaddy delta. “The village is full of big hard green flies now, and many dead bodies. It’s very far from town, so the government cannot reach it yet. It might take them one or two months before they can help.”
Paw Law Eh says she doesn’t know what is the right solution for over a million displaced people. “We don’t know how to live. We don’t know how to plan our future,” she says in a shelter in suburban Rangoon, where she is waiting to give birth in a hospital. “I can’t swim, so I am lucky I could survive. God saved me. After my baby is born, I want to go back to my village.”
Asked to describe her village, the slender 24-year-old clutches a wooden chair with hands scorched by 225 km/h winds. The horror remains etched in her eyes and knotted forehead. Her village, Thabye Chaing, was named after a Buddhist leaf traditionally given to victorious soldiers. It was known for howling dogs, a wild boar that once pierced a hunter’s stomach, and bountiful lobsters selling for about $2 a kilo. South of Labutta, it wasn’t far from a gorgeous beach on the Indian Ocean, where mangrove forests stopped the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 elsewhere. Though they had TVs, “we didn’t think news was important. So we didn’t know a storm was coming. We were surprised when the water came up very fast. It was like an ocean everywhere.”
Only 206 out of about 600 villagers survived, mostly males strong enough to swim and grasp trees. They found the body of Rev. Saw Bay pressed against a tree, while Thwe Htoo died in her home. With even the concrete foundation of the Baptist church demolished, they slept in a Catholic church the first night, before wandering through ghostly villages flattened to the ground. As the government rejected foreign helicopters and boats waiting off shore, a 15-year-old boy, tired and thirsty with no water or medicine, finally succumbed. Then, a 40-year-old man died of gangrene. Starving, survivors boiled and ate the remains of waterlogged pigs, ducks and chickens. They drank coconut juice and any drop of rainwater they could catch. “We prayed somebody would come and help us,” says Paw Law Eh. “We knew that outsiders couldn’t come to help us without permission.”
Patricia, 21, the daughter of the beloved village headman, Rolly, would save them. Away writing philosophy exam papers at college in Pathein when the storm hit, she journeyed six hours by bus to Rangoon to seek help. Her brother-in-law, a pastor, led volunteers who drove to the delta. They hired a boat and paddled south until they were mobbed by starving villagers. “They all wanted to jump on the boat,” says a Burmese volunteer. “We told them: `Everybody wait. Please give priority to old people, children and women. Don’t worry, we will come back.’ In coming days, parishioners with their own cars evacuated 486 people from three villages to a church office in Rangoon, home to 278 Karen Baptist churches. Patricia lost her parents, a sister and brother; 29 relatives in all. Two brothers, 12 and 15, survived.
Late on a Friday night, a military officer came to the shelter, saying: “We’ve arranged for buses. We’re taking you back in the morning.” People cried as they boarded the buses, she says. “We gave them a lunch box, but they couldn’t eat,” she said. “They didn’t want to go back.”