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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Even forty-five days after the storm, there were perhaps thousands of uncollected bodies in the damaged areas. The government does not appear to be making any effort to recover them. And so, once again these simple folk are victims of an ignominious fate, wrought upon them first by nature, and exacerbated by the failings of a corrupt and brutal government.

On the night of 13 June, the boat kept hammering along the river, deeper into the darkness. As they approached the monks’ village, the night was pitch black. The clouds and intermittent heavy rains completely blocked the stars and moon. Rain was pouring as the boat approached a village. Suddenly about thirty locals appeared, carrying flashlights and burning torches. They all ran toward the approaching boat. The crew was frightened and turned the boat back into the river, hurrying away. It seemed to Charlie that these faceless figures were physically incomplete, and represented the souls of the dead, seeking conveyance to some better place, as if even in death they were tormented by the same forces which had repressed them in life.

Meanwhile, unknown to Charlie and the team, some men from the village went for one of their boats and gave chase. About twenty minutes later, the team still did not know they were being chased, when they decided to pull up into a small tributary and hide for the night. They pulled in among some trees, where they would sleep on the boat. With the motor off, silence descended and the frogs and insects became louder. The night was very dark. Using his flashlight, Charlie searched the shore. He saw corpses on land, and then far above the water, the remnants of bodies dangling from tree branches. And there the team would sleep, in the pitch darkness, surrounded by ghosts.

Silence reigned. The day had been long and full of risks. After about forty-five minutes, the sounds of a boat engine could be heard. Minute by minute the sounds grew louder. And then quickly, the sounds became even louder. Soon, swaths from two bright lights could be seen scanning the tributary banks.

As the boat drew closer, its engine cut lower and slowed. Its lights bathed the team’s boat, which was not well hidden in the small alcove. Charlie was under cover as the bright lights cast eerie shadows over their boat. Men shouted in Burmese, which Charlie had been studying, so he understood that they were looking for the monks. The village with the torches and lights was the village where the monks were supposed to go, and the men had worried for their safety when they did not arrive. That’s why so many people had rushed to the shore. Burmese and Thai people are very protective of monks. And for good reason, the monks are very protective of the people. If a traveler were in need, he or she would only have to make it to the nearest monastery, and there find shelter and food and safety. Practically the only thing standing between people of Burma and the junta’s Army are the monks and a handful of courageous others. So when the monks were late, and the strange boat they were seen on sped off, chase was given.

As the search team cast their lights on the boat, the young monks told the men that all was well, and they would come to the village at the sunrise. The search party was relieved. They bid farewell until the morning, and slowly went away. The rain started again. Around midnight, the rains stopped, and then silence.

The tide was receding and the boat started to list. Charlie was concerned, but the crew said the boat was fine. And so they all sat with the monks, talking by candlelight. They discussed politics, and how to help the people while the government refused. Despite the horror all around, there were laughs and high spirits, as is the custom in such wild countries among resilient souls. The small boat contained eleven living people that night, and no telling how many ghosts.

At about 2 a.m., Charlie fell asleep. The Cook slept beside him and kept lapping his arm over Charlie, as if Charlie were his wife. Charlie would shove him off, then by and by, the arm would flop over again.

Come sunrise, they returned to the village. The people were happy to see the monks. The team continued their journey, stopping at other villages. All along were the way were dead bodies.

Most of the water in the area is brackish, so the villagers collect their water in hand-dug ponds. Many of the ponds were polluted with corpses and animal carcasses, and were filled with saltwater. The bodies had been dragged out and the torrential rains were making the water potable, and so at least this part of the disaster was being rapidly corrected.

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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