A sneak look at the cyclone-battered country

A CBC correspondent takes an unofficial look at Burma's cylone relief.

As a journalist covering an international disaster, the main thing you want to do is get to the hardest hit areas. In Burma, that presented a huge challenge.

My goal was to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta in the southern portion of the country where tens of thousands of lives had been lost and countless communities shattered. The problem, however, was that I was trying to report from a country that didn't want me there — me or any other foreign reporter. We did it, essentially, by posing as tourists. Tourists carry around small home movie cameras, right? 

So that part was easy enough, although I had heard reports of suspicious immigration cops sniffing out journalists right at the airport. But when it came to trying to arrange transportation to the delta, my cameraman Udi Kivity and I were told it would be "very, very difficult."

I later learned that it is the Burmese way never to say impossible. In any case, it soon became clear that nobody was willing to take us past the military checkpoints along the roads leading to the delta. It was too risky, we heard over and over again.

For aid agencies, the risk of alienating the authorities in this way was that work in other storm-ravaged communities might be halted. For independent Burmese citizens, who might be willing to make the trip to deliver food and clothes to their fellow citizens, risky meant jeopardizing that aid and also their own freedom and safety.

When I arrived in Rangoon near the end of May, stories were circulating about dozens of private vehicles that had been impounded and drivers interrogated and threatened with jail time, just for travelling to the delta.

The mood in Rangoon

The restrictions on private travel seemed to loosen a little bit during the time I was in Rangoon, but concerns and suspicions did not. We tried to hire a boat, for example, to cross the Yangon River but were told over and over again that it was not allowed because we were foreigners. So much for our plan-B to sail to the delta.

I ran into one print reporter from Europe who had simply given up. Too many of his colleagues had been caught trying to sneak into the area. They had their passports seized for a day before they were booted out of the country.  

I lost count of how many times I was asked why the CBC had not sent an Asian producer and cameraman instead of me to the country, the idea being that an Asian would blend in better, which would make sneaking into the delta a lot easier.

But we were determined to make the best of it, which, in many ways, meant covering the story in an almost old-school way.

For example, in Rangoon, our international cellphones were useless. They simply didn't work. And there was no chance of getting a local mobile phone without paying a very hefty price. (Ordinary Burmese can wait years just to get a SIM card through official government channels and then they pay as much as $2,000.)

What's more, making calls from our hotel was complicated for a number of reasons. First, for every 10 calls you make, maybe one gets through. If you do get through, you're never quite sure if the call is being monitored. It often meant conversations were short and in code.

So we ended up doing a lot of driving around, meeting people to talk in person.

An absence of motorbikes

One of the most striking things about Rangoon is that unlike most Asian cities, you won't see many motorbikes on the street. We were told that Burma's notoriously suspicious regime had banned them for fear of potential suicide attacks.

That also meant that if we did spot someone on a motorbike, they were likely connected to the government somehow — a policeman, security official or simply an informer. They were the people to avoid.

As Udi, my cameraman, and I tried to piece together a picture of the aftermath of the cyclone and how it was affecting the lives of people within Rangoon, we had to be careful not to stay in one place for very long. We also kept our tiny camera hidden as much as possible.

When we did end up someplace for any length of time, sure enough, a motorbike would come by and the driver would jot down the licence plate number of our taxi. One morning, our guide and taxi driver from the previous day were hauled into the police station for questioning. They were released, thank goodness, and fortunately we had decided by that point to switch hotels. 

Awash in rumours

Rangoon itself was awash in rumours and stories connected to the cyclone and the relief effort. We were told of emergency aid kits, with the names of an international aid agency printed right on the box, that were on sale in the black market.

DVDs, with the starkest, most gruesome images from the delta in the first days after the cyclone, when bloated bodies filled waterways, were a hot seller.

On the downtown streets, though, there is a sense of normalcy. Time and again we were told about the night the cyclone hit with its powerful 120 km/h winds and how, the morning after, Rangoon resembled a war zone.

Just about every second or third tree has taken a beating. But while the cleanup will continue for some time, life is going on.

It is only when you get to the outskirts of the city, to the more rural areas that you really begin to notice that something dramatic has happened. Tiny, bamboo shacks have sprouted up everywhere — makeshift homes to the thousands who lost bigger, more permanent structures.

The sound of hammering is everywhere. Building supplies are apparently fetching steep prices and all over the countryside blue plastic sheeting stretches over rooftops, a necessity as daily monsoon rains beat down on the already weather-weary.

In the more impoverished sections of the city, the scenes are dismal, the smell of stale urine strong and the stories horrific.

The 'camps'

Just around Rangoon, the country's largest city, we witnessed hundreds of displaced Burmese packed into schools and other public buildings. Most told us the government either hadn't helped them or had just given them a token, one-time handout of a four-kilogram bag of rice. 

On the day we visited these "camps," everyone told us that the authorities were about to kick them out. You knew they were scared. They had nowhere to go.

Just days before I arrived in Burma, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had won a promise from the country's military leadership to open the door to the worst hit areas to foreign aid groups. In the first days of my visit to Burma, there did seem to be a genuine sense of optimism among aid groups that a page had been turned.   Privately, some foreign aid officials told me the junta had no choice, that they had really underestimated their own capacity for dealing with the emergency and now slowly things would get done.   But others were far more skeptical, believing the regime's public gesture was carefully calibrated to release some of the pressure it was getting from Western governments and the UN. The "bottlenecks," one team leader told me, still existed on the ground.

One day, we drove by a relatively pristine looking refugee camp — neat, crisp blue tents all lined up in a row, security guarding the entrance. I couldn't help but think of some of the images I had seen on television before arriving in Burma and I suspected it was one of the junta's show camps, like the one presented to Ban Ki-moon during his visit. It was quiet and fairly empty compared to some of the other makeshift camps we saw earlier.

I couldn't help but wonder: If the government really was trying to help its people, wouldn't it be teeming with needy Burmese? Wouldn't one of those international aid groups be making a delivery?

I would have loved to ask those questions of an official, but as a foreigner and a forbidden journalist at that, I could not.

Stephanie Jenzer is the CBC's Middle East producer based in Jerusalem.