Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 12:04 UK

Aid workers tell of time in Burma

A month after Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of Burma, the few British aid workers allowed in by the ruling military junta have begun returning home.

Here three tell of their time there and whether the 11m so far donated by Britons is having an effect.


Up to 2,000 survivors of the Burma cyclone are thought to be lost children unable to find their parents.

Child collecting water from her tent in Labutta
Parentless children are generally being fostered by family members

Child protection specialist Katy Barnett visited Burma shortly after Cyclone Nargis struck and stayed for two weeks.

"I headed up our child protection responsibility, which looked at family tracing and at the well-being of children, many of whom may have lost siblings or parents," she said.

"For children who are declared orphans we are looking at long-term care arrangements.

"We know from other emergencies that children who are separated from their families are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and abuse.

"There's a threat of trafficking, we've heard tales of horrendous child labour.

"In Burma, it seemed to be perfectly normal for children to start work under 10, and to be living far from home."

She said this was a pre-existing situation, so was a "huge threat" to those orphaned by Cyclone Nargis.

"We had second-hand reports, from community members, that traffickers had been in villages offering work for both adults and children.

"We were told of a family of six children whose mother had accepted to go to China to work."

She said their biggest challenge was still ahead. Children who had been taken in by a foster family were vulnerable when these families started to find it "much harder to sustain extra children".

Katy Barnett
I wasn't able to go into the Delta and that made it much harder to understand the situation
Katy Barnett

"After the initial flurry of aid has gone, it can be much more dangerous for that child," she said.

"In Burma we found that children were generally being fostered by their extended family."

They were developing plans on how to best support these families. "We don't want to make it really attractive for families to take on new children unless they genuinely want to help.

"On the other hand, we don't want to leave foster families without any support at all. We have to get the support just right."

On her time in Burma and the restrictions placed on her as a foreigner, she said: "I did get to go out a little bit around Yangon [the official name for Burma's capital Rangoon] but I wasn't able to go into the Delta and that made it much harder to understand the situation, especially as the communications were quite rocky.

"You had to take a huge leap of faith - for example with family tracing - that the procedures were being followed, that interviews were being carried out in an ethical manner."

She said she had not had contact with the Burmese authorities, as this was done through Save the Children's government liaison officer.

"It was really important that we were always consistent about what we were doing and why," she said.


Alison Fernandes works for Christian charity Tearfund. She visited Burma for 10 days, returning last week.

Based in Rangoon, she said she visited the charity's "partners" - the 276 churches in the affected area who were providing aid on the ground - "to make sure they had the support they needed".

"I was there meeting them to find out what they have been doing and hear their experiences and help them plan for the future," she said.


"The most wonderful thing was to see for myself that aid was getting through to the people who needed it.

"The churches are reaching out to people who are in need, so I am really, really pleased that aid is getting through.

"One of our partners is sending medical teams who are being able to give emergency aid."

She gave one example: "We were able to give one man whose eye was poked out by a tree first aid and refer him to where he would get the help he needs."

Many couldn't hold their children for that whole time, so many just got washed away
Alison Fernandes

They were also providing shelter.

"It was wonderful to have a sense that things are actually happening. There was a real buzz of action, but also a sense that the needs are absolutely huge."

She said she had attempted to reach the affected area but she was stopped at a roadblock and told she would not be allowed through without the relevant permissions.

Instead, she said, she visited some of the townships just outside Rangoon.

She found people who had lost their homes and many were out of work, with many factories damaged.

The petrol price had gone up a lot so people were finding it hard to pay for bus fares to find work, she continued.

"A third of people's daily wage has been taken up just by transport."

Tearfund at work
There was a "buzz" of action, said Alison Fernandes

She said trauma was going to be a "really big issue". People had told her many stories about the guilt of survivors.

"I heard so many stories of parents who tried to save their children. Some tied them to their wrists with rope, but this cyclone moved very, very slowly, so people were buffeted for about eight to 10 hours in the middle of the night.

"Many couldn't hold their children for that whole time, so many just got washed away.

"I found it very difficult emotionally because I am a mother myself, and it was hard to hear so many stories of how children had been lost.

"On the other hand I was inspired that our partners are doing a most fantastic job."


Jonathan Pearce, an information officer for the medical charity Merlin, visited Burma for one week two weeks' ago.

He was there to establish a picture of the environment and an idea of what people needed, he said.

"Our access was hampered considerably both by the nature of the environment - it was very remote - and by the bureaucratic and legal restrictions.

Jonathan Pearson
As an organisation we just pushed and tried to get things done
Jonathan Pearce

"As a foreigner in Myanmar [the official name for Burma] I could not go to certain areas freely and many of the areas that were severely affected couldn't be visited by foreigners without a permit."

Fortunately, he said, Merlin already had a project in the area at the time of Cyclone Nargis so "we had the infrastructure in place to be able to get permits".

"The main thing was we were able to get into the country without much difficulty because we had already been working there," he said.

"And most of our work was delivered by nationals. A lot of qualified medical graduates were available. They could travel there freely."

During his stay, Mr Pearce was based in Labutta, in the affected region.

"The week I was there, when we arrived in Labutta it rained solidly for 48 hours. People desperately needed better shelter," he said.

"People were... camping under sheets of plastic on bricks, to keep off the wet ground. And they were cold because the rain was so intense.

"It was two weeks after the event and there wasn't an atmosphere that this was the hub of aid co-ordination.

"You would expect to see helicopters, you would expect to see the roads choked with supplies. Nothing that came in was in the quantities that you would expect."

However, he said, they were having an impact.

Merlin clinic
Merlin has set up a "floating" clinic in Labutta

"There was a huge need, but there was a sense that we were being successful in helping people every day. We felt we were doing what we could do.

"As an organisation we just pushed and tried to get things done."

He said that steadily they were able to reach more and more people, some of whom did complain not enough was being done.

"When someone goes through a disaster like this most are in a state of shock and have no idea what to expect. People didn't feel safe and didn't know when they were going back to their villages. Many of these villages were literally washed away."

Since Mr Pearce's visit more Merlin workers have been allowed to Labutta and more aid has arrived, the charity said.

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