Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 18:04 UK

Burma diary - the relief effort

Andrew Kirkwood, Burma director of Save the Children, has been keeping a diary of his life in Rangoon in the days following Cyclone Nargis.


Ken Caldwell, Save the Children's Director of International Operations is here with us, so I've been in meetings today with the British and American ambassadors, amongst others.

Andrew Kirkwood of Save the Children
Andrew Kirkwood has 500 Save the Children staff in Burma
There are so many dimensions to this crisis and it seems overwhelming at times. But, at least our mission is clear. Our absolute priority right now is to save children's lives. I think we've been clear and vocal about the dire situation children are in, and the need for urgent action to reach them.

Save the Children has now, less than two weeks after the cyclone, reached more than 120,000 people who have been forced out of their homes by the cyclone, including around 50,000 children - 90,000 people around Yangon and 30,000 in the Irrawaddy delta. And, we're reaching around 15,000 more people each day.

This gives me incredible hope and energy.

Today is my last instalment. I'll be relieved not to have this on my list of things to do every day.

I usually end up writing at the very end of the day, when I'm impatient to go home - even though the family is usually asleep already. But, I'm really glad I have written it.

I think it's been a good way of staying sane, since it's forced me to process what's happened during the day.

For most of the past two weeks I've had to read my blog every night to someone in our Bangkok office, because I've had no other way to send it.

At times it was really hard to read it - last Thursday it took me nearly five minutes to read the last paragraph and I was in tears when I finished.

It sometimes felt self-indulgent, and I wondered why I was taking time away from my family or from the efforts to save children. But, it's also been a way for me to stay in touch with friends and family, almost all of whom I've had no other contact.

I wonder how I'll feel when I read this in a few months.


At breakfast my three-year-old son Callum suddenly decided that the cyclone had been "very naughty".

So, his logical question was "will the cyclone get a time out"? Excellent idea. I'll propose this at the next interagency co-ordination meeting.

We had two more staff arrive today, and with them a newspaper, chocolates and, perhaps most importantly, an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull activity book (complete with Indy tattoos).

I'm tempted to give Callum the newspaper and keep the Indy activity book for myself - something to keep me sane in the office.

It is absolute chaos here first thing in the morning. There are people, trucks and stuff everywhere.

But, but by about 0930 it calms down a bit and a semblance of order is established. I'm sure there are a lot of frayed nerves, but I've yet to see anyone get overtly angry. People are hugely motivated.

This is now a massive relief operation and sustaining it, in terms of logistics, supervision, data collection, etc is extremely complicated.

But systems are being established. We have a newly-established logistics team on the fifth floor that seems to be running like a watch, perhaps not a Swiss one, but adequate for the job.

Louis Michel, the European Union commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, is in town. We had a chance to meet him this afternoon, after his meeting with senior government officials.

It seems that some progress was made on some issues, but like so often before, it's not precisely clear exactly what progress - and on what issues. This is a such a complicated place.

Quick update just in from the team in Pathein. The third boat load of supplies landed safely down at Pyin Kayaing and started distributions this afternoon.

And, the fourth boat left at 1820 tonight. I'm so proud of our team out there.


Brian and Julie were lovely, gracious hosts again last night, as our house is still uninhabitable. Fortunately, they have kids the same age as ours, so Callum and Aisha are more than happy to spend time there.

Someone in the office told me this morning that I had been quoted in the Benton Crier and the Akron Farm Report. Who would have guessed?

A Burmese child in Dedaya, 13 May 2008
The cyclone is expected to have a long-term impact on livelihoods

I heard today that a breakthrough was reached in negotiations between the UN and the government. It seems that visas will now be issued, at least for UN staff. Still no clear signal about visas for staff of other aid agencies.

Relief supplies continue to come into the country. Our logisticians are working on the arrangements for seven different flights that will likely arrive in the coming week. And we continue to be able to buy other materials inside the country, particularly in Mandalay, which is well away from the area affected by the cyclone.

Fortunately, we've been able to secure a huge warehouse near the airport. And, we're trying to organise a big warehouse in Pathein, so we can scale up the rate at which we send supplies to the delta.

