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The River – Part II

The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, with the location where each photograph in this dispatch was taken. Red marks the path of the journey.

The villagers welcome outsiders.  Up and down the Irrawaddy, villagers were upset that the American Navy was not allowed to help.

Water buffalo in the foreground, human corpse in background.

There is only one rice planting season on the delta, and with their seed stores largely destroyed and draft animals drowned, many of the farmers will not be able to plant this year. Also, over in Thailand, news reports were warning not to eat fish from Myanmar, as the fish had been feeding on human bodies. This could result in untold economic damage to Burmese commercial fisherman. Charlie and the crew noticed that of the many bodies they passed, those on dry land were merely desiccating, while those in the Irrawaddy that were near shore were being eaten, or had already been completely picked clean by crabs.

Entire villages had been erased, and there was nothing left standing but dirt foundations, marks of bare earth on the ground over which people once lived, thrived, and died. In every village they stopped, the inhabitants hated the government and trusted only the monks and the foreigners. Every village had a monk, and most had monasteries, which needed to be rebuilt as a symbol of the only legitimate leadership in which the people could believe.

Charlie wanted to push into the most affected areas deeper in the delta. By the third night, they stopped for only about four hours to eat and sleep, staying on the boat in a cove that was lightly inhabited, if at all. Some nights the torches of villagers could be seen moving about the ruined paddies, hunting for frogs. Like eerie itinerant firebugs they slid through the fields, calling to each other in a soft unintelligible tongue. The heat and humidity left everyone filthy, but the unacclimated could not dare to bathe in the river. During a torrential downpour, Charlie and his local staff stood on the bow of the boat and showered in the dark storm, lathering with soap and laughing like children, their cries punctuated by lightning and thunder which might have struck a more ominous note in the hearts of the less intrepid.

The crew was drinking Grand Royal whiskey, which Charlie’s local manager had had the forethought to bring along, and they also managed to buy whiskey in villages along the way. A constant supply of betel-nut, the leaf-covered stimulant craved day and night by working class Burmese, kept jaws busy and mouths largely shut throughout the monotonous cruise downriver. Near the major delta town of Bogale, a large Burmese Navy vessel came into sight, but Charlie hid and they sailed by without incident.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s “Trackstick” GPS device continued to plot the route taken, time, date, and grid coordinates, so that later it could situate the photos Charlie was taking. Unfortunately, the Trackstick managed to fall into a bowl of rice soup, and stopped working until a Burmese crewman took it apart down to the circuit board, and spent about two hours using a magnifying glass to clean the circuits.

The Trackstick uploads via USB.

The boat was leaking; also the rains would dump gallons of water at a time, so it had to be constantly pumped.

On 13 June, Charlie had to hide in boat for a scorching two hours as his staff went to meet an influential monk in the town of Laputta, near the western end of the delta where the cyclone had made landfall. The weather was sticky, alternating between dreary overcast and intermittent rain. Using his satellite gear, Charlie continued to send me his coordinates and status. I sent him daily updates about any cyclone advisories (there were no more cyclones) and news about Afghanistan, where he is usually based. The head monk in Laputta listened with empathy to Charlie’s staff and under his direction two monks from a ruined village a further three hours from the town were dispatched to guide the party to see the true devastation wrought by the cyclone, as well as to witness for ourselves the disgraceful response of the Burmese junta to the desperate needs of its own people.

“Delta” village

We had to go to the Echo first and asked 2 monks and 1 headman to act as guides. On our way, we saw many many dead bodies. This village is called Foxtrot village (13.6.2008) at time 6.00 pm. Hard photographs taken. This village is near the Golf village(see the map).

(1) The monastery was destroyed and 4 monks got drowned in the floods.

No boat there. They needed a small motor boat to go and get the relief and given by the government. (small boat price may be round about $500 US)

Two monks picked up by the team in Laputta.

As the boat hammered out of Laputta, it came across a huge field of human corpses. Just within their field of vision, without even trying to search, the team saw as many as one hundred bodies. Local men said you could walk for hours along this river shoreline and see the bodies everywhere, stretched out with arms and legs splayed as if in supplication to a God who had somehow managed to lose track of their existence. To Charlie, as he looked at the corpses, reddish and desiccated with mouths agape in silent anger, it seemed that the very soul of the delta had been visited upon by some ghastly juggernaut, ripping the life from its inhabitants in a grim harvest. The cries of the dead were silent in their agony, yet those of the living were loud in anger and grief.

The following photos are graphic in nature, and I apologize to anyone who is offended or upset. I have thought long and hard about publishing them, and decided that the world needs to see what happened to the people of the Irrawaddy River Delta, whom the cyclone killed, and the junta left to rot.


No captions are necessary. The images speak for themselves.





Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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