Red Cross: Myanmar Dead May Never Be Identified

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Tens of thousands of people killed in last month's cyclone may never be identified because their bodies have decomposed so badly and many ended up far from home, an aid organization said Sunday.

The task of burying an estimated 78,000 bodies has been overshadowed by efforts to assist Cyclone Nargis' 2.4 million survivors, many of whom are still without adequate food, water and shelter, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

As a result, bloated bodies still litter the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta more than five weeks after the storm, while other bodies have been dumped in canals or unmarked mass graves.

"Many now are in advanced stages of decay and the information we have been able to gather is that many of the bodies that were effected by the tidal surges were stripped of clothing and any identifying items," said Craig Strathern, a Red Cross spokesman in Myanmar.

The Red Cross has received reports that some bodies ended more than four miles from their place of origin, he said.

The organization last week began distributing kits to volunteers that include body bags, forms to list where a body is buried and any details identifying it, Strathern said. But he said he doubted there would be any large-scale effort to identify victims, mostly because Myanmar law allows families to declare someone dead after three weeks.

"We're certainly not aware of any initiatives that try to achieve positive identification of bodies," Strathern said. "I don't know what the reason would be. If there is not a demand from the families or legal imperative in the system, it's not going to achieve too much."

Survivors in the delta said they tried to identify bodies but were overwhelmed by the numbers of dead clogging rivers and washing up on beaches.

"Initially, the bodies were identified by relatives and we cremated them after holding religious rights," said Myint Thuang, a survivor from the delta town of Bogalay. "However, after more bodies washed up on the shore and with no one to identify them we buried them in mass graves."

Villagers sprinkled lime powder on the graves of 10 or more bodies and marked some with a wooden stick, he said.

The situation differs greatly from the tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people in 2004. In worst-hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, collecting and identifying bodies were top priorities, driven largely by Muslim tradition that calls for burying the dead within the first day. Corpses were dumped in mass graves as large as football fields, with aid workers, soldiers and volunteers working together to mark the graves and identity the dead.

With only six U.N. helicopters and seven from the Myanmar government, relief supplies for survivors are mostly being transported along dirt roads and then by boat. International aid agencies say boats able to navigate the delta's canals are scarce and efforts to import vehicles have been hampered by government red tape.

The government has dismissed complaints that survivors are not being reached with aid and reports that they have been forced from camps and dumped near their devastated villages. It said survivors have a choice to remain in the camps or return home with government help.

"It is a storm of rumors designed to deal a devastating blow to our country," according to a commentary Saturday in the New Light of Myanmar.

"The rumors are invented and circulated by certain Western countries and internal and external ax-handlers," it said. "In other words, it is just a scheme conspired by a crafty tiger that is desperate to eat the flesh and the fox that is waiting for leftovers."

The paper cited Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein saying the government was prepared to help people settle either in their native areas, or in the places where they took refuge in relief camps.

Myanmar's ruling military junta has been criticized abroad for allegedly evicting cyclone survivors from refugee camps, supposedly without adequate provisions to survive elsewhere. The government has been sensitive about such criticism, describing it as lies meant to undermine the country's stability.

Thein Sein was making an inspection trip to the Irrawaddy delta area Saturday when he said the government would provide temporary shelters at first, to be followed by permanent housing, the newspaper reported.

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