"Do you know the government radio is saying a storm will come, Ma Than Than Soe", a customer asked the grocery shop owner on what seemed like an ordinary afternoon in her village, Pyin Wan, in northern Arakan State .
"Is it true?" she asked in response.
The customer answered, "I heard about it but I am not sure."
“I soon forgot about the news of the storm, as I continued selling my wares and talked with customers,” Ma Than Than Soe (nother real name) told Naranjara News in a recent interview.
However, the 28 year old business woman will never again forget the hours that followed, when the worst storm in recent history destroyed almost half of Arakan State, western Burma.
On 22nd October 2010, cyclone Giri pounded the townships of Myaybon, Min Byar, Pouk Taw, Ponna Kyun, Kyauk Phyu, Marn Aung, with winds reaching over 100 mph.
The Voice of America Radio Service reported 45 deaths, 10 people missing and 50 wounded after the storm. It also reported 60, 000 people were left homeless in the wake of the storm.
“I owned a grocery shop, selling rice, oil, salt, so on,” Ma Than Than Soe said. “At the time I was living and working with my cousin Ma Aye Aye (not her real name) in the shop. My family members lived in the town of Myaybon but I opened the grocery shop in Pyin Chaung Village.”
She recounted the evening Giri visited its wrath on the people in her village by the Andaman sea.
“I remember the wind speed increased in the evening on that day. At that time, I saw the sky was bright red. However, I thought it was normal for that time of the evening,” she said.
“A crowd was gathering at the edge of the sea as fishermen were busy selling their catch. Some fishermen were waving good bye to their families as they prepared to head out to sea.
A few hours later we were engulfed in total darkness. Then, it began to rain lightly as the seaside market buzzed with activity as usual. The noise of the children playing blended with the shouting of the fishermen hawking their wares.
‘We have many kinds of fishes such as sturgeon,’ fishermen shouted above the crowd.
Then, we realized it was raining much harder and the wind speed increased.
We could not hear each other, now.
Suddenly, the wind was very strong and it was like the earth was shaking. It was terrifying. My cousin and I immediately closed my grocery shop because of the strong wind and heavy rain.
At the port, I could see many people were running in many directions. It quickly became chaos.
Soon, the wind churned the sea into high waves which crashed on the shore. We knew it's not a normal situation.
I could not hear anything but the wind, the thunder and the crashing waves.
I had never faced a storm of such intensity, even in Arakan State, which is often buffeted by storms from the Andaman Sea.
Eventually, my cousin and I fell in sleep in our room.
We woke up about 9 pm because my neighbors called us. The sea water, pushed by the storm surge, was flooding the village. We could not stay in our home. We needed to move to higher ground.
Then my cousin and I ran into the heavy rain. The sound of thunder was like a big gun firing over and over.
We made it to a home in the village where many frightened people were seeking shelter. We could not see each other in the darkness but we heard the sound of people crying. I still recall the sounds of people crying and the thunder.
At dawn, we went outside. The village of Pyin Wan was empty and silent. The sky was clear. It was totally different from what we saw the evening before.
Then we tried to return to our home. However, most of the buildings near the shore were flattened and nothing was left of our home and shop.
I cried. My shop was crowded with customers yesterday but was gone the next day.
The roof of some houses was blown away. I saw some houses were leaning precariously, as if about to collapse.
Like me, some neighbors looked for their homes and belongings and were crying. Some children were searching for their missing parents as well as some parents were searching for their children. Some children were crying because they couldn’t find their parents. The scene was very chaotic.
The deafening sounds of the wind, thunder and crashing waves were replaced by the sound of villagers crying.
I had nothing to eat as well as no place to sleep, now. Even though I could feel a gentle cool breeze touching my face, I couldn't feel cool in my heart. My head swirled with worry and frustration.
We all needed food, drinking water and shelter. There was no drinking water because wells and other sources of fresh water had been contaminated by seawater.
All we could do was waiting for relief supplies to be brought to us,” Ma ThanThan Soe told us.
However, the villagers Pyin Wan would have to continue to wait for 2 days as relief agencies struggled to assess the damage and make their way to the storm victims without any assistance from the government.
An NGO worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of arrest, said in a recent interview, “First we determined which villages and townships were damaged by cyclone Giri and then we collected information on the numbers of dead and causalities. After 2 days, we delivered food, drinking water, and clothing, first. On the third day, we delivered rice for them. We placed them in monasteries and schools for shelter. Initially, there was no assistance from the government, even though we are helping cyclone victims. However, after NGOs and other social organizations were already on the scene and helping the victims, the government delivered rice and clothes to them."
"Some people had lost their home. Some fishermen had lost their boats. So, they became unemployed. Seawater rose up and flooded nearby paddy fields. So, rice plants were ruined,” a community volunteer said of the damage immediately after the storm.
However, one year later, many victim’s circumstances have not improved at all.
“Still today, they have no houses and are still unemployed. Even though cyclone Giri hit Arakan State one year ago their lives have not been restored. I have seen some families, who had lost everything, suffer from mental-illness from the stress. They have been waiting for assistance from other sources because the government failed to provide enough help in the year after the storm. So, people have continued to suffer greatly,” another community volunteer told Naranjara News in a recent interview.
The Burmese military government didn't accept aid from the international community immediately after cyclone Nargis, in May 2007.
In contrast, aid agencies were allowed access to areas devastated by cyclone Giri and did send relief supplies to the victims in the period after the storm.
Staff from The Noble Compassionate Volunteer Group said, "We delivered food and clothing. We dug wells and water storage pools, as well as built toilets for them. We also provided medical treatment to people in need."
However, the government itself has been widely criticized for failing to help the victims rebuild their communities and their lives.
“The Government failed to help its own people. Their actions have shown they don't care about their own people. It's unacceptable," the CBO worker added.
Meanwhile, Ma Than Than Soe, in Pyin Wan Village, said Giri victims need more assistance and don’t care where it comes from.
"NGOs and social organizations provide baskets of rice, oil, and other materials. I would like to say 'Thanks' to them. However, it's not enough for us. I feel weary and confused in my mind. I want to move very far away from this place because we cannot help each other in this circumstance. Sometimes I feel I want to commit suicide. When my family members arrived, I was so sad to see them. When my parents came to my house, I have no place for them to sleep in my home. When my friends visited my home, I didn't have anything to feed them. Under these circumstances, I wanted to die.”
Naranjara News reported in August, 2011, at least 200 families from Ohn Chaung, Pyin Chaung and Pyin Woun villages on Kyun Tharyar Island, northern Arakan State are starving.
In the meantime, Ma Than Than Soe and her neighbors are still struggling to survive with inadequate supplies.
“I am trying my best to rebuild my life. I cannot open my grocery shop that I had before. I lost all my money as well as my building. I have to start from the beginning. I don't know what will happen in the future because I have lost my ambition and my hope. Many cyclone victims moved to other places to find jobs. I feel very sad about my life because I don't know what will happen in my future or for the other storm victims,” she said.
“I still remember the woman who told me, ‘Ma Than Than Soe, I hear storm will come’. I don't know whether she was killed in the storm but I have not seen her until now. Still, I am hoping to see her again one day.”