Thursday, May 7, 2009

Burma cyclone orphans nobody wants

AYE Myat Mon and her little brother, Ye Htet Kyaw, who clung together during the terrifying hours of Cyclone Nargis, are two among a multitude of lost children in Burma.

Across the Irrawaddy Delta, countless parents and children were pulled apart by winds strong enough to uproot trees and waters that rose above the roofs of their bamboo houses.
Children spent the night huddling in branches, drifting for hours in boats, or clinging on to driftwood to end up kilometres from where they began.
Those who survived were given over to aid workers.
A little more than a year later, Aye Myat Mon, 6, and Ye Htet Kyaw, 3, are the only remaining orphans of the storm.
Their story is part of a greater and unexpected success: an example of how, despite the intransigence of Burma's dictatorship, foreign and local organisations achieved what once would have seemed miraculous.
They found homes for the children separated from their families by Cyclone Nargis: all except two.
Aye Myat Mon remembers clearly the night the storm came.
"It was so noisy, as loud as the sound of a car," she says.
"Dad was outside and mum went out to look for him. But the storm got stronger and stronger, and we were all separated. And then the house fell down and my big sister and little brother and me ran outside."
The three children took shelter and when the storm receded their parents and house were nowhere to be seen.
The uninjured siblings walked back into the devastated village of Pan Chin.
About 140,000 people died in the storm.
Aye Myat Mon and her siblings were taken to the regional capital, Labutta, where their names were added to a long list of children separated from their parents.
The Government reluctantly admitted organisations such as Unicef and Save the Children to work with the local Red Cross in sorting through 1000 names gathered for the Labutta district alone.
Many parents had given up their children for dead and of the 535 families reporting missing children, numerous matches were made.
Names were consolidated into a database containing as much detail as could be extracted from the children: names of village, parents, relatives and photographs of the children.
Armed with these, a team of 30 locals travelled by boat, scooter and on foot to track down anyone who knew the lost children.
"There were many, many cases where they went into a village, showed a photograph and found a mother who thought her child had died," an aid worker said.
In half the cases, both parents were found to have died but relatives and friends were identified and many of those were willing to take care of, and in some cases, adopt a child.
But no one could find relatives of Aye Myat Mon and her siblings.
The problem was not just that they were almost certainly dead, but they had been migrant workers without strong local roots.
The children were well looked after in the care home in Labutta.
They went to school for the first time and had more toys, better food and more attention than they would have had in their village, and Ye Htet Kyaw was found to have tuberculosis.
Then something happened that was a blessing and a sadness: older sister Aye Aye Soe, 12, was reunited with her father.
Although only a half sister to her younger siblings, she had lived with them all their lives, and her natural father wanted her to go with him.
At first she resisted leaving her sister and brother, but last month she moved to the village of her father and stepmother, leaving Aye Myat Mon and Ye Htet Kyaw on their own.
Aye Myat Mon says she does not miss her big sister, but carers say she cries sometimes and calls out her name.
The database has been shut down and soon they will be sent to a foster home or orphanage.
"No one wants to be their guardian," an aid worker said.
"They're the last kids left. It's sad."
Aye Myat Mon does not want to leave. She likes it in the big empty house with her red cuddly hippo and brother.
She does not know why her parents do not come, but believes they are alive and that one day they will all be together and happy again.
The Times

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