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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

June 25th 2008: Report from the field - Group1 MSNA (Bogalay trip)

No more sad stories! I told myself this, as I sat down to start my field trip report on Monday. Every time we go on field trips, we hear personal stories that are heart breaking. I thought, this time, I will not write about them because sharing sad stories are not the same as sharing happy stories. Besides, people must have heard these stories a thousand times already.

What has happened to me since I came back was I could not shake some of these people out of my head; their dark sunburn faces, their words, and their sad stories followed me everywhere. I don't want to forget about them, but I needed something to get me out of this sorrow. I have to get on with my daily life in Yangon, I have to focus and collect more information so I can again organize another trip to Bogalay in the coming days. I just needed something to make me to move on.

Last night, I was still thinking about them when I suddenly realized that writing about these people is exactly what I needed to do if I need to move on. The interesting thing is this answer came from the survivors I had talked to. I understand now that they were, too, trying to move on when they told me about their beloved families who lost their lives during the cyclone, their pain and suffering, and the present challenges they face alone without their families.

As for me, writing about these survivors will mean understanding their pain, acknowledging their loss, and showing them we care. I hope I had helped them in their healing process even if in small ways.

On the evening of May 2, when the water level was coming up so fast and so high in the village, Mr. H.A and his wife decided that the wife and their 3 daughters will seek the shelter in the long-tail boat along with other villagers. H.A. watched them leave, and stayed back. He later climbed up to the highest part in their compound where they build the rice storage container and held on tight to the wooden beam. The wind and the 15 feet waves pouring in later on that night, sweeping everything that he was holding onto. He then spent another seemingly eternity time floating in the dark, holding on a tree and shivering from cold. He remembered thinking at least his family will be safe. Unfortunately, he was wrong. He later had to accept that the boat might have broken out and let loose all of its passengers, mainly small children and women, into the water, in the pitch dark. He did not recover any of his family members.

H.A. is now residing back in his village which is about 2 hour boat ride away from Bogalay. He lives with two nephews. His family, his sister, his brother and their extended families are all gone. These three men are trying to start over. They want to work. They have worked hard all their lives anyway. H.A. owns about 20 acres of rice plantation. He is not a poor person at all. But after the cyclone Nargis, everybody in delta is starting from bottom line again. H.A. said sometimes he finds little motivation to work; previously, he has worked hard with some greed to earn a lot of money; to let his daughters to attend school; and to buy his wife some new accessories here and there. Now, he has to find a reason to work other than paying back for the loan that he made to borrow a pair of buffaloes. If he hurries, he will make it in time to produce enough seeds for next season and pay back for the buffaloes.

Mr. N.T. lived about 3 hour boat ride from Bogalay. On that fateful night, when the rising water level reached above their knees, it was already difficult enough to walk or to stand still as the current was very strong. When the water level reached their waist, the whole family of seven scattered into the night. He could hold onto the youngest son, 6 years old, throughout the night. From time to time, in the wind, he called out to his son to make sure that the kid knows he was there. The last word he heard from the boy were that he was afraid. Sometime in the night, N.T. realized that his son has died. But he did not have the heart to let him go, so, he hold onto him and held on an empty plastic fuel container and float in the water. In the daylight the next morning, he buried his son on an island that he ended up on. He was there for 2 days, eating coconut flesh and drinking coconut juice.

He lived in this delta area all of his life, but nothing he saw on the sight was recognizable. He could only guess he must be very close to the sea. Upon his return back to town on a rescue boat, he reunited with his 14 year old daughter and later on with another son. The rest of the family was never discovered.

N.T. now resides in Bogalay with his children. He does not see any reason to go back to the village since his family and all he owned is gone. He has spent his life working in rice plantation. But in town, he may have to change his profession. He is tempting his hobby at building to turn it into a job. He will work at it. During the trip, we stopped by at his village, donated the goods. As we departed the village, our volunteer group, who have listened to his personal story, were silent. We somehow felt what it must have been like. N.T. just stared into the distant and did not say a word.

During this trip, we went to the villages that are around 3-4 hour boat ride away from Bogalay. We have visited 6 villages and reached 408 families. We have provided rice, salt, fish paste, canned fish, children's snacks, dry tea leaf and Burmese medicines to all families; and torch lights with batteries, towels, clothing, mosquito nets, blankets, school materials, rain cover sheets and house building tools to the families that needed them.

The villages we visited include:
1. Bote Chaung Village – 104 families
2. Ma Aye Kyi Village – 71 families
3. Kone Tan Pauk Village – 47 families
4. Byu Ya-gone Village – 32 families
5. Tha-pyay Nyo Tan Village – 53 families
6. La Waing Kyun Village – 101 families

We had intended to distribute the school materials and planned to set aside time for the children on this trip. We were a little bit surprised to see that there were not so many kids in the villages that we visited (compare to other parts of the country). We found out that some children passed away, some relocated, some sent to town for studying and etc. The local volunteer group has collected the numbers that approximate 400 students in two primary schools in Bogalay were in need of text books, school materials and uniforms. Some of those students came from the villages as the schools in the villages were not ready. We gave all the school materials to the volunteers as we have no time to do this ourselves in Bogalay. We will report back to you with the photos of these school children in Bogalay. To the village kids, we continued distributing stuff toys, jigsaw puzzles, and story books.

Due to long distant, tides, and upstream travel on both ways, we could spend only 30-45 minutes in each village. The rest of the total 13 hour boat ride was spent on the boat. The long distant also meant that we have reached to the small villages that needed some assistant. We were so glad to see one mobile medical team on the boat traveling to different villages.

Bogalay and delta region were the main producers of high quality rice for the whole country before. We are sure this fertile land will get back to its original productive state again in the future. And the farmers will be well-off again when that happens. However, before we reach that stage, the farmers and the families working on farms will need our help in many ways. While some are weak and dependent on aids, most of them are strong, and independent. And these survivors WILL find ways to survive with or without our help. But when the magnitude of loss and sufferings is this high, let's not watch them struggle, let's offer our hands to help them get back on their feet; let's offer our ears to listen to what they have to say to us; let's open our hearts to them.

Together, we will all be able to move on…

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