By Gerard O'Connell
When, in the early afternoon of May 2, the skies darkened over Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar with 6 million inhabitants, and over the Irrawaddy Delta to the southwest where 6.3 million people lived, nobody imagined the disaster that was about to strike, according to local Catholic officials.
Hours later a Category 4 cyclone, named Nargis, struck hard, and headed due east with deafening winds reaching 155 miles per hour. As the storm hurtled through the delta, in the early evening, waves began to crash on the impoverished villages along the coast; some more than 12 feet high, reminiscent of the terrible tsunami in December 2004. The waves wreaked greatest havoc during the night, sweeping away the shacks and villages where defenseless people lived.
The international community, including the United States and United Nations, responded immediately, offering material assistance and relief teams to assess the needs, but the military junta that has ruled this country since 1962 was less than welcoming.
Fearful of anything that could weaken its rule over this poverty-stricken nation of 53 million people, the junta only allowed a limited amount of international relief aid into the country, and on condition that it have control over its distribution. Likewise, it granted a woefully inadequate number of entry visas to international experts who could professionally assess the damage and assistance needed.
Two weeks after the storm the official death toll hit 34,000, but the International Red Cross estimated that the number of dead could reach 128,000. Church sources reckoned at least 100,000 had died, but said the final figure could be 200,000, not to mention the 1.5 million displaced people.
Christians count for 6 percent of the population in this majority Buddhist country -- Catholics number 700,000 faithful -- and though they enjoy freedom to practice their faith and are not persecuted, their situation is delicate.
The Catholic Church, while enjoying positive relations with the government, cannot be involved as it would wish in the educational, health or socio-political fields. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the cyclone, it was able to intervene rapidly and is continuing to make a tremendous contribution in assisting the victims.
"Insofar as we can, we are trying to help everyone," Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon, general secretary of the country's bishops' conference, told Our Sunday Visitor.
The hardest hit areas are in his own archdiocese in Yangon, and in Pathein diocese, which extends across the Irrawaddy Delta, where countless families have lost members, their homes and their livelihood.
"The most urgent needs right now are food, drinking water and tents, while many thousands need medical assistance," Archbishop Bo said. He and other bishops immediately opened wide the diocesan coffers to buy and transport basic necessities to a distraught people.
To provide better coordinated and effective Church response to the emergency, Archbishop Bo said the two dioceses established the Myanmar Disaster Relief Committee, in collaboration with aid agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international aid arm.
Caritas Internationalis, headquartered at the Vatican, contacted Myanmar Church officials to see how best to coordinate the distribution of aid, spokesman Patrick Nicholson told the Vatican daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
It is coordinating contributions from its 162 national organizations, including those in Thailand, India, the Philippines, the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. Its aid is getting to the victims through its local Church partners in Myanmar.
A staff member, who requested anonymity, offered this horrific glimpse into the cyclone's aftermath a week after the storm:
"I was in Pyapon, far off down the Irrawaddy River. The bodies of human beings and cattle were still in the water. We reached a destroyed village. We were the first outsiders they had seen.
"To my eyes, that have seen the Asia tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake, it was overwhelming. Nature unleashed an orgy of death. Women explained how the waves took their babies. As our boat moved along, a body of a small boy drifted past.
"People have no drinking water or food or shelter. Children are eating coconut shells. Dead animals are everywhere. There is a terrible smell. There were many refugees, living in roofless churches and monasteries. Help has not reached them. We are doing what is possible. In the last two days, we have reached out to the starving people."
After visiting many affected areas to comfort the distraught and impoverished victims, Archbishop Bo told OSV:
"The cyclone Nargis left a lot of terrible and bad consequences to our country, especially to our poor people. No less than 100,000 people have lost their lives, and the number is increasing every day.
"The Church is carrying out emergency works, such as, bringing the victims into camps, providing food, water, medicines and immediate roofing and shelters. Many volunteers -- laypeople, priests, nuns, Catholic doctors, nurses -- are now in the field working on these needs," he said.
"The need is enormous and vast. Thousands and thousands of families in the Archdiocese of Yangon alone were greatly affected," Archbishop Bo said.
Although the Holy See does not have diplomatic relations with Myanmar, its rapport is positive.
The Vatican's delegate, Archbishop Salvatore Pennachio, who resides in Bangkok as papal ambassador to Thailand, was able to enter the country soon after the disaster.
He visited Yangon and nearby areas including the village of Laputta in the Irrawaddy Delta, where more than 15 similar villages had simply disappeared in the cyclone.
He celebrated Mass in St. Mary's Cathedral in Yangon for the victims, with the bishops, priests and a congregation of 1,000 people, and read a personal message from Pope Benedict XVI expressing sympathy, solidarity and prayers for the victims, the survivors and all the people of Myanmar.
Archbishop Bo, for his part, in a message on behalf of the Myanmar Church, thanked all those who had been close to them so far:
"From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to express our gratitude and thanks to all of you for the messages of concern, prayers and sympathies for our suffering people. All your prayers, concerns and desire to be of help to our people are deeply appreciated. We do believe and hope that the good Lord is close to us through all of you, especially at this moment of suffering and darkness."
The international aid arm of the U.S. bishops' conference, Catholic Relief Services, is working closely with the local Church in Myanmar on relief efforts. To make a donation to Catholic Relief Services:
by phone 888-277-7575
mail a check earmarked "Southeast Asia Natural Disaster" to: Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090
Gerard O'Connell writes from Rome.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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