RANGOON, Burma – From shopkeepers handing out free rice porridge to medical students caring for the sick, ordinary people in Burma are stepping in to help cyclone victims as the military regime severely restricts international aid.
Taxi drivers, factory owners, college students, teachers and other Rangoon residents — many of whom lost their own homes — are among those organizing grueling trips into the Irrawaddy delta, the hardest-hit region.
"They are true humanitarian heroes," said Bridget Gardner, International Red Cross representative in Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta, after touring an area where volunteers were giving first aid to the injured.
They are taking up collections at businesses and donating food, clothes and water. Some who are too poor to give money or supplies are offering their labor to help clear debris and rebuild villages leveled by the May 3 cyclone.
"We feel sympathetic to the cyclone victims and want to help them in our own way," said Daw Mya Win, who runs a small grocery in a northern Rangoon suburb where many bamboo shanty houses were destroyed.
The 49-year-old woman cooks rice porridge every day to feed anyone who comes. She also sends pots of the thick, viscous mixture of rice, water and seasonings to some of the thousands of homeless who have sought shelter in the country's Buddhist monasteries.
Others have taken refuge in Catholic churches where priests and nuns are caring for the hungry and homeless.
"We totally depend on private donations every day for our daily meals," said Aung Min, a 53-year-old man who has been staying at the Thaung Gyi monastery with his wife and three children since Cyclone Nargis struck.
More than 66,000 people are dead or missing, according to government figures, with fears the death toll will surpass 100,000, according to U.N. and Red Cross estimates. The U.N. says up to 2 million survivors are still in need of emergency aid. Many victims continue to struggle daily for food and clean water amid drenching rains and threats of disease.
The military junta has restricted most foreign aid workers from entering Burma. And most Westerners lucky enough to get visas have been confined to Rangoon — hours away from the most devastated areas deep in the Irrawaddy delta.
Even the grass-roots efforts by Burma volunteers face obstacles. Many are stopped at military checkpoints and told to leave their supplies for soldiers to distribute. Rather than risking the aid never reaching the people who need it, some turn back. Others try to negotiate by offering a portion of the goods in exchange for passage.
Zaw Htin, one of many volunteer medical students, returned from a frustrating trip Wednesday to one of the government refugee centers in the devastated delta town of Bogalay.
"I am so angry. They don't want us to stay and talk to people. (The authorities) want us to leave the supplies with them for distribution," she said.
"But how can I treat the injured if I can't talk to them? How do we administer medical care if we can't touch them, feel their pulse or give them advice?"
"Their courage is moving," said Tim Costello, president of World Vision-Australia, who was stuck in Yangon after the government denied him permission to visit the delta. "There's no doubt (the volunteers) have responded magnificently. There's effectively no