In the Mouth of Madness: Burma after Cyclone Nargis

Pictures and text: ©Austin Andrews / ZUMA Press

For a region that four months ago witnessed one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory, the waterlogged highway descending into Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta reveals little of what it saw. Uniformed children skip to school in sync, passing the same motley assortment of stray dogs, wayward goats and discarded rubbish endemic to all this impoverished nation’s roads. Overstuffed buses, some still carrying advertisements for distant Western cities — their last homes — bounce passengers from pothole to pothole along the eight hour, 80 mile journey to colonial capital Rangoon. And reminders of the paranoid military are everywhere, eyes burning from behind the AK-47s and highway checkpoints designed to keep foreign press and big city samaritans out of what has quickly become the biggest disaster zone in the country’s history.

Cyclone Nargis made landfall not far from here on the night of May 2, 2008. It arrived unannounced from the Indian Ocean, ripped the mouth of the nation open and, shoving a fire hose down its throat, claimed as many as 200,000 lives before it traced upcountry and dissipated into a thick seasonal storm somewhere near the Thai border. But if the highway keeps its secret well, even the proverbial man who’s lived under a rock since April wouldn’t need to stray far before the scale of the disaster, and the amount of work still to be done, becomes apparent. Felt across 20,000 square kilometres of tarp-and-tent villages, Nargis has left Burma with US$10 billion in damage and over two million lives and livelihoods shaken, shattered or lost.

The highway ends in Bogale, a muddy city of 100,000 walled in on all sides by a web of rivers and tributaries. Before Nargis, this was the spoon to Burma’s “rice bowl”, preparing the staple crop and feeding it into roads and waterways to be fought over by a hungry nation. Today, Bogale has all the feel of a makeshift UN refugee base in a war zone, which, in a way, it is. A who’s who of the world’s international aid organisations operate out of tin hovels and hastily-erected hotels; logos for Unicef and the International Red Cross are as common a sight here as Marlboro and Coca-Cola billboards are in other Asian cities. An atmosphere of civic brotherhood pervades even the simplest exchange. One could well imagine lines from the city’s inner monologue: “you’re all in this together,” maybe, or “wait just a little longer, the nightmare might still pass”. Nargis is never far from anyone’s lips.

If anything, Bogale is one of the few places in the delta to have grown in population this year, as heartsick villagers stumble through seeking opportunities to rebuild their lives. Kept on a short leash by the image experts in Rangoon and in the public eye by relief organisations, Bogale looks and feels alive.

The Irrawaddy Division has as many villages as a leaking water bucket might have drops: 11566 in 2005. It was here where, between noon and midnight on May 2, the wickedest wars were waged. Untold thousands of villages were washed out to sea by a four metre tidal wave and peak winds that topped out at 215 km/h. Many have since been rebuilt, with donated blue tarpaulins and camping tents woven into the familiar patchwork of palm frond roofs and bamboo walls. Others have disappeared from the memory of all but a handful of survivors; not enough, in any case, to pick up the pieces and start over again.

The story of Pyin Song Kyay, a small community adrift on a thin strip of land between Bogale and Laputta, is typical of the Irrawaddy Delta, albeit with different numbers and different heroes. One-fifth of villagers here perished, including 21 schoolchildren. Describing the night of Nargis, one man tells me that “looking around I thought we were in the middle of the ocean, all I could see was water”. Another man swam to a floating palm frond to stay afloat, only to find himself clinging to the top of a tree as daylight broke and the water level subsided. With their boats wrecked and crops destroyed, and far enough from any population centres that it was forgotten, the village’s 600-odd survivors subsisted off patience and coconut flesh for eighteen days as they waited for the outside world to arrive.

A walk through the village reveals deep scars. The gentle smiles carried in public by most Burmese are fewer here, replaced by a dull-eyed weariness that suggests that, although their houses have been rebuilt and fields sowed, these peoples’ spirits may take a little longer to mend.

Sixteen kilometres away, near the village of Aung Hlaing, a Buddhist monastery was reduced to a mound of twisted metal and wood splinters. The night of Nargis, ten monks and sixty villagers clutched pillars and each other’s arms as the torrential waters rose past first their ankles, then their knees, then their waists. They didn’t know when, or if, it would stop. U Sittama, the hyper-animated septuagenarian monk who has made this monastery his life’s work, wonders and worries whether he’ll be able to salvage it. Four months after Nargis it looks just as the receding waters left it and it breaks his heart. The “razorblade winds that sliced off treetops” sliced off its upper level too. A stack of tin roofing sheets, donated by a Japanese shipyard, sit unused, too few to cover more than a corner of the structure. Wood for floorboards is still scarce this deep into the delta. For now, U Sittama has neither the materials nor the labour to rebuild his dream.

With most of the two million delta dwellers left homeless by Nargis still waiting for their worlds to return to normal, the rest of Burma waits with flickering hopes for their chance at a brighter future. The ham-handed rule of an iron-fisted military junta runs the gamut of adjectives from negligent to barbaric, making a third world mockery of a country that was once among Asia’s most prosperous. International watchdogs hoped the fallout might be enough to usher political change, similar, perhaps, to the events following the 1970 Bhola cyclone in neighbouring Bangladesh, when mismanagement of the disaster drove an angry populace toward independence. But instead, Burma’s xenophobic junta has wrapped itself up even tighter inside its borders, initially rejecting or hoarding international aid and flexing its military might to frighten a restless people further into submission.

As the international media retires the story of Nargis, Burma retreats back into the shadows of its tragic obscurity. Sixty years into an uneasy independence, and eighteen years after the election that was meant to restore it to democracy, its people resume their generations-long wait. What comes next, no one knows.

A boatman sits on the prow of his newly-repaired fishing boat at the jetty in Bogale, tarps donated by NGOs doubling as storm roofs. 90% of the city’s infrastructure was either destroyed or badly damaged by Nargis’ raging crosswinds and waters.

A temporary school rises like a fluorescent apparition across a seasonal floodway from two new bamboo-and-wood boats.

Villagers and schoolchildren pose for a photo along bamboo runners.

Lessons and a distraction.

Schoolchildren wait for their teacher to arrive and the day’s classes to begin under the light of the blue tarpaulin roof of a temporary school.

Bracelets and bare feet.

Two cyclone survivors, wary of the photographer.

Drop puddles.

A young boy looks over from his lessons.

New mothers pose with their babies. All were at one point presumed dead during the frenzy of Nargis.

A fallen jewel-and-gold umbrella was the only damage incurred by this Buddhist zedi on the banks of the Bogale River.

A novice monk stands with hands folded in front of his destroyed monastery near Aung Hlaing.

76 year old monk U Sittama opens the door to what was once the upper level of his monastery.

Two monks, U Sittama at right, describe the winds and rains of Nargis.

U Sittama sits with two novices in their temporary sleeping quarters.

A zedi under repair.

A villager stands in front of a fallen coconut palm tree.

A convoy of Unicef trucks haul aid into the Irrawaddy Delta from Rangoon.

Repair work continues on a damaged home on the main street of Bogale.

Reflected moonlight shimmers off a new tin roof during a windstorm.

Palm fronds and scaffolding encircle a zedi under repair.


Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] disposablewords [dot] net