Helping to ease Burma's suffering

Michael Bociurkiw is a Canadian aid worker with UNICEF and was among the first to receive an entry visa to Burma following the devastating Cyclone Nargis that hit the country in early May.

Canadian aid worker finds hunger, resilience in devastated villages

Michael Bociurkiw is a Canadian aid worker with UNICEF and was among the first to receive an entry visa to Burma following the devastating Cyclone Nargis that hit the country in early May.

Canadian aid worker Michael Bociurkiw saw the devastation of Cyclone Nargis first-hand on a recent tour of Burma. ((CBC))

Before he left, he toured the Irrawaddy Delta — the worst-affected region in Burma — by helicopter. He spoke to Around the World host Harry Forestell in Toronto recently about his experiences and what challenges lay ahead.

Forestell: Tell me, when you first arrived there, what did you find?

Bociurkiw: There were really two memorable moments. One was arriving at Yangon [Rangoon] airport a few days after disaster struck. Normally in that phase of a disaster, you'd see a lot of air traffic and cargo on the tarmac. But there was this eerie silence there and this lack of movement. It took a while for relief workers and aid to come in, but eventually, that kind of aid pipeline did increase quite a bit.

[The other was] going for the first time to the Irrawaddy Delta, the worst-affected area, an area slightly bigger than New Brunswick. Just the water everywhere and the lack of movement — no agricultural activity, no water buffaloes moving, no boats moving. Life has almost been suspended because of this huge cyclone that struck, so you really get an idea of the scope of a disaster by being up in a helicopter.

The landscape inundated, the people still, presumably, very much in shock: What shape were those communities in as you got down to see them?

Believe it or not, even though we're two months into it, only recently have we reached a group of 25,000 people for the first time. In a lot of those villages, people have no clean drinking water, they have very little to eat, no shelter whatsoever.

Schools are gone. There are about 4,000 schools that have either been totally wiped off the map or severely damaged. But shelter and clean drinking water are really the priorities.

[In] a lot of the villages field workers have visited for the first time, people were surviving on coconuts, on spoiled rice, this type of thing. They are very resilient people who didn't have a second wave of deaths thanks to their resilience and also help that the UN, UNICEF and others provided.

You met people on the ground; you talked them. Tell me about some of those memories.

The most recent was about 10 days ago when we, with very much difficulty I might add, landed a helicopter during monsoon season and wind. What really struck me was the way people would stream toward the aircraft. …They would be there to help take the aid off the helicopter as quickly as possible, but you also notice that there were people who were quite thin.

We've also had aid workers out to the far-reaching areas of the delta and saying that in some villages, there aren't even any kids left because they were one of the most vulnerable groups during this terrible storm.

Another interesting thing we found for the first time — different from any other disaster — was that people actually had body burns on them. What had happened was the strong wind, mixed with salt water and sand, whipped up against people's bodies throughout the night and actually burned them. These are injuries that are very difficult to treat in a remote area like that.

Sadly, the world seems to have almost forgotten about this disaster. The media have moved on, but the needs are still there. So how serious do things remain, and what more needs to be done?

The worst thing that could happen is if the world forgets. We are talking about two million people severely affected, of which about one million are kids.

Right now, we're very much into the relief/life-saving phase, but in a few months' time, we'll be moving into the multi-year, multi-billion-dollar reconstruction [and] rehabilitation effort. At UNICEF, we've committed ourselves to rehabilitating a big percentage of those 4,000 schools that have been destroyed or damaged.

So No. 1, save as many lives as possible, ensure there isn't a second wave of deaths. And then get people's livelihoods restored, get kids back to school, get them back into a sense of normalcy.

But it's going to take a lot of money. Again, the worst thing that could happen is for the international community to forget about this disaster.

It is very important that people remember it.