Monday, May 4, 2009

Cyclone Diary: Nargis remembered

12 months ago Cyclone Nargis made landfall leaving 84,500 people dead in its wake and up to 53,800 people missing, presumed dead. About 2.4 million people were left to deal with the devastation. With a storm surge of between 3.5 and 7 metres high careening towards Myanmar at wind speeds of up to 194 kph, the cyclone has been rated as one of the deadliest in the North Indian Ocean Basin. The cyclone went inland to devastate and rearrange 35 kilometres of Myanmar’s topography. Joe Lowry, our very own Head Down Eyes Opener, was there at the time and this is what he wrote in the eye of the storm.

Last Tuesday fortnight, and I'm in my regular job as Red Cross rep in Ukraine. I nip home for a quick lunch with the excuse of bringing home some sample jars for the kids' medical exams (Maya is 18 months old and Polly three months).

The news is on, and Cyclone Nargis has become a serious disaster. Over a thousand dead, and the figure soaring.

The worst affected areas haven't even been included in that tally. Five months back this was my patch as information delegate for the International Red Cross in Southeast Asia.

My wife, Lena, a former Red Cross employee herself, reads my thoughts before I'm even aware I'm thinking them, the way women do, bless them. "You want to go, don't you?"

She doesn't even know that I've spent the entire morning dodging planning a work trip to neighbouring Moldova, mooted for the next day, 7 May. I've been "on the skype" with colleagues in Geneva, London, Sri Lanka and New Zealand trying to find out who of the main Red Cross info people is going "in" to cover the story.

We've an agreement with Reuters to share photos with them in the event of a big emergency, and Russell Boyce, chief photographer for Asia, has been bending my arm to get some images to them sharpish.

I look at Lena, babby on the breast and another happily munching cornflakes straight out of the box, and utter my best platitude: "Ah, sure, no, love, my place is here with you and the kids." I swear. My exact words.

Women, bless them, they know us better than we know our sorry selves. "Go," she says. "Go. We'll manage. Mrs Mop will stay over." It cracks me up how she says it, in her gorgeous Belarus accent, still with a little bit of Cork after doing her studies in "the real capital of Ireland".

A minute later John Sparrow, a veteran aid communicator, calls from Kuala Lumpur. I tell him what Lena's just said. "Do you want to come? Set it up, man," his cultured Norfolk tones buzz like honey bees in the hive of my ear.

Sixteen hours more and I'm in Bangkok via Dubai. Into the pungent hurly-burly of the land of smiles and the old Red Cross team I so loved for the year I worked in "Bangers". There's that crackle of kinetic energy that comes from a solid team already knackered from the enormity of four days working flat out.

I begin the round of interviews. BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, Kiwi tv, Polish Radio, Radio 4, Prime Time. Standing on a box 16 floors above the Chao Praya river, the wind rattling the floodlights and my vertigo.

Then precisely 80 minutes sleep between a late-night trip to the studios to do RTE and hopping on a plane for Myanmar. Visas on arrival have been arranged through the Myanmar Red Cross, and - compared with other organizations - we sail through immigration to kisses and hugs from Bridget Gardener, our representative in Myanmar, an ebullient Aussie.

The first step outside the arrival doors reveals a cool modern-art sculpture - a swirling aluminium corkscrew 20 metres long, with jagged edges, swaying in the breeze above the traffic. I slowly realise that it's a billboard, rolled over and over on itself by Cyclone Nargis. A metaphor for my life over the next few days.

I seem stuck in a spiral of interviews, half-meetings on stairways and in the backs of cars, rare trips to the storm-hit locations on the edge of battered Yangon, late-night beers in a weirdly well-functioning hotel.

So much is happening, but the story is the paucity of aid. Our relief planes arrive one by one, then four in one day. The Myanmar Red Cross HQ by the port in Yangon is frenetic from dawn to dusk with hundreds of volunteers loading relief supplies onto trucks.

I hit a nadir on Saturday morning. A Dane tells me, "We have some terrible bitches here". I smile, thinking he's complaining about some dispute he's had. He repeats himself: "We have some terrible pictures." Journalistic instinct takes over and I watch the pics unload on his screen.

Now, days later. When I blink I still see them, the seven little girls in their pretty dresses lying side-by-side like sleeping beauties on the mud by the river. The father displaying his lifeless baby to the camera. A naked woman's corpse, clothes ripped off by the storm. A leg dangling from a bridge. Bodies skewered on treetops. And chubby toddler, the same age as my Maya, whose fate I can't even write.

I go onto the balcony in the warm rain and cry, and cry, and cry. Times passes. A boat laden with Red Cross supplies sinks. Our boss becomes the first expat to visit the disaster zone in the delta with government approval. Both events are big news and we do CNN and BBC live within minutes of her return.

Journalists start to arrive on tourist visas. Even though I have the media liaison role I have to tell them I can't talk to them, they are not "here". I can talk to their head offices, but not to them. And the question on everyone's lips changes from "Why can't you get aid in?" to "Why won't they let you get aid in?" How to answer? Everything is being monitored and a word out of place might place colleagues and our hard-won aid operation in peril.

Aid is arriving, I say - fourteen flights in six days, tonnes and tonnes of shelter materials, mozzie nets, massive water purification units that can produce a million litres of clean water per day. So why can't you get it to the people in need? We can, we do. Thousands of Red Cross volunteers are involved.

Listen and listen carefully: Volunteers who lost their homes and their loved ones are setting up wayside first aid stations, swabbing the excoriated flesh of people who were literally sandblasted in the storm. They are rushing out on bikes to find blood donors. And they are coordinating distributions under the most straightened of circumstances. It's their duty, they say. "We are Red Cross." Bridget calls them humanitarian heroes.

The moment of departure is delayed again and again. Work, like the weather, becomes grey and ominous. We hear so much we cannot say, we preserve our neutrality. I know I am at a dangerous low ebb with too much inside. My job is done. New brain and brawn needed. How many interviews have I done? Fifty? A hundred?

The backs of my eyes ache for my family. The bones in my fingers, the muscles in my arms miss holding my girls. I rehearse the moment of reunion over and over - will I kiss Lena first, or grab Maya, smother her in tears and kisses and squeeze her plump little arms? Or like Bono with his offspring, place my nose on Polly's scalp and inhale that intoxicating perfume: "Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head."

I will arise and go now. A fire is in my head. Let hope be the last casualty. Let humanity prevail.

Joe originally wrote this piece for our very good friends at Reuters Alertnet. For more information visit our special page dedicated to the ongoing recovery work being carried out in Myanmar.


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