Monday, May 2, 2011

Everything is Broken: Three Years After The Burmese Cyclone, The Stories Still Hit Home

It was three years ago today that the violent storm Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country of Burma, changing its landscape and population forever.
The cyclone devastated the impoverished nation, washing away whole villages, tearing apart families, and destroying countless businesses and industries.
The death toll was in the tens of thousands, at least. Whole villages were washed away. Crops and all other sources of food were swept out to sea.
Mya Win, a villager from the particularly devastated low-lying southern Delta, lost his wife and four children, aged 14 to 22. During the storm, as the land was flooding, he had moved the family into his brother's house, hoping they would be safe at a slightly higher altitude. Before long, they were waist-deep in water, and then the roof blew off the house.
"It was like an explosion," Win said. "People were thrown everywhere - into the water and into the air . . . I called out to my family, but I couldn't hear anything above the noise of the storm . . . After that, I never saw my family again."
Win - stern-faced and solemn - told this story from a one-room hut he built after the storm to Emma Larkin, a journalist from Thailand who went to Burma in the aftermath of Nargis to speak to the victims. Her access was a rare thing - most media outlets were not allowed into the nation, but Larkin had been to Burma before and had friends there, so she managed the nearly impossible feat.
As Win and Larking exited the hut, he tied a rope around his makeshift door. Larkin wondered why he would do that - there was certainly nothing worth stealing. He responded, "This is everything I have. I have to try to protect it as best as I can."
Win's heartbreaking story is one of only a few in Larkin's book "Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe In Burma," published by Penguin Press and one of five nominees for The New York Public Library's Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism.
She talked to a young girl who woke up after the storm naked and alone. She talked to a group of people in a shop who imitated the sounds of the storm - "pow, pow, pow" and "whooo whooo" while clapping hands and banging on the floor - until they noticed that one resident, Nwe Nwe, was "crying, and that her body was convulsing with uncontrollable sobs."
Several people told her ghost stories, describing how they see dead relatives or hear voices. Many people from one village saw one particular man in the immediate aftermath of the storm who was helping people find each other. It turned out, he had been killed in the cyclone.
With so many horrific stories to be told, one would think that the government of Burma - run by a military dictator - would have immediately worked to help its suffering, struggling people.
It did not. It did continue the massively expensive construction of a closed-off capital city for the government and its workers called Naypyidaw, complete with a zoo and climate-controlled penguin tank.
Well, surely the government happily accepted help from rescue groups who came from with teams of trained workers and supplies.
It did not. In fact, those workers were turned away, either sent home or forced to sit in cities far from the real devastation, very reluctantly eating lunch and sipping beer in cafes while people starved, wailed in pain and died without the supplies they needed.
Larkin painted a picture of towns full of rescue workers, who were trapped with no place to go.
"It was utterly infuriating," said Larkin, who spoke to NYPL from her home in Thailand. "Everyone who was there at that time was really madly frustrated. It's weird, right? What was happening is exactly the opposite of what should have happened. You couldn't get anywhere, you couldn't get answers to questions."
Burma's leader - General Than Shwe - did not want any intervention. It is unclear why, although Larkin has her theories. Either way, the government did not lift a finger to help its population. Instead, its leaders acted like the incident simply didn't happen.
That is par for the course in Burma.
"There's this very real feeling in Burma that things happen, and then they unhappen," said Larkin. "People in Burma always say things disappear."
"The goal of my book is a humble one - I just wanted to record people, their voices and experiences, so they and their stories won't disappear," she said. "That in itself has a purpose. At least these voices were heard that would never otherwise be heard. It was a great privilege to hear [Mya Win's] story and write it down."
Larkin - whose name is actually a pseudonym to protect herself and her sources, many of whom are described with fake names in the book - has been in interested in Burma since the 1980s, when the 1988 uprisings in Burma raised "the bamboo curtain" Burma and her home of Thailand.
"I was sort of surprised that this massive horribleness was happening right next door from where I had this sunny childhood growing up, spent at the beach and on boats," she said. "I had questions about what was happening there."
Larkin studied at the School of Oriental African Studies and learned basic Burmese, which she described as "a really difficult language."
She spent about six months, all told, in Burma for the book, which covers not only the aftermath of Nargis, but protests in 2007 between the country's revered monks and the government. Those protests involved terrible violence.
"There was an overflow of stories people wanted to tell," said Larkin. "They had no one to talk to. So when I came, I was an outsider who they could talk to about their experiences. And they really wanted to. Even the woman who cried when we discussed the sounds of the storm, she called me over later and told me her story."
Burmese villages leaving their flooded delta by boat after their village's destruction by the Cyclone Nargis.
Although there are newspapers and journals in Burma, they are heavily censored by the government, and the "official" newspaper, "The New Light of Myanmar," repeatedly spins news, often without any truth. For example, the death toll printed there (along with an "official" death toll for chickens and other livestock, which would be impossible to figure out). The government set up fake, pristine looking rows of tents so officials could pose for newspaper photos with displaced villagers, only to remove the tents the second the government left.
"The journalists who work there are obviously very heavily censored," Larkin said. "But there's something noble about recording what you can record and saying what you can say and doing your best to create some creative space, however small. For the journalistic community in Burma, I'm really quite in awe of them. We're very lucky, we can say whatever we want to say whenever we want. These are people struggling to tell stories in the face of enormous obstacles."
She had her own obstacles - she has been questioned by the government several times. She is more fearful for her sources than herself. "I don't really worry for myself at all," she said. "The worst thing that would happen for me is I would be placed on a plane at the end of the day. I worry more for my Burmese friends and the people who were helping me. Everybody else gets tainted by what you've done. It's really stressful."
She also said it was "very hard to remain unbiased," and said, "It was a challenge, and in the end, I'm not sure it really was totally unbiased. But it was a representation of real facts."
"In Burma, there's a big temptation as a journalist, because it's hard to get facts there, to take rumors or what people say at face value," she added. "So the best I could do is get the facts about everything. The interesting thing is what people believe in an environment like that, with an absence of real information, is what becomes real."
In her book, she mentioned a rumor about fingers being found in fish, because corpses that were left to rot in the water at the government's request were being eaten.
"Everything is word of mouth," she said. "That level has a certain amount of truth to it. The fish example, it's fear, right? It's their expression of fear of what was happening. That was very real."
Larkin hopes that someday she can find the same villagers she spoke to her for her book and see how they're doing. She also has a dream that she admitted she's not sure will ever come true.
"My dream would be to write a book about the new Burma at the time when either the opposition are in power or the regime has changed to such an extent that there is freedom of speech. How and when that will come about, I really don't know."