The River - Part II

RSS Feed

Well-known member
Joined
Jul 20, 2006
Messages
22,221
Reaction score
0
<div align='center'>
</div>

“It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body curving at rest afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Journey Into Darkness

July 2008

There were informers everywhere. In the hotels, in the restaurants, near the docks and on the river. And so, in addition to the natural dangers of the journey, there were the dangers of the military junta.

The team would consist of eight people: seven Burmese and one American. I was supposed to be part of the team, but was stuck in Thailand after having been refused a visa.

At the arranged time, on 10 June, the first coded message pinged out from the American, whom I will call Charlie Marlow. "Charlie" was in Yangon when he sent the message to "Translator", who contacted "Manager", who contacted "Cook", as well as the four other crew members. At about 10:30 p.m., all had assembled in the darkness on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The Burmese Navy was patrolling the Irrawaddy further downstream, and a number of foreign journalists had been recently deported after broadcasting embarrassing stories from the delta. There were stern warnings to the locals not to facilitate entry or movement of foreigners to the region. There was talk that the military had stationed at least one soldier in nearly every village to report on any contact with outsiders.

<div align='center'>
</div>
The engine on the small boat was loud; it hammered away in the dark. For the next six nights the engine would provide the background music for uneasy slumber where in some places only the ghosts of the victims accompanied these travelers. The riverboats in southeast Asia are legendary for the vermin residing in their cracks and holds. At night the roaches, spiders, and sometimes even snakes, crawl out of their hiding spaces, sometimes causing panic to uninitiated travelers. Charlie had been doing business in forlorn places like this for almost twenty years, and had developed a healthy fear and respect for tropical insects and rodents, so he had the boat fumigated before the journey.

Approaching government or Navy checkpoints, Charlie would hide beneath the tarp, but nobody was manning the checkpoints, and the boat passed without incident downriver, pulled by a current which originated far to the north, conveying the occupants toward an uncertain fate. By sunrise they had traveled dozens of miles farther than the military rulers permitted foreigners to go unescorted. The Cook, a superstitious Catholic of Tamil Indian descent, made breakfast, and then at about 8 a.m., the team had their first landing at a village on the eastern edge of the disaster zone.

The Manager filed this after-action report:

We left Yangon on the 10th of June at 10:30 pm. We arrived at Alpha village at 7:45 a.m. At 8 am we held a meeting at Alpha monastery.

After a long discussion which took about 3 hours, we came to an agreement on the following point.

(1) Rice seeds are desperately needed so, we promised to donate then 40 bags of seeds. Each bag full of seeds cost 10000.00 Kyats.

(2) School was completely destroyed students had nowhere to attend school. The solution-to convert the monastery into a make-shift school after making some repair work. I think around about $700 US.

(3) Small tractor needed. We didn’t promise to give on as our budget is limited.

The villagers had been very happy to see help coming, and to see an American delivering aid from his own pocket. And so they gave the visitors a mess of crabs, as well as a humble and heartfelt farewell, and the team boated to the next village, another 3 hours south.

The Manager wrote:

In the second village called "Bravo" village. We held a meeting round about 2 hours on the boat with monk leader "Zulu" and 2 head men. They needed fishing boats.

(1) We’ll give them 3 boats on lucky draw system to those fishermen whose boats were damaged beyond repair. (Boat price round about $500 US)

(2) To give 500000.00 Kyats for repairing the damaged monastery.

Note: 30.5.2008 private donation 5 small tractors.

<div align='center'>
</div>
And so going into the second night, the boat had traveled about 107 miles in the first 24 hours, and the Cook and been cooking along the way.



That night, he boiled the crabs, which the Burmese crew did not eat, but Charlie and the others enjoyed. It reminded Charlie of his childhood on the east coast of the United States, where children gathered crabs from the estuaries. Charlie waxed nostalgic with the crew, all the while being pulled by forces both man-made and natural to the southwest, under the melancholy, hazy eye of a half-moon, in which no sign of things to come could be ascertained.

On 11 June, the team stopped at several villages. The locals were friendly and welcoming. Despite the reports, in most of the villages there were no soldiers. In the villages where there had been a soldier, Charlie stayed hidden on the boat. In most villages the radios had either been destroyed during the massive tidal surge or their batteries were dead, but the people knew that the United States Navy had been waiting with ships and helicopters. Charlie could only imagine the images in these villagers’ minds of giant men with giant machines, poised just beyond the nautical horizon, who could deliver them from the repressive grip of a decaying regime in the blink of an eye. To a man, the villagers very much wanted to see the United States come in to help, and were disappointed to learn that the American Navy had sailed away after the Myanmar government did not allow them to deliver aid, which was pre-positioned in the holds of ships in the thousands of tons, with twenty-two helicopters on board the flotilla ready to act. But American and other international assistance were turned away by the junta.

