A glimpse inside battered Burma

The CBC's Stephen Puddicombe heard stories from Burma's cyclone survivors about death, the injured and frustration over lack of aid.

Fearful Burmese tell tales of gruesome death, the injured and frustration

A young boy in Mae Sot, Thailand, lights candles for relatives back home in Burma. He has not heard from them since a deadly cyclone struck the country in early May. The headband the boy is wearing reads "Save Burma". (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

One of the more frustrating days of my life was getting into Burma, also known as Myanmar.   We travelled to the border city of Mae Sot in northern Thailand, or as many people call it, Little Burma. That's because half of the roughly 120,000 people who live there are refugees from Burma.

I came to Mae Sot with every intention of making it over the border and telling those stories. If caught, we'd probably be arrested, maybe worse. A risk worth taking if we got in and out.

Many of the Burmese expatriates in Mae Sot said I could try but I probably would be caught. After that, who knows, they said. It's not like getting caught in the Burmese capital with a lot of witnesses.

They said they couldn't risk smuggling me in an aid truck because that would jeopardize the shipment.

As I sat in a small restaurant in Mae Sot being told it isn't worth the risk, a local man approached me. He was wearing a camouflage jacket and blue jeans. He was in his mid-40s with a scruffy growth on his face. He showed me a computer memory stick.

Photos tell horrifying tale

We opened up the file on a laptop to see new photos smuggled out of Burma via the internet. My stomach tightened. A beach covered in debris, hundreds of bodies entangled in the shattered remains of a village. Children placed neatly in a row in a makeshift morgue.

The man told me a friend sent them to him. He wouldn't tell me the photographer's name for fear of him being arrested in Burma. There was no way to actually verify the photos. He posted the same photos the next day on a board in the cyclone relief centre in Mae Sot. All I could think was who would go to such lengths to fake the unspeakable horrors shown in these photos. Those pictures made me want to get into the cyclone zone even more than before. The few news reports getting out of Burma did not come close to portraying what I had seen.

Cyclone survivor Maw Win, 27, and her baby were rescued by her husband. He works in Mae Sot, Thailand, and when he heard about the storm, he rushed back, found them alive and took them back to Mae Sot with him. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

Some of the Burmese people I met in Mae Sot took me to see a couple of survivors who made it over the border to Thailand.

I met 27-year-old Maw Win in a small two-roomed wooden house on stilts. She was clutching her baby. She told me her house collapsed around her during the storm. The next morning when she freed herself and her baby, she was scared. The first thing she saw was a woman and a baby dangling from a tree, the mother barely alive, the baby had died. Win said there were so many bodies you couldn't see the ground — she closed her eyes because she was afraid to look anymore.  

The photos and stories like that of Maw Win made us more determined to get into Burma, to tell people what was really going on. How much worse the devastation is compared to the scattered reports we are getting.

The next morning, on the advice of my new Burmese friends, two of us walked across the friendship bridge connecting Mae Sot with Myawaddy in Burma. We had to pay $50 each to get a one-day visa to visit this small city. The Burmese border guards took our passports. They politely told us we could go any where in the city, provided we returned to Thailand by five o'clock. We were also told not to try to leave the city or we would be invited to be a guest of the Burmese government at one of their lovely prison facilities.

Two women in Myawaddy carry homemade chairs to the market, hoping to make money to send to relatives in the cyclone zone. Even the poorest of the poor are trying to help. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

Every exit from the city was guarded by military checkpoints. We could have tried a jungle walk to get to the cyclone area but were told that would take seven days and there are tigers along the way.

So with great frustration, we resigned ourselves to staying in Myawaddy and scraping together a story.

The first thing you can't help but notice in this city is the poverty. There are few buses, even fewer cars and the main mode of transportation is the bicycle. Some are three-wheelers, with large baskets up front for passengers, which pass for taxis.

I made our way to a Buddhist monastery hoping to find people who would talk with us. We did and a monk set the tone for the entire day. The monk we met spoke perfect English, wouldn't tell me his name, and said "I can't speak with you, you are a foreigner, go away."

And so it went throughout the day in Myawaddy. Person after person was too afraid to speak to us. The few from whom we did hear wouldn't allow any video or pictures. They told us they came to Myawaddy to find any kind of work they could. They needed money to help back home in the cyclone zone.

Bundles of clothes sit in a warehouse in Myawaddy, a Burmese town across the border from Mae Sot, Thailand. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

We heard stories about death, the injured and frustration over the lack of aid from the Burmese government and the international community. Everyone with whom we spoke said the same thing — that their own government is letting people die.

But that frustration was overwhelmed by their fear of their own government. Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of photos on the internet, in newspapers and on television of the cyclone victims, almost everyone we spoke with said they were too afraid to have their pictures broadcast around the world. If the government found out, one person said, we will disappear.

Now, almost four weeks after the cyclone pummelled Burma, there is a promise that aid workers and aid will finally be allowed in, unfettered. But the internet chat rooms and e-mails from inside Burma are still asking when that promise will be fulfilled.