But this isn't just about logistics. The story for me today is about the high numbers of children that we are finding separated from their families.

We've identified 2,000 children already - and we haven't had reports from all the sites we're working in. In the 2004 tsunami, Save the Children had a caseload of 7,000 - and it took two years to complete.

Child protection is obviously going to be a big part of our response here in the coming year.

And now we're being told that a second cyclone is possibly on its way. Any further storms are likely to encourage people to move again, and we know that every time people move, the numbers of children that get separated from their families will increase.

Another not-often-reported aspect of this crisis is the impact the cyclone will have on people's longer-term livelihoods.

This is the time of the year when people should be preparing the land for the monsoon paddy crop. For nearly two million people, this hasn't been possible. So, without a monsoon paddy crop, there won't be a harvest in October/November.

And this is in an area where at least a third of children were chronically malnourished before the cyclone. Yet another indicator that this is going to be a massive relief effort, which is going to go on for quite a long time.


The rain we were promised has appeared, along with high winds. The conditions must be dreadful out there.

Everyone is feeling the pressure. I for one wasn't very nice to be around today. I'll have some bridges to build again tomorrow.

And I don't have the energy for this tonight.


When I got to the hotel last night, the room was like an oven.

A boy feeds his younger brother at a temple being used as a temporary shelter on the outskirts of Rangoon (13.05.08)
The UN is concerned that orphaned children may be at risk of exploitation

The hotel turns off the generator at 2100, and without mosquito nets, I didn't want to open the windows.

But it would be ridiculous under the circumstances to gripe about our living conditions.

The rain we were promised started last night, and it must be unbelievably miserable to shelter under plastic sheeting.

We had a flight arrive last night, and there were problems with the airway bill.

Two of our logisticians were at the airport until 0230. The situation looked pretty bleak the first thing this morning.

But like so many times over the last week just when it looked desperate - that we would have the whole planeload impounded - things took an unexpected turn and we got everything out of the airport and into the warehouse. Amazing.

The story for me today is the incredible contribution that the local private sector is making to the response.

Factories are sometimes selling supplies at their cost of production. And many wholesalers are keeping the lids on their prices.

There haven't yet been many relief supplies brought in from outside, but we still have been able to buy lots of materials locally. Thank goodness for that.

Thirty of our child-protection staff from around the country arrived in Rangoon last night, and they're being trained today in how to deal with children who have been separated from their families.

Katy, our child-protection specialist from London, has clearly got them all fired up to get out in the field.

Seems that we can get some significant family-tracing activities going as early as tomorrow.

We've also managed to set up a team to provide a 45-minute briefing to all staff, before they go into the field, on the difficult things they are likely to see and how this might affect them.

Each staff member will also get a debriefing when they return. Many of them will be seeing things they've never seen before.

One of our staff just came up to my desk to ask if our teams in the field could accept donations from local people.

Apparently as our team in Pethein was loading up the boat tonight, some local people came up to offer donations of clothes and food to be sent together with our supplies. If that doesn't bring a tear to the eye...

I have been receiving email messages intermittently and, as far as I can tell, this is the only way I am communicating with friends and family in at least six countries. Kind of weird.


So much for my career as a roofer.

I got home very late last night to find Kelly and the kids all sleeping under mosquito nets in Callum's room. The heavy rain we got last night soaked our bed and much of our bedroom. Maybe I should move the family to a hotel - especially considering we're due for heavy rains every day next week.

I spent an hour with the kids this morning, and they're both very clingy. They're obviously not getting enough of their dad. We made a clinic out of wooden blocks, and Aisha brought kids, chickens and sheep to the clinic to see the doctor. If it were only that easy.

Two reinforcements arrived this morning from London: Katy, a child protection specialist, and Philip, a logistician. It's so great to get new people in. It certainly doesn't feel like a Sunday in the office; there are people running around everywhere.