The local people, even the monks, expressed open hatred for the government of Myanmar. The people wanted guns as badly as they wanted shelter. They had no idea what to do with the guns, yet Charlie was deeply moved by the robust character of these people, to whom democracy and freedom were not cynical conceits argued over coffee or crumpets, but ideals for which these simple denizens of the river yearned, believing deep in their hearts that the United States of America could bring change to this far-off corner of the world. They hoped that the U.S. would swoop in and bring justice to the Irrawaddy by deposing the Myanmar military regime. But these hopes would be dashed by real-politik and shifting geo-strategic priorities. Something about the universality of man’s desires occurred to Charlie, how, he thought, we all want the same things—freedom, dignity, a chance to make our own way in this world. Between village visits and dodging patrols he would sit quietly on the bow of the boat and ruminate under the same night sky full of stars that had witnessed men struggle through folly, fiasco, and victory in the pursuit of these very ideas.

Meanwhile in the delta, many feared that the government was using the disaster to make a massive land grab from the people. The crony companies of the junta had been installed in the storm-affected area, ostensibly to deliver aid to the population. But this was Burma, and it seemed clear to the ravaged citizens that they would again be pawns to be used for enriching powerful men.

<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
There is only one rice planting season on the delta, and with their seed stores largely destroyed and draft animals drowned, many of the farmers will not be able to plant this year. Also, over in Thailand, news reports were warning not to eat fish from Myanmar, as the fish had been feeding on human bodies. This could result in untold economic damage to Burmese commercial fisherman. Charlie and the crew noticed that of the many bodies they passed, those on dry land were merely desiccating, while those in the Irrawaddy that were near shore were being eaten, or had already been completely picked clean by crabs.

Entire villages had been erased, and there was nothing left standing but dirt foundations, marks of bare earth on the ground over which people once lived, thrived, and died. In every village they stopped, the inhabitants hated the government and trusted only the monks and the foreigners. Every village had a monk, and most had monasteries, which needed to be rebuilt as a symbol of the only legitimate leadership in which the people could believe.

Charlie wanted to push into the most affected areas deeper in the delta. By the third night, they stopped for only about four hours to eat and sleep, staying on the boat in a cove that was lightly inhabited, if at all. Some nights the torches of villagers could be seen moving about the ruined paddies, hunting for frogs. Like eerie itinerant firebugs they slid through the fields, calling to each other in a soft unintelligible tongue. The heat and humidity left everyone filthy, but the unacclimated could not dare to bathe in the river. During a torrential downpour, Charlie and his local staff stood on the bow of the boat and showered in the dark storm, lathering with soap and laughing like children, their cries punctuated by lightning and thunder which might have struck a more ominous note in the hearts of the less intrepid. The crew was drinking Grand Royal whiskey, which Charlie’s local manager had had the forethought to bring along, and they also managed to buy whiskey in villages along the way. A constant supply of betel-nut, the leaf-covered stimulant craved day and night by working class Burmese, kept jaws busy and mouths largely shut throughout the monotonous cruise downriver. Near the major delta town of Bogale, a large Burmese Navy vessel came into sight, but Charlie hid and they sailed by without incident.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s “Trackstick” GPS device continued to plot the route taken, time, date, and grid coordinates, so that later it could situate the photos Charlie was taking. Unfortunately, the Trackstick managed to fall into a bowl of rice soup, and stopped working until a Burmese crewman took it apart down to the circuit board, and spent about two hours using a magnifying glass to clean the circuits.

<div align='center'>
</div>
The boat was leaking; also the rains would dump gallons of water at a time, so it had to be constantly pumped.

On 13 June, Charlie had to hide in boat for a scorching two hours as his staff went to meet an influential monk in the town of Laputta, near the western end of the delta where the cyclone had made landfall. The weather was sticky, alternating between dreary overcast and intermittent rain. Using his satellite gear, Charlie continued to send me his coordinates and status. I sent him daily updates about any cyclone advisories (there were no more cyclones) and news about Afghanistan, where he is usually based. The head monk in Laputta listened with empathy to Charlie’s staff and under his direction two monks from a ruined village a further three hours from the town were dispatched to guide the party to see the true devastation wrought by the cyclone, as well as to witness for ourselves the disgraceful response of the Burmese junta to the desperate needs of its own people.

