A Time for Life and a Time for Death
by Damaris Frick
Nwe Ni Win in front of her new home
WHEN Cyclone Nargis swept through the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and the country’s largest city, Yangon, it left behind a trail of broken homes and broken lives on a massive scale. An estimated 2.4 million people were severely affected and nearly 140,000 people are known to be dead or are missing, presumed dead.
|A Salvation Army team member speaks to Nwe Ni Win in front of her old, ruined house|
|Damaris Frick with Hmon Dyne, born the night the cyclone struck|
|Two new homes built with materials supplied by The Salvation Army – the one on the left belongs to Mya Mya Aye|
|In front of her new home, Mya Mya Aye smiles for the first time in weeks|
|A boy plays at the edge of the temporary shelter that serves as his home|
|A family heads out from its new home|
|Damaris and Myanmar Salvation Army officer Major Samuela meet with a Buddhist monk and community members at a monastery|
|A woman shows the blessing written on the wall of her new home|
|Daw Saw, an elderly widow whose daughter and grandchildren now live with her, in her new home. The family lives next to Mya Mya Aye|
The Salvation Army has a presence in Myanmar and its people reacted quickly, distributing food and other items to affected people in eight townships. As soon as possible, International Emergency Services staff – initially, because of difficulty obtaining visas, just me! – headed to the region to assist the local Salvation Army and to identify and plan long-term projects.
Shelter is one of the biggest needs so some of the Salvation Army projects centre around the provision of housing materials. The way it generally happens is that community leaders provide a list of the affected families in the villages where we work before, in order to find out exactly what is needed in each case, we put together teams with local carpenters and assess one house at a time.
On the first assessment trip I was involved with we found a woman crying in front of her completely destroyed house. We discovered her name was Nwe Ni Win and she told us that Cyclone Nargis had destroyed everything her family possessed. Her husband had been deeply shocked and troubled and she told us he couldn’t cope with being unable to provide shelter and safety for his family. He fell ill and got terrible stomach pains. He died the day before our visit.
I felt utterly sad and helpless. Why couldn’t we have come here a few days earlier? Maybe the news that we would want to assist his family could have saved his life. I guess I will never know.
After the assessment the most vulnerable families were chosen to get the materials first. They build their own houses in a traditional way which means a pretty, airy house on stilts, with a bamboo thatched roof and bamboo mats for the walls. The whole community joins together to help in the building and we hired carpenters to supervise the construction, make sure the houses are strong and give good advice.
In each of the places where such a project has been set up, 10 houses are worked on every week. Some partly damaged ones receive material for repairs and some which were completely destroyed – like the one belonging to Nwe Ni Win – are built from the ground up. Widows like her, elderly people or other vulnerable people are the first to get the materials for their houses. With the help of neighbours, friends and the community Nwe Ni Win’s house was built within a week of our arrival.
When I went to see her in her new home she had already made some decorations and was visibly proud of her house. She told me that before the cyclone she used to sell snacks at the market. Without a home she hadn’t had anywhere to prepare these but she can start again now she has a place of her own. Nothing will bring back her husband but at least we were able to help her get back some dignity, a home and some hope for the future.
In another village we met Mya Mya Aye. When her husband left her a few years ago she was so grieved that she tried to commit suicide. A scar on her neck where she cut herself with a knife is a reminder of the tragic attempt. But she survived and went on with her life as well as she could because she has two children to look after.
But then the cyclone came and Mya Mya Aye’s house was completely destroyed. Not only did she now not have a man to take care of her and the children but, because of the storm, she had no home.
She used some some tarpaulins and other material given by The Salvation Army and other non-governmental organisations and managed to build a small temporary shelter. Like Nwe Ni Win she was chosen to be among the first to receive materials for a new house.
When I went to visit her it was the rainy season in Myanmar. To reach her compound I had to walk through knee-deep mud and I could see where bamboo, wood and thatch had been carried by hand, piece by piece.
Mya Mya Aye is a sad woman with many unhappy memories but when I visited her in her new house I saw for the first time a shy smile on her face.
On another visit a woman in another village showed me her baby son, Hmon Dyne. The baby’s name means storm because he was born on the night of the cyclone. While all around them Nargis was destroying houses, uprooting trees and killing animals and people, Hmon Dyne’s mother was in labour. Despite the destruction around them and the terrible conditions a healthy boy was born.
Death and new life, tragedy and joy – this assessment was a rollercoaster of feelings. Many sad stories, many frustrating difficulties but many wonderful people. That’s how I would describe my deployment in Myanmar.
In some areas The Salvation Army works alongside Buddhist monasteries. There are many stories I could tell about The Salvation Army’s wonderful team members but it would be unfair to single any of them out above the others. However, one of the monks made a lasting impression on me and gave me a great example of true humility and sacrifice.
After the cyclone many families sought refuge in the monk’s monastery and some were still living there weeks later. Apart from some damage to the roof it was the only building left standing. The monks – who don’t have many personal possessions – shared what little they had with people in need. They even gave away the only piece of clothing they had, their robes. In my eyes they behaved in a Christlike manner and I, as a Christian, was touched by their humility and willingness to serve.
Most of us might not encounter a situation where we are asked to give away the clothes we wear but we might be asked to give other things that are dear to us, our time, our money, our attention.
A woman wrote on the bamboo mat wall of her newly built house a Myanmar saying: ‘Your compassion is your blessing.’
May we be as willing to give, to serve and to show compassion for people in need like Nwe Ni Win, Mya Mya Aye and Hmon Dyne, the child of the storm.
Damaris Frick is a member of The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services team
Small but Priceless
|A delighted schoolboy examines his gift|
After a disaster as huge as that caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, one of the most commonly heard questions is: ‘What can I do to help?’ Simeon and Reuben Toganivalu, the 10- and eight-year-old grandsons of Commissioner David Bringans – who, as Territorial Commander for Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar, has been closely involved in the relief effort – came up with their own idea.
The boys and other children from Belfast Primary School in Christchurch, New Zealand, were touched and saddened to hear what happened to the people in Myanmar. Together with their teachers and parents they wanted to do something to help so they organised a coin trail across the school and managed to raise US$700.
It was decided that the money raised by children should go to help children. The cyclone had destroyed schools as well as houses. It had also taken away many parents’ ability to buy school items for their children so that even when schools begin operating again many children have no pens or textbooks. For children who have experienced a disaster like this it is vital that there will be some sense of normality as soon as possible. Going back to school will help provide some of that normality.
The school in New Zealand sent the funds they had raised to Commissioner Bringans and when he arrived in Myanmar he brought the money with him. Together with local team members who know the region he bought school bags and filled them with stationery items, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and towels as well as umbrellas to protect the children from the heavy rain during the rainy season. Each bag was filled with the same items.
The local authorities in two locations provided The Salvation Army with lists of the most needy children – those who were most affected because of Nargis – and a distribution team set out.
To reach one location the territorial commander and his local colleagues had to wade through mud because the village was not accessible by car. The items were loaded on a little vehicle which got stuck several times. With laughter, determination and combined strength it was pushed out of the mud each time by Salvation Army cadets and local people.
When they reached the distribution point the children were already waiting patiently. They couldn’t believe that this distribution would be especially for them. One by one their names were read and they stepped forward to the tall foreign-looking but smiling man who handed them their bags. In total, 130 children received a prized goody-bag.
In a disaster situation like this, $700 may not seem like a lot of money and school items may not sound exciting. But the joy these small gifts brought to the faces of 130 children who had seen devastation and tragedy made them seem priceless.
Below: Pushing a small vehicle through the mud to reach a needy community