The stench of death hung on Wednesday over the Irrawaddy delta town of Labutta, where the blackened bodies of people and animals, rotting in the tropical heat, were washed aground as Myanmar’s cyclone floodwaters receded.
Struggling to breathe through the overpowering smells, residents wrapped layers of cloth around their faces and rubbed in balm to mask the odour. Death pervades this town so completely that many residents said they cannot sleep because ghosts of the cyclone victims torment them during the night.
“We can’t sleep at night, because we can hear people shouting at night. Maybe these are the ghosts of the villagers,” one resident said.
Grossly bloated bodies lay strung out along the roads running atop embankments between paddies in a region that was the country’s rice bowl, but is now the centre of one of the world’s worst natural disasters.
“I cannot describe how I felt when I saw so many dead bodies,” one man said.
More than 60,000 people are dead or missing since Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irrawaddy delta before ploughing across the country and through the main city of Yangon.
Most of the dead were in towns like Labutta, the centre of a community that include more than 50 villages where a total of 90,000 people lived.
Survivors have trekked through floodwaters from their washed-out villages into the town, only to discover precious few supplies to help them cope with the tragedy.
Residents are sharing meagre supplies of wild rice with the new arrivals, even though most food supplies in the town have also been destroyed.
“The people have no emotion left on their faces. They have never seen anything like this before,” one witness said of the desperate survivors arriving here from villages that had been wiped out.
“They have lost their families, they have nowhere to stay, and they have nothing to eat. They don’t know what the future will bring,” he said.
“There is no drinking water. They are drinking coconut milk, and then they are eating coconuts to survive,” another man said.
But even coconuts are scarce after floodwaters tore through this region, rising up to six metres high. Residents said even the tree-tops were submerged at the height of the deluge.
Myanmar authorities have yet to set up emergency shelters for the people, residents said.
One man said the military had sent a ship to rescue stranded villagers, but that it is now stuck near Labutta after it ran out of fuel.
Many of the survivors who reached Labutta took shelter at Buddhist temples and pagodas, but others remained stranded on pockets of high ground, living in makeshift shelters.
Meanwhile, detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said the survivors were in urgent need of international aid. “The storm victims are in urgent need of emergency assistance from the international agencies including the UN,” the National League for Democracy said.