US aid is unloaded by American and Burmese military - 12/5/2008
Foreign aid is arriving in Burma, but many aid workers have been barred

The good news this morning is that we were able to unload a truckload of tents, blankets and cooking kits off a plane organised by UNHCR (the UN agency responsible for refugees). The truck is already on its way to the Delta.

It seems that the government is happy to let us distribute the supplies ourselves. I need to follow up on this, but it sounds like a fantastically positive development.

We're scrambling the morning to find extra warehouse space. We've got a plane coming in this afternoon, and another tomorrow.

The team that took the first boat from Pethein down to Pyin Kayaing returned to Pethein this afternoon and reported that the trip was a huge success. They were able to distribute rice, water and oral-rehydration solution to 9,400 people, including 2,350 children under 12, in 13 villages.

All of these people are sheltering in monasteries and makeshift shelters made from plastic sheeting. This is the kind of report that gives the team hope. It makes all of the effort worthwhile.

I'll make sure we highlight this at our all-staff meeting tomorrow morning and get the news out to all our offices around the country.

Just back now from a briefing given by the government. There were three ministers (national planning and economic development, social welfare, and health) and one deputy minister (foreign affairs). We were told that the official death toll is still 23,000 and that no one has died of thirst, hunger or disease since the cyclone.

Hmmmmm... Let's hope it stays that way.

Kelly and the kids came to the office tonight and dragged me next door for dinner. It was the first time to eat with them for nearly a week - and it felt so good to get out of the office for a little while. I took them to a hotel and put the kids to bed. Unfortunately I had to come back to the office and finish some things.

Let's see what tomorrow brings.

I'm off to the airport this morning to accompany some Total staff on a flight to their oil rig off the coast. The objective of the trip is to assess how best the helicopter might be used to assist the aid effort and to see if the government will facilitate this. But I'm really nervous about what we'll see.

Back from the trip and feeling really hopeful for the first time in days. Seeing the scale of the devastation for the first time was dreadful but I'm amazed at the number of people who seem to be hanging in there against the odds. We saw hundreds of villages completely surrounded by water but with enough high ground for people to be drying rice on plastic sheets.

Most bigger villages seem to have at least one building relatively intact where people are hopefully taking shelter. There are many people out on the rivers and canals on canoes, some motorised and some not. It's clearly not too late to save a lot of people.

Terrible news this afternoon. A tropical storm is reportedly on its way from the South China Sea, and we're predicted to get four inches of rain every day next week. We really don't need any more rain.

Survivors in Labutta (image from Red Cross)
It's clearly not too late to save a lot of people
More terrible news. There are reports that the military is relocating people to "safety" in the larger towns of the delta like Bogale and Pyapon. Experience in almost every emergency of this kind shows that it is much better to assist people where they are, except in the most dangerous situations. This enables people to start rebuilding their lives as soon as they are ready. I hope these reports aren't true.

We've got our second boat of supplies ready in Pathein and it will be off tomorrow. Fantastic. And we got a team with supplies to Myaungmya by truck. Also fantastic.

Some good news finally. There is a buzz in town that aid flights tomorrow will be cleared much more easily and we'll be able to distribute the relief. Of course we've heard this before, but maybe tomorrow it's different. I hope this isn't just wishful thinking because we've got a massive C-130 plane arriving on Monday morning with fresh relief supplies. I hope someone in the team can figure out how many trucks we need to hire.

I know I'm running out of energy, but the adrenaline is almost addictive and it's so hard to convince yourself to take a break when everything seems urgent. Prioritising is becoming more and more difficult. This is a sign, time to go home. If only I could go home and watch Ebbsfleet win the FA trophy tonight.


I woke to the sounds of hope - helicopters and trains arriving at or leaving from the airport. Maybe things are starting to move. This will make the need for trucks, boats and fuel even more intense.

Map showing Amar
Just out of a co-ordination meeting with the UN and other NGOs. There's some good news. In Haing Gyi, where we thought that all the survivors could have died of dehydration, there are apparently 160,000 people still hanging on.

They must have found some fresh water to drink. This gives me a whole new look on things. We've got to get that boat out today.

