x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ghosts of Nargis haunt survivors

Aid groups say hundreds of thousands require housing and untold numbers are suffering psychologically a year after the deadly storm.

People queue for drinking water in Yangon, where many struggle with the psychological effects of last year's Cyclone Nargis, which killed nearly 140,000 people and left two million homeless.
People queue for drinking water in Yangon, where many struggle with the psychological effects of last year's Cyclone Nargis, which killed nearly 140,000 people and left two million homeless.

BANGKOK // One year after Cyclone Nargis devastated part of Myanmar, survivors are in need of increased international aid to prevent more deaths in this year's monsoon season, the United Nations says.

"With the monsoon coming we are facing another humanitarian crisis," Mariko Sato, the rapid response co-ordinator for the UN's human settlement programme, UN-Habitat, told journalists last week. "Tarpaulins and thatch are being torn, dilapidated and destroyed and need to be replaced immediately before this year's monsoon comes," she said. Cyclone Nargis swept across parts of Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta on May 2 2008, killing nearly 140,000 people and displacing more than two million. Most survivors are suffering from post-traumatic stress.

The UN is appealing for more international aid to help cope with the challenges. "Half a million people face poor shelter conditions and there are not enough cyclone-resistant community shelters," the head of the UN operations in Myanmar, Bishow Parajuli, said in an interview. The UN, Myanmar and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean ) launched a three-year recovery plan worth US$691 million (Dh2.5 billion) in February, but so far only about $100m had been pledged, Mr Parajuli said.

For most of the survivors of the cyclone, the start of the new monsoon season is also a painful reminder of last year's tragic events. Their fears are compounded by the belief that the ghosts of the dead are searching for a peaceful resting place. "Single storms and heavy rains in the past few weeks have triggered severe anxiety attacks among the survivors," said Sylvia Wamser, a psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who has spent much of the past year counselling survivors in Bogale area. The area was badly hit when the gale-force winds roared through the region.

"Before Nargis, I had a happy family and enough income," said a 27-year-old male survivor in Bogale, in the centre of the Irrawaddy delta. "My family and all my possessions were all destroyed in a single night." Hla Htay tried to escape with his family in a boat. He lost his wife and four children that night - only one son survived the ordeal. "My children were crying and shouting for help, I can still hear them now."

Maung Maung, an elderly farmer whose entire family apart from his wife and two grandsons died when his delta village washed away, hears the ghosts. "Some of them cry out: they sound sad. Others are angry. We are all frightened when they wail." Nwe Nwe, a 40-year-old woman lost 36 members of her family. "I can't eat or sleep, I don't dare leave the house. Every night I have strange and evil dreams. I'm now afraid of night time."

Many aid workers said helping to heal the emotional scars of Cyclone Nargis can often prove harder than providing practical help. "It's easy to help the villagers rebuild their livelihoods, to buy tools, fertilisers, livestock, fishing nets and boats, but it's much harder to help them repair their minds so that they can rebuild their lives," said Kaz de Jong, a psychology expert with MSF, who visited the delta soon after the cyclone.

As well as suffering from nightmares and anxiety, aid workers say survivors were also afflicted by limited attention spans, listlessness, problems concentrating and loss of appetite. They had also documented possible psychosomatic ailments arising from the trauma, including back problems and chronic headaches. "There are still people who haven't gone through the process of fully grieving and understanding what happened," said Brian Agland, the Myanmar country director for the aid agency Care.

Almost a quarter of households in the zone reported signs of psychological distress, according to a recovery plan launched in February by the UN, Asean and Myanmar. But only 11 per cent had received help. Aid workers were reporting an increase in anxiety among children. "The rain and winds send most children whimpering into the corners, fearing another cyclone is about to sweep them away," said Moe Hte, a volunteer working in a community centre in the delta.

ljagan@thenational.ae