"Delta" village

We had to go to the Echo first and asked 2 monks and 1 headman to act as guides. On our way, we saw many many dead bodies. This village is called Foxtrot village (13.6.2008) at time 6.00 pm. Hard photographs taken. This village is near the Golf village(see the map).

(1) The monastery was destroyed and 4 monks got drowned in the floods.

No boat there. They needed a small motor boat to go and get the relief and given by the government. (small boat price may be round about $500 US)

<div align='center'>
</div>
As the boat hammered out of Laputta, it came across a huge field of human corpses. Just within their field of vision, without even trying to search, the team saw as many as one hundred bodies. Local men said you could walk for hours along this river shoreline and see the bodies everywhere, stretched out with arms and legs splayed as if in supplication to a God who had somehow managed to lose track of their existence. To Charlie, as he looked at the corpses, reddish and desiccated with mouths agape in silent anger, it seemed that the very soul of the delta had been visited upon by some ghastly juggernaut, ripping the life from its inhabitants in a grim harvest. The cries of the dead were silent in their agony, yet those of the living were loud in anger and grief.

The following photos are graphic in nature, and I apologize to anyone who is offended or upset. I have thought long and hard about publishing them, and decided that the world needs to see what happened to the people of the Irrawaddy River Delta, whom the cyclone killed, and the junta left to rot.


No captions are necessary. The images speak for themselves.









































Even forty-five days after the storm, there were perhaps thousands of uncollected bodies in the damaged areas. The government does not appear to be making any effort to recover them. And so, once again these simple folk are victims of an ignominious fate, wrought upon them first by nature, and exacerbated by the failings of a corrupt and brutal government.

On the night of 13 June, the boat kept hammering along the river, deeper into the darkness. As they approached the monks’ village, the night was pitch black. The clouds and intermittent heavy rains completely blocked the stars and moon. Rain was pouring as the boat approached a village. Suddenly about thirty locals appeared, carrying flashlights and burning torches. They all ran toward the approaching boat. The crew was frightened and turned the boat back into the river, hurrying away. It seemed to Charlie that these faceless figures were physically incomplete, and represented the souls of the dead, seeking conveyance to some better place, as if even in death they were tormented by the same forces which had repressed them in life. Meanwhile, unknown to Charlie and the team, some men from the village went for one of their boats and gave chase. About twenty minutes later, the team still did not know they were being chased, when they decided to pull up into a small tributary and hide for the night. They pulled in among some trees, where they would sleep on the boat. With the motor off, silence descended and the frogs and insects became louder. The night was very dark. Using his flashlight, Charlie searched the shore. He saw corpses on land, and then far above the water, the remnants of bodies dangling from tree branches. And there the team would sleep, in the pitch darkness, surrounded by ghosts.

Silence reigned. The day had been long and full of risks. After about forty-five minutes, the sounds of a boat engine could be heard. Minute by minute the sounds grew louder. And then quickly, the sounds became even louder. Soon, swaths from two bright lights could be seen scanning the tributary banks.

As the boat drew closer, its engine cut lower and slowed. Its lights bathed the team’s boat, which was not well hidden in the small alcove. Charlie was under cover as the bright lights cast eerie shadows over their boat. Men shouted in Burmese, which Charlie had been studying, so he understood that they were looking for the monks. The village with the torches and lights was the village where the monks were supposed to go, and the men had worried for their safety when they did not arrive. That’s why so many people had rushed to the shore. Burmese and Thai people are very protective of monks. And for good reason, the monks are very protective of the people. If a traveler were in need, he or she would only have to make it to the nearest monastery, and there find shelter and food and safety. Practically the only thing standing between people of Burma and the junta’s Army are the monks and a handful of courageous others. So when the monks were late, and the strange boat they were seen on sped off, chase was given.

As the search team cast their lights on the boat, the young monks told the men that all was well, and they would come to the village at the sunrise. The search party was relieved. They bid farewell until the morning, and slowly went away. The rain started again. Around midnight, the rains stopped, and then silence.

The tide was receding and the boat started to list. Charlie was concerned, but the crew said the boat was fine. And so they all sat with the monks, talking by candlelight. They discussed politics, and how to help the people while the government refused. Despite the horror all around, there were laughs and high spirits, as is the custom in such wild countries among resilient souls. The small boat contained eleven living people that night, and no telling how many ghosts.

At about 2 a.m., Charlie fell asleep. The Cook slept beside him and kept lapping his arm over Charlie, as if Charlie were his wife. Charlie would shove him off, then by and by, the arm would flop over again.

