By Warisara Sornpet, Regional Communications Specialist for Plan Asia
It was an unusually quiet night in Laputta. Devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the dimly lit town watched the news from Japan with compassion and an eerie anxiety. The powerful streams of Laputta River were only 100 metres away. “The tides will be really bad tomorrow evening. We have to return early before it gets too dangerous,” Zin Moe, my Burmese colleague, said with a worried look on her face.
As both Zin Moe and I would come to know, the following days of news coverage of the Japanese tsunami shifted from the devastation to the resilience of the survivors. And the world responded quickly with empathy and a lot of money.
Resilience & the minimum wage
Japan is one of the richest countries in the world, Myanmar one of the poorest. Is it unreasonable to think that those living in flimsy huts in villages accessible only by boat could afford to be resilient? Those who earn less than 1USD a day and die of a preventable disease like diarrhea? Can they too face a disaster as devastating as Nargis with grace and strength?
Earlier that week, Daw Phyu Phyu Thi, a teacher at one of the schools supported by Plan, poignantly captured Nargis’ extent of destruction for me when she said, “There were 130 students at this school. On the first day back after Nargis, I rang the bell and only 30 turned up.” She recalled, biting her lips, trying to hold back her tears.
"After Nargis, the children’s faces all changed with this lingering look of sadness. . . but they are getting better as time goes by," said the teacher, who had also been coping with her mother’s death.
Time will heal
But what does getting better mean? Isn’t “Live in the present” one of the most overused phrases whose meaning is nothing but subjective? Does moving on mean living happily ever after without the memory of those that departed, as if they never really existed?
Thinking about these questions on the boat on my last day in Laputta, I thought back to 5-year-old Wah Wah. She remembers a few things about her parents. "I remember their names, my father feeding me and the family eating together . . . I also remember that they are dead," she said.
Many children lost someone – or everyone – they have ever loved. A lot of them still wake up in the middle of the night crying for their parents. They said it’s particularly hard when there are grey clouds in the sky, because it reminds them of the last day they were together as a family. Some children say there’s nothing they want more than to say 'Ah may' (mother) and 'Ah phay' (father) again. Ten-year-old Zin Mar Htet told me if she could say anything to her dead parents, she’d tell them she would take care of them when they are old.
Like Wah Wah, they all remember. Three years after Nargis ripped the delta and countless families apart, it seems to me that those who survived have accepted that the pain will probably be there always. They haven’t forgotten the loved ones and are not trying to. Instead, they live alongside their sadness and try to make themselves useful. Making themselves useful is, in fact, how they have been coping with the loss.
The green buildings
Distressed as they are, the children have also been busy with learning, living and laughing at school. A lot of them dream about becoming an engineer, because they want to build strong buildings like their new, bright green schools for people to take refuge if another cyclone hits. “I’m not scared when I’m at school. The strong building makes me feel safe,” said Wah Wah.
Before Nargis, monasteries were the only buildings strong enough to offer any hope of survival. Now, with Plan’s support, there will be 51 new schools - more strong buildings that will save more lives.
During the construction, hundreds of people came to help. I saw 13-year-old Hlaing Hlaing Maw carry buckets of heavy concrete in the sweltering sun. She said she came because she wanted a new school. Adults came because they, too, wanted to fill their mind with hope. The buildings have become the manifestation of the communal strength and drive to live.
“Earthquake! Earthquake!” teacher Daw Phyu Phyu Thi shouted while banging the table repeatedly in a Plan’s disaster preparedness training. Her sprightly class of 30 got under the tables in a few seconds, giggling. Like them, the communities have been learning how to protect themselves from natural disasters. They now know that the extent of death from a disaster of Nargis’ scale can be lessened.
Like Zin Moe predicted, the tides were strong on my last evening in Laputta. Seeing me get off the boat, 12-year-old Aye Min Soe, who had been swimming, hurried out of the river and ran to me. “I’ve got a show for you!” he said excitedly, and started contorting himself into a strange acrobatic pose, with his back bent backwards and feet on his head. "This pose is called finding lice with your feet," he said, managing a cheeky smile to the cheering crowd.
Aye Min Soe lost his parents to Nargis. He keeps moving around, staying with different people near the market, working in exchange for some food. He doesn't have any relatives - or anyone else left in the world. And yet he keeps on entertaining his fans.
Warisara Sornpet is the Regional Communications Specialist for Plan Asia. She visited the hardest-hit coastal communities of Laputta township in March 2011, three years after Nargis killed an estimated 140,000 people in Myanmar and marked the worst disaster in the country’s history.
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