I don't know where the day's gone. The boat still hasn't left Pathein [in the Irrawaddy Delta region], we're still trying to secure permission from the local authorities. It's so frustrating.

New figures in from the UN - their calculations, based on counting up all the independent assessments that have come in - put the death toll at possibly 216,000, 10 times the official figure. The number is numbing but right now it feels only like a number. Is this really true?

I just got a phone call from Pathein; the boat has left. It left at 7.30 this evening, carrying nearly 100 metric tonnes of rice, salt, sugar, dried noodles, fresh water, oral rehydration solution and plastic sheeting. I could kiss someone. Unfortunately the only one I can see is my colleague Guy, so I'll keep my kiss to myself.

It's 2100 and there's still so much to do and so many people to contact. We've just found out that we've got access to a helicopter tomorrow to do an assessment of the most remote parts of the delta.

Total, the French oil company, is letting us use one of their helicopters for the day. We'll contact some other aid agencies to see if they can provide someone for the assessment. So we're off at 0715 tomorrow morning.


I didn't sleep much last night thanks mainly to North American news agencies. Their listeners want to hear interviews from us when we'd rather be sleeping. It wasn't all their fault.

It was so damn hot last night and not a breath of wind. We're having to sleep under mosquito nets now as the number of mosquitoes seems to have trebled and there is still no sign that electricity will be restored any time soon.

residents of Rangoon walk past fallen trees Tuesday, May 6, 2008, following cyclone Nargis
With trees and power lines down, some roads are impassable
But at least we slept at home for the first time since the storm.

The kids seem very happy to be back at home, even if Aisha can't sleep in her own room because of the gashes in the roof.

I started working from my own desk today too, as we got the third floor of our office building up and running. The media onslaught continues to intensify and is taking up more and more of my time. This afternoon I felt like I spent most of my time talking to journalists so that I had no time left to find out what was happening.

Another rollercoaster of emotions today. First I found out about possible access to a helicopter for two days a week. Big celebrations. And we've now reached 60,000 people whose homes have been destroyed.

Then I was shown some aerial views of a place called Amar on the southern edge of the delta. There's nobody left. Either everyone has died or everyone has moved or most likely a combination of both. I fear it's too late to save some people. And with that I need to go home.

The only clean, dry clothes I have to wear today made me look like I'm on my way to the beach. I really hope I don't have to meet the minister.
We've reached another 15,000 homeless people today, which is hugely motivating for the team

The four of us sleeping on one bed under a mosquito net is also getting a bit tiring. Calum, my son, kept kicking me in the middle of the night, but such things seem petty, considering what's happened.

The last few days have just flown by, and yet it's hard to think of what I did each day.

We've got to get the distributions going on the delta, but there's still so much more to organise - trucks, boats, a warehouse.

We've got to get clearance to land a plane-load of supplies. Fuel is in very short supply - the price is up to four times what it was last week. There are 2-km queues for fuel.

The media frenzy is in full swing - I must have done 20 interviews over the past two days. At least the word is out.

We've reached another 15,000 homeless people today, which is hugely motivating for the team.

But still so much to do - hard to find time, these days, to write.

I've got to drag myself home.


Yesterday I was thinking that Save the Children should probably concentrate its relief efforts in the townships of Rangoon where we have existing activity, and leave the Irrawaddy delta area to other agencies.

But last night, as news filtered in about the scale of devastation in the delta, it's clear now that we're going to have to mount an operation there, too.

A team came back last night from the outskirts of Rangoon, with terrible stories of the conditions in many of the schools, where people are squatting.

Up to 1,000 people living in small primary schools with no sanitation, no clear water, and very little food. What little food they did have was being organised by local neighbourhood groups, and monks.

people walk past fallen trees at a street in Rangoon
With devastation widespread, the relief challenge is daunting

Today, things feel much more sombre. It's clear that the key to the response here is going to be logistics - getting enough food, shelter and household supplies and medicine to the affected areas.

We need to get hold of trucks, boats, fuel - all are in desperately short supply.

By the end of the day, the mood lifted again. The teams came back from the townships, and it became clear that we had delivered assistance to 30,000 people today, nearly 12,000 children.

