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A cyclone's aftermath

Postcards from Myanmar, one year after the devastation of Nargis (and as a new cyclone approaches).

Ko Khin Maung Aye, the village chief, lost his mother, father, wife, son, daughter, brother and his brother’s entire family. He only managed to save his youngest daughter by gripping her to his body throughout that fatal night. Being a landowner, he was eligible for rice seeds provided by the government to replant his fields.

“If you own land, they gave you rice seeds. If you didn’t own land, they gave you some money,” he explained. “I am all alone anyway, so I don’t need the money to rebuild my home. Now, I'm left with only myself to look after.”

Near Pyiapon, another town where Nargis claimed more than 5,000 lives, a monastery that housed 300 people in the storm's aftermath is slowly being rebuilt. Shredded wooden planks, crumbling statues and piles of bricks strewn about testify to the tragedy that occurred here a year ago.

“In that morning, people just kept coming and coming until the whole monastery was full,” said U War Ya Ma, the abbot of Thiak Kyaung Monastery. “But we could only feed people rice for three or four days. Soon even the rice was all gone.”

Four women who spent a month in the monastery after they lost their home in the storm have attempted to rebuild near the front gates. “We had to build our house with the wood and roofing we found laying around. People brought aid after three weeks and left it with the monks in the monastery. If we needed anything, we could go there to get it,” said Paw Myint Kyi, the eldest daughter.

Most villagers in the Irrawaddy Delta say they received aid, in differing amounts, for three to four months after the storm, though some say they received as little as two bags of rice. Despite the devastation, most say that they picked up the pieces within a few months. While diarrhea and other stomach disorders were common for weeks after the storm, few recall anyone losing their life to waterborne illness or starvation.

Throughout the reaches of the delta, you can still see fallen trees and the skeletal remains of former homes, but you can also see freshly painted walls, gleaming new corrugated iron roofs and tents in myriad colors displaying the names of organizations such as Unicef, UNDP, WFP, World Vision, MSF and Red Cross. People smile and wave as you drive past.

But despite these signs, life is not as it was.

“We used to have a tea shop but the storm took it,” Paw Myint Kyi said. “Without all our supplies, we have to struggle every day. Life has not returned to normal.”

For five siblings who swam across the river during the storm to survive, Nargis meant the loss of both their parents and one sibling. They found their father's body far downstream and buried him, but their mother's body was lost to the river.

“We are scared of another storm,” the eldest sister said, while looking away, “but we don’t have bad dreams about them. We do dream about our parents. They are always happy dreams.”