22 May 2008, Bebaye Township, Myanmar: An aerial view of the damage caused by Cyclone "Nargis" in the Ayeyarwady delta region, along the shores of the Andaman Sea. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider
When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, everyone in Yangon – students, artists, taxi drivers – mobilised to help.
On World Humanitarian Day this year (19 August) we celebrated the most basic principle of humanitarian work: People Helping People. For inspiration, and to remind everyone of the extraordinary things ordinary people are capable of doing, we asked professional aid workers to tell us a story about someone who inspired them in a crisis.
In this story, an aid worker remembers how people from all walks of life came together to help each other during one of most tragic natural disasters in Myanmar’s history: Cyclone Nargis which killed 140,000 people and affected about 2.4 million people living in the Ayeyarwady and Yangon areas in 2008.
I was in Yangon a week after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008. It sounds strange but there was a real buzz. Yangon had survived a twelve-hour storm that sent roofs and billboards flying, crushed trucks, and felled trees. But upon hearing the news of the scale of devastation in the Irrawaddy delta – where the real damage was, students, artists, and taxi drivers got into cars and drove out to help those in need. During that period, Rangoon was full of spontaneous humanitarians: everyone was trying to find a way to help.
The monks and the monasteries led much of the volunteer effort as they had the best networks in the delta. An independent music school turned into a rapid relief center, while photographers and filmmakers went out into the delta distributing food and documenting the stories of the hungry. They all knew that not much assistance was getting through – and few international agencies were able to bring anything in to help in the early days – so all kinds of people were collecting clothes and food, and heading out in trucks.
One of my neighbours, a young graphic designer, grabbed 24 of his friends and drove until they couldn’t drive any further, piled into a boat, and got stuck in a sand-bank overnight. By asking around, they had found out about a village that hadn’t been helped and finally arrived to deliver clothes, food, and water. He showed me a stunning photograph taken as he and his friends pulled out from the village on the boat. Under a vast blue sky, a line of villagers in the farthest reaches of the delta waved to the young urbanites who had come to help them, from the city they had never seen.
Their response impressed me because here were these young, creative people who seemed just like your average talented hipsters in the West. Yet they immediately became humanitarians - they got themselves out into the delta in an emergency to find the most remote and vulnerable communities and distributed necessary supplies. It blew me away that the whole city immediately took on a role that governments and international NGOs usually take on in an emergency. Everyone mobilised, from celebrities down to people who really had nothing themselves.
Su Lin Lewis