CYCLONE NARGIS : Survivors emerge desperate for help

Yangon/Bangkok, May 7:

Thousands of shell-shocked survivors of the Myanmar cyclone emerged today, desperate for food and water after trekking for days through flood waters littered with the bodies of the dead, as aid agencies said they still had no idea when the regime would let them into the country to help the survivors.

An AFP reporter who reached the remote southern delta hardest hit by the storm, which left more than 60,000 dead or missing, said there was virtually no food or fresh water in this ruined town blanketed by the stench of death.

The grim accounts of survivors came as the United Nations said the country’s reclusive military rulers, under pressure to let in foreign aid workers, had approved an emergency flight five days after the tragedy.

“They have lost their families, they have nowhere to stay and they have nothing to eat,” one witness said in the town of Labutta after Cyclone Nargis washed away entire villages in one of the world’s poorest nations.

Another said: “We can’t sleep at night, because we can hear people shouting at night. Maybe these are the ghosts of the villagers.” Those who had the strength to do so spent days picking through murky water strewn with the festering and bloated dead, desperate for shelter, food, water and medical care after one of the world’s worst natural disasters.

After days of criticism aimed at the secretive generals who have ruled the former Burma for

nearly half a century — and who have hesitated to let in foreign relief workers — the UN said experts were on the way. “We hope that this spirit of openness will

continue,” said spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in Switzerland, announcing that a plane with 25 tonnes of aid was en route from Italy with UN disaster relief experts on board.

Relief group Save the Children, one of the few relief agencies allowed to operate in Myanmar, said authorities had given aid workers no word on when visas would be granted.

“We have absolutely no idea of what progress, if any, will be made on better visa management,” Save the Children spokesman Dan Collinson said in Bangkok, following a meeting of relief agencies at UN offices here.

Charities hoped the junta would set aside usual visa arrangements to give aid workers open access to the country, where they face immense logistical hurdles in getting help to isolated regions.

The UN said today that Myanmar’s junta has finally appointed a minister to review visa applications by aid workers, but that no new permits have been issued.

In New York, Rashid Khalikov of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs pleaded with the junta to open its borders.

“Forget politics, forget the military dictatorship, let’s just get aid and assistance through to people who are suffering and dying as we speak, through a lack of support on the ground,” he said.

Myanmar expels BBC reporter:

Yangon: Myanmar’s junta, which has appealed for international aid to cope up with the disastrous impact of Cyclone Nargis, is barring foreign journalists from entering the country

and has expelled one BBC reporter, state media said today.

BBC Asia correspondent Andrew William Harding was stopped by Myanmar immigration officials at Yangon International Airport from entering the country on Monday and sent back to Thailand, the state-run MRTV reported. The military-controlled television station said Harding was on the government’s “blacklist” for journalists.

Myanmar, which has been under military dictatorships since 1962, rarely allows foreign journalists to enter the country on journalist visas, and only allows China’s Xinhua news agency to employ expatriates to be based in the country.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which has claimed more than 22,500 lives and left 41,000 missing, the government has refused to allow foreign reporters in to cover the disaster, deemed the worst to hit South-East Asia since the December 2004 tsunami.

The regime, which has appealed for international aid, has been reluctant to waive visa requirements on aid workers seeking to bring disaster relief into the benighted country.

The government of Myanmar had not responded to a request to waive visa requirements for international relief workers waiting for permission to bring much needed aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, the UN said yesterday. — DPA