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Myanmar: cyclone families ‘safe and well’

05-06-2008 Feature

Restoring family links is an important part of the Myanmar Red Cross Society’s response to the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis. The ICRC’s technical expertise in this field is helping to strengthen the National Society’s effectiveness in reuniting family members.


  Ma Ohnmar's niece receiving Ma's 'Safe and Well' message from an MRCS volunteer.    

Ma Ohnmar lost everything she owned when the cyclone struck on 2 May. Her village, Taung Chaung in Bogale Township (part of the Ayeyarwady Division), was largely destroyed. Fortunately, all the members of her immediate family survived, and they managed eventually to m ake their way to a monastery in Maubin – a journey that lasted two days.

It was at the monastery that Ma Ohnmar met members of a combined team from the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) and the ICRC. The team had traveled to the area to determine the nature and scale of needs related to the restoration of family links (RFL). The RFL programme, initiated by MRCS soon after the cyclone struck, is designed to reduce the suffering caused by the loss of contact with loved ones, concern for their well-being and fear of the unknown.

Ma Ohnmar was given the chance to complete a ‘Safe and Well’ message to her sister Daw San San Myint in Yangon. It gave brief details of her present location and news that she and members of her family were alive and unharmed despite their harrowing ordeal.

Meanwhile in Yangon, Daw San San Myint was becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of her youngest sister. More than three weeks had passed since the cyclone struck and although other relatives from the affected area had reached the safety of her home, there had been no word from Ma Ohnmar. That is, until the arrival of a team from the MRCS.

The team was greeted by Ma Ohnmar's niece, who told them that her mother was not at home but that she would pass on the Red Cross message. " She will be so happy, " the niece informed the MRCS team. " The cyclone itself was terrible, but not knowing what happened to my aunty has made it even worse. "

Ma Ohnmar's message was among the first to be delivered as part of what is likely to be a large and long-running programme. " MRCS was simply not prepared for this kind of disaster, " said Su Su Lynn, newly appointed head of the RFL Unit at MRCS headquarters in Yangon.

" Although we used to deliver Red Cross messages in the past, the needs this time are very different. We hav e really had to start from nothing. We also know that it is going to take time to reach all the affected villages. But it is worth it. Without the MRCS, many people simply would not have the means to communicate with their loved ones. "

Monique Crettol, an experienced ICRC tracing delegate, agrees: " MRCS does not have the resources to actively search for each and every person to whom such messages are addressed. They will certainly do their best, but they may also have to use mass-media tools such as posters, newspapers and radio to inform people. "

Su Su Lynn, her team of MRCS staff and an ever-growing number of volunteers are committed to their task of relieving the suffering of cyclone survivors. " Today was a success, " she smiled, adding sombrely, “but sadly we know that for many people, we will not be able to give them the news they are hoping for. "

After four weeks, the chances of being able to identify the bodies that remain in the fields and streams are negligible. MRCS volunteers are progressively being trained and equipped to deal with these mortal remains, most of which are in the advanced stages of decomposition.

" It is not the direct responsibility of the MRCS to deal with the bodies, " said Pierre-André Conod, the ICRC's Head of Delegation in Myanmar. " We nonetheless recognize the need to dispose of the bodies with a maximum of dignity. MRCS volunteers have been very supportive in this difficult task. "

The ICRC has drawn upon its long experience and expertise to support the MRCS in both its RFL programme and its activities associated with mortal remains. Specialist staff, both expatriate and local, have been deployed to ensure that ‘Safe and Well’ and ‘Anxious for News’ messages are collected and treated in an efficient and timely manner by MRCS staff and volunteers.

ICRC staff are assisting the MRCS to establish the necessary systems, train volunteers and collaborate with other agencies and organizations who share similar concerns. The ICRC has also made available a forensic specialist to advise on how MRCS volunteers can deal with mortal remains in a safe, dignified and legal manner, and has provided kits containing all the necessary equipment.