Anna Ford visits an orphanage in Burma where the after-effects of Cyclone Nargis are still being felt...
When Cyclone Nargis hit southern Burma last year, tens of thousands of children were swept to their deaths and thousands more were separated from their parents or guardians.
While the majority are now being cared for by relatives or people in their communities, some are still living in local Buddhist monasteries and orphanages.
Anna Ford visited one orphanage in the Irrawaddy Delta where the number of children doubled virtually overnight to see how they are coping a year after the devastating storm changed their lives forever…
Immediately after Cyclone Nargis, ten children – some of them with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing – turned up at Pan Oo Yin Orphanage* desperately looking for someone to take them in. In the days that followed, 40 more children were brought by community leaders or relatives who, like them, had lost everything and couldn’t afford to look after them.
For the first few weeks the children slept huddled together on the floor until another dormitory was hastily built. Some of them cried themselves to sleep, unable to deal with the pain of either not knowing where their parents were, or having seen their dead bodies float past them during the storm.
As the sound of laughter echoes round the orphanage it is clear what a difference a year has made. Although the children still miss their parents, and will find it hard to forget what happened to them that night last May, they have been able to start to enjoy being children again. ‘It’s fun to play with my friends here, now I know how to dance and sing,’ says 15-year-old Naw Bu Gay whose name means ‘lucky’. Her younger twin sisters are also being cared for at the orphanage.
There are now 94 children aged between four and one, living at the orphanage from different tribes and religions. There should be 100 children but six who were already living there were visiting relatives when Nargis struck and never came back.
Headmaster U Maung Maung* admits it is sometimes a struggle to buy enough food for all children and to cover their schooling costs, but he is determined to give them the best possible chance in life. ‘They need special attention. They need lots of love and care to cure their trauma,’ he says. ‘We hope to help them until they can stand on their own two feet.’
Some like Sandar Win, 10, regard the orphanage as her home. Draping her arms around the neck of the headmaster, she smiles and says, ‘I call him Daddy.’ The bubbly little girl had been visiting a neighbouring village during Nargis and was the only member of her close family to survive.
But although Save the Children works with orphanages like Pan Oo Yin, ultimately the organisation believes the best place for orphaned children is normally with family members or local communities.
Re-unifying families is vital work and, despite the chaos which accompanies natural disasters, is often successful. To date, 73% of those registered by the aid agency following Nargis are now living with family members and a further 16% are living with neighbours or monks.
While efforts to reunify children at Pan Oo Yin Orphanage continue, Save the Children is also helping them forget the horror they experienced by providing them with play areas and toys and specially-trained ‘animators’ who act as friends and offer them emotional support.
Children are also encouraged to express their feeling in song and as the afternoon draws on one of the older boys starts to strum a guitar while another sings a plaintive tune which brings tears to the other children’s eyes – a reminder that their horrific memories are never far away.
One of the members of staff explains that Saw E Mawlay, 12, is remembering the moment his younger brother was swept away by the storm: ‘He couldn’t hold on and he drifted away. Now I remember him but I can’t see him anymore,’ he sings.
Aye Htwe also misses his brothers, but unlike Saw E Mawlay he knows that they are still alive – and that they are living in his home village – but they are unable to look after him. The youngster is thought to be about seven years old but no-one knows for sure. Both his mother and his father died in the cyclone, along with his disabled brother.
When he first arrived at the orphanage he used to cry all the time, according to staff. ‘It showed in his eyes that he was not normal,’ one carer says. ‘He was very sad.’
‘I was swimming with my mum and I held my mum’s leg,’ Aye Htwe says, describing what happened that fateful night, ‘[But] when I saw that she was dead I didn’t hold her any longer and I let her go in the water. I saw one of my brothers dead, he was so white.’
Now the lively youngster, who loves to sing and play tag with his new friends, is much happier than before but is still desperate to go back to his village.
‘I want to go back home. I want to go to school in my village. I want to be a harvester in the paddy fields like my mum and my brothers,’ he says.
For some of the older children, it has been easier to move on. Saw Bar Blute Doh, 15, feels that he is a big brother to some of the younger boys.
‘I look after them and listen to them when they talk about missing their parents and siblings,’ he says.
When asked if he feels lucky to have survived when his parents and grandparents were killed, Saw Bar Blute Doh replies: ‘Rather than lucky I believe God kept me alive and sent me here. I feel like this is a second life.’
The teenager hopes to go to university when he finishes school and then come back and work in the orphanage. ‘I’m very grateful to the orphanage,’ he adds. ‘I think about my parents [though], especially at bed time. I found my father’s dead body. I won’t be able to forget that.’
* Some names have been changed for child protection reasons.