Burma cyclone survivors haunted by ghosts

A new terror is stalking the survivors of Burma’s cyclone, as villagers in the deeply superstitious country tell of being haunted by the ghosts of those who perished in the disaster.

Bodies still littered the Delta’s landscape on Sunday, more than a week after Cyclone Nargis struck, killing an estimated 100,000 people. To the locals, the unburied represent thousands of restless souls.

A boatman said that there are not as many bodies to be seen as there were in recent days, but in a two-hour journey down the river to the sea the Telegraph saw dozens of corpses, bloated and bobbing in the water or draped along the shore, including a boy monk with his robes falling off him.

Twenty villages once stood on the banks of this stretch of water. They were swept away leaving few survivors. The boatman pointed out the places were they had stood — here a settlement of 40 homes, over there one of 50. All gone.

The fishing communities of the Delta store their modest wealth in gold, and the women put their jewelry on before they tried to flee the storm. In the days that followed fishing nets were clogged with bodies, and some fishermen kept the gold.

A boatman told the story of a haunting. A man from the town had returned to his village, hoping to find some of his relatives alive. As he stepped ashore he heard a young girl screaming “help me! help me!” but when he followed the sound there was no one there.

“I know a foreigner like you won’t believe such stories,” said the boatman, although he clearly had no doubts himself.

He then told of another “haunting”.

Two boys had caught a woman’s body in their net and kept the jewelry. That night their hut was shaken and a voice demanded “give it back!” Terrified, they threw the gold away.

The desperate conditions in the Delta will to many make robbing a corpse an understandable act. The survivors have no more dignity than the contorted and naked dead along the river banks.

Burma’s generals enjoy a deep-seated faith in portents, prophecies, magic and fortune-telling, their decision-making frequently guided by astrologers and the occult.

When the junta moved the capital from Rangoon to a malarial town deep in the jungle, it did so because an astrologer employed by General Than Shwe had warned him of an impending catastrophe that could only be averted by moving the seat of government.

At a village at the mouth of the river, accessible only by boat, we found survivors living in a chaos of bamboo poles and estuarial mud. They flocked to meet our boat. The village children crowded around us giggling.

“We expect that food will come by helicopter,” explained a village elder, “and when we heard your boat, we thought it was a helicopter.”

Why they should expect such a thing was not clear, given their government’s long established distain for the people’s welfare.

Later we saw a helicopter skimming the horizon and the villagers asked us where it was going. We did not tell them that army helicopters are mostly used to ferry generals between photo opportunities for the state television news.

The outside world has made contact with this place since the storm — the army is camped at one end of the village — but relief is yet to reach them. Their water supply is polluted with salt water and they have hardly any food. “We are drinking rain water. If it doesn’t rain, we will die,” the elder said.

“I can’t stand it any more,” said a woman, breaking down. “So many people died here.”

She pleaded with her hands held together, but not for anything we could give her. She wanted the nightmare to end, and after expressing her desperation she tried to smile again.

At a nearby village of 45 houses locals told us the headman had traveled into the nearest town seeking aid. The government gave him one blanket, two pots and two bowls. Two sacks of rice were later delivered.

Later, on the road into Rangoon, was a further sign of how little the government has done to alleviate the suffering. Wealthy city people had driven out of town in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, with surgical masks on their faces either against the stench or the risk of disease.

They were distributing packets of biscuits, sachets of drinking chocolate and other food to the hungry villagers lining up along the side of the road.

How you can help:

A number of charities have launched appeals to help the Burmese in the wake of this weekend’s cyclone. You can donate online to the British Red Cross, www.redcross.org.uk ( £5 will provide water purification tablets for 60 people), to Oxfam’s emergency fund, www.oxfam.co.uk, to Christian Aid, www.christianaid.org.uk, to Unicef, www.unicef.org.uk, and Save the Children, www.savethechildren.org.uk

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 13, 2008.
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