Come sunrise, they returned to the village. The people were happy to see the monks. The team continued their journey, stopping at other villages. All along were the way were dead bodies.

Most of the water in the area is brackish, so the villagers collect their water in hand-dug ponds. Many of the ponds were polluted with corpses and animal carcasses, and were filled with saltwater. The bodies had been dragged out and the torrential rains were making the water potable, and so at least this part of the disaster was being rapidly corrected.

On June 14th, the team traveled 98 miles, and on the next day, another 20 miles. Along the journey they saw many things.


<div align='center'>
</div>


<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
During the heat of the day, Charlie fell asleep on the boat. After a while, something woke him and he opened his eyes slowly. A person was staring at him. Just staring. Charlie opened his eyes wider and saw the melted face of a dead person looking straight at him. Right there in the boat. Startled, Charlie rubbed his eyes and looked closer at the melted face. It was just a hat hanging on a nail.



<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
Many Americans and Europeans might be afraid of people who live like this, but from my travels, I know that if there is a problem, I can come to that home, not speaking a word of their language, and they will feed me and give me rest, and they will smile and wave when I leave, seldom asking for anything in return.

<div align='center'>
</div>
<div align='center'>
</div>
Gathering coconuts. It’s amazing what native peoples can do with bamboo and coconuts. All they need is a good river, and they can survive. The river is everything from highway to cupboard. In Thai, the word for river is Mae Nam. Mother water. In India, the Ganges is called Ganga Ma. Often the Indians would simply say, Ma. Cyclone Nargis was a horrible event, but the Irrawaddy is still flowing and life will go on.

While Charlie and his team made their journey into darkness, I remained in Thailand. The Thai people look at Burma in a similar way that some Americans look at Mexico. Cheap labor, a bit backwards, but hardworking people. And similar to our experiences with Mexico, Myanmar provides a river of smuggled and illegal workers, who sometimes can die by the dozens by suffocation in the back of a truck. The Thais I have talked with are afraid to go to Burma now. They are afraid of the ghosts. The ghosts created by Cyclone Nargis. Those ghosts will haunt Myanmar for a long time. It’s one thing to oppress the living. But to disrespect the dead of Cyclone Nargis is a crime that the junta will, one day, have to answer for. The cyclone was an act of nature, but the suffering and indignity that followed is entirely the junta’s fault. While the rest of the world, led by America, offered help, the junta turned it away. Instead of welcoming humanitarian assistance and the media who help stir the global conscience, the junta closed its borders and tried to keep the truth from being known. By valuing their own power and pride over the lives of their people, the junta turned a natural disaster into a human tragedy.

Although the Burmese people are brave and resourceful, the need for aid is still acute. Many of the farmers in the most affected areas will not be able to plant this year, so the damage wreaked by the cyclone will continue long after the media turns its attention elsewhere.

And the last victim of the cyclone might be the junta itself. Along the Irrawaddy River Delta, the people’s hatred for the government was clearly expressed. My friend Charlie said that he would not be surprised to see disaffected factions rise up against the government, perhaps similar to those in Sri Lanka and Tibet. Burma might erupt in violence within a few years, which could have serious implications for neighboring Bangladesh and Thailand. Also, the Chinese seem to be muscling in up north, creating an anti-Chinese sentiment with the potential for violence. The Russians have advisers in Myanmar, though just what they are up to remains a mystery. Meanwhile, ASEAN apparently lacks the desire to take any decisive action that would upset the government of Myanmar. There are too many business interests at stake, and keeping Myanmar as a source of cheap raw materials rather than have it become a new Asian Tiger might very well be in the interests of other member states. The United States is not anxious to arm and train an insurgent force in Myanmar, unless our interests are directly threatened. Meanwhile, Charlie asserts that the Burmese dissident groups living in Thailand have largely lost touch with the situation inside the country, though apparently they get much attention, and funding, from Washington. Myanmar might be a powder keg with a slow-burning fuse already lit, and many Burmese people, who set great store on astrology, believe that great calamity is in the stars.

By bringing these photographs back from an atrocity the world is not supposed to witness, Charlie and his team has ensured that the ghosts of Cyclone Nargis will not be forgotten. They were men enough to face the darkness. And so, too, are the Burmese people, who live in the shadows of their own dead.



{loadposition user8}


</img> </img> </img> </img> </img> </img>


http://feeds.feedburner.com/~r/michaelyon-...29285/index.php
 

Latest Posts



Top Bottom