Abandoned bodies litter Myanmar after cyclone

May 11, 2008 7:03:22 PM PDT
As the bloated bodies rise and fall with the current, women scrub clothes along the river bank, villagers bathe to cool themselves and a lone child sits on a dock staring aimlessly into the water. But with little aid getting through to desperate cyclone survivors, the dead have largely been forgotten - left to decay where the brackish waters carried them or waiting to be pulled out to sea by the rising tides.

"The first few we saw, we were all very shocked," said U Pinyatale, a monk from the area who has prayed for the dead. "After a while, there were just too many."

More than 50 bodies can be spotted in just three hours on the river. Many have turned white as they float entwined in mangrove trees, where they remain lodged. The smell of dead fish permeates the humid air as dozens of small boats ferrying roofing supplies and rice navigate around the corpses, but no one seems to notice.

"In some areas there are 5,000 bodies in waterways, stuck in fields and in the trees," said Craig Strathern, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. "We've got a combination of seriously traumatized people themselves who are concentrating on their basic survival."

Cyclone Nargis left nearly 62,000 people dead or missing. The U.N. estimates at least 1.5 million have been severely affected in the military-run country, with many of them still struggling to receive rations of food and clean water.

Body removal remains difficult because some of the worst-hit areas are located in remote villages crisscrossed by a spider web of rivers and canals. Another big setback revolves around the ruling junta's refusal to open the door to international aid workers, forcing agencies operating in Myanmar to rely on their limited local staff members for all relief work.

The situation differs greatly from the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed nearly 230,000 people. In worst-hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, bodies were a top priority early on, driven largely by Muslim tradition that calls for burying the dead within the first day. Corpses were dumped in mass graves as big as football fields, with aid workers, soldiers and volunteers all working together.

During the same crisis in Phuket, Thailand, emphasis also was placed on ensuring bodies were taken to refrigerated areas where they were kept for identification.

"What's often overlooked is the fact that people do want to find the dead and give them a proper burial, and it's important," said Eric Stover, lead author of a critical report published last year about Myanmar's broken health system.

"What happens with those relatives or those who survive, they can also go into this kind of limbo world thinking their (family members) are dead but not actually knowing until they have the funeral."

Bodies are cremated or buried in different parts of Myanmar. It is essential for Buddhist monks to chant and pray for the dead on the first day. The funeral typically occurs on day three, and on the seventh day a religious ceremony is held where prayers and chants continue to ensure the soul moves on. Otherwise, wandering ghosts can remain.

The monk, Pinyatale, said some people simply want the bodies to be sucked out to sea because they believe if someone touches them, that person will be cursed with bad luck and haunted by the unsettled spirit.

"People are scared. Some people hear voices from the river at night: 'Help me! Help me!"' he said. "But when people walk to the river, there is nothing there."

The carcasses of dead livestock, such as buffalo, also have not been removed from areas in the low-lying delta where entire villages were leveled by the May 3 storm, which packed 120-mph winds and 12-foot-high storm surges from the sea.

Stover, from the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, said the military is often best at helping identify bodies in massive natural disasters because they are trained to do so for war. But he said his contacts who have visited the worst-hit areas say they have seen no soldiers helping to remove corpses.

"There may be cases were neighbors came back and because of the tidal surge, the bodies were dispersed," he said. "It's gonna be difficult. That's the real crisis here."