Hungry refugees head for Yangon, stoking tensions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am

Delta survivors hope to find food, jobs in former capital

Waves of refugees from the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy delta are converging on Yangon, adding to tensions in Myanmar's former capital in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Seeking food, shelter and employment, the refugees warn that their homelands are uninhabitable and say they have little option but to head north.

They are sheltering in schools, churches and private homes on the outskirts of Yangon - some trying to stay one step ahead of military authorities clearing many shelters and closely guarding others.

Their basic living conditions, often without power or clean water, are far removed from the small numbers of blue tent 'towns' being shown to top generals and visiting officials, such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

'I've got nothing left, somehow I've got to rebuild a life,' said Ma Kyaw as she hid in a squalid unofficial camp just across the river from Yangon.

Ma Kyaw, 35, lost two sons and a brother in the long night three weeks ago that saw Nargis' waves crush her village. Like tens of thousands of others, she spent hours in the darkness battling the waves, clinging with fellow villagers to floating bamboo poles and coconut palms.

About half of her fellow 600 villagers died or are missing, with refugees describing a sense of anarchy in the days that followed as survivors tried to find friends, neighbours and relatives in camps in the devastated towns of Labutta and Myaungmya further north. Many have lost identity and land records, adding to the confusion. 'We feel as if we have been to hell. There is nothing for us back on our land,' Ma Kyaw said.

Such stories are common among survivors, some having lost dozens of relatives and others not knowing whether their children are alive. Other refugees said food was still desperately short in the south, despite increasing aid flows, and some have been eating coconuts and immature, unhusked rice.

'After a week, the food was running out and the smell of the bodies and water was so terrible that we had to leave,' said another woman being helped by local relief workers aiding the British charity Christian Aid.

'We have to find jobs in Yangon. How can we go back? Everything we had was washed away. We are all farmers or cash labourers, but there is no work for us to do.'

Both Myanmese and foreign aid workers say they fear the refugee crisis could worsen in coming weeks and months as the full impact of lost livelihoods hits home.

Already thousands in Yangon have lost their jobs after the cyclone sank hundreds of riverboats and many small businesses were destroyed. Further south, rice paddies - due to be planted early next month - have been destroyed and entire fishing fleets lost.

'Getting people back into work is going to be very tough and we don't think the government has even thought about it yet,' said one foreign aid worker. 'Putting back those pieces requires a lot of planning.'

Tensions are palpable in Yangon as grief turns to rage at the lack of a meaningful response from the junta.

Security has been markedly stepped up over the past 24 hours, with several trucks of riot police at key points around the city, including near the Sule Pagoda downtown and on the edge of Chinatown.

Both plain clothes and uniformed police are visible outside monasteries and survivors' camps. Monks at the prominent Mae Hnyin Theingi monastery outside Yangon confirmed they had been ordered to move out 400 homeless survivors.

The monks were trying to build new shelters in surrounding fields and collect food for survivors.