The teams are clearly exhausted, but very proud of their work. I need to try and sustain this energy level in the coming weeks.

I went back to Justin and Karen tonight, our hosts, for a late dinner.

Karen startled us when she told us of the new estimates of 50,000 people dead, and a million homeless. We all feel terrible.

It's clear now that the response is going to take a year, not months. We're also going to need a lot of help. I need to get new people in.


First day in the office today since Nargis. Got to the office at 0800 to find a hive of activity, with nearly 100 staff running around.

Usually there are only 65 people in the office, but with all the people in town for training, the office was much more crowded than usual, despite the fact that some staff were unable to come in.

residents of Rangoon look for water after the cyclone
Water shortages and sanitation are among the most serious problems

Many people remark on my clothes, all borrowed from my host and colleague, the elegant Justin.

We managed to mobilise three teams this morning to go out and assess the situation in three poor townships of the city which we had heard were badly affected.

So many things to organise, and an incredible atmosphere of energy and purpose. Everyone is keen to make this a state-of-the-art emergency response for children.

I'm really proud to be part of the team today.


It was possible to drive a little further today, as some of the trees have been cleared.

Everyone is out, trying to clean up. There even seems to be a positive spirit in the air. People seem to believe that it's all over, and they've survived.

 a damaged automobile sits near fallen trees Tuesday, May 6, 2008, following cyclone Nargis
It will be many months before Burma can return to normal

But it's beginning to dawn on people that the coming weeks are going to be pretty miserable without water, electricity and public transport.

I tried to buy drinking water in two shops, but both were already sold out.

On my way to the office I ran into my colleague, Guy, who was going home from the office. His report - one floor flooded, two floors fine, no electricity, no water.

But, remarkably, the child protection team were conducting training on counselling skills with three consultants, who were experts in trauma counselling for children.

In fact, they had come down from Mandalay for the training on the overnight bus on Friday night. They had arrived in a devastated Rangoon at 0700 on Saturday, but there were no taxis willing to take them to their hotel.

After long negotiations, the staff managed to hire a bus to take them to the hotel at the exorbitant price of $5 each, above the price of the 12-hour journey from Mandalay.


Our child protection officer has managed to cut holes in four trees, large enough to get his car to the office and start the training.

Still no communications available for contacting the outside world, or even our own staff.

It's really impossible to know how hard the city's been hit - and the delta must have been badly hit, we can only imagine how badly.

My family in Canada must be worried - maybe they haven't heard about the cyclone yet.

Late this evening I managed to get to the house of the acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator, who was sitting in the dark with his family.

He managed to get me a line out to call Dan, the regional programme manager in Bangkok. Dan sounded hugely relieved to hear from me, and to find out that the family was safe. He's been fielding calls all day.

Tomorrow's going to be a big day.


It's hard to fathom all that's happened in the past 24 hours.

The wind got more and more ferocious during the night, and I kept waking up to the sound of trees cracking around the house, and debris falling on the roof.

Then, some time in the early hours of the morning, a tree came crashing through the roof of my daughter's bedroom.

residents of Rangoon look for water after the cyclone
Water shortages and sanitation are among the most serious problems

Unbelievably Sophie, my daughter's friend, slept right through it.

We didn't realise the extent of the damage at the time, but the tree crushed part of the wall, and made numerous football-sized holes in the roof.

By early morning the house was flooded. Kelly, my wife, and I couldn't stop emptying buckets into the bath.

At some point Kelly thought to put our family photos in a waterproof plastic box.

By mid-morning, we had walked to a friend nearby, whose roof was intact. I felt pretty miserable, tramping along the road with a plastic bag of food, and nothing else.

It's impossible to drive anywhere today, as huge trees and power lines blocked most roads.

The electricity that went out last night is unlikely to be back for weeks. How long will it take to get all these power lines back up?

All the phone lines are down, the mobile lines are down. How do we contact anyone?

Although the sun didn't come out today, at least it didn't rain for most of the day. It seems like everyone in the neighbourhood is out, trying to clean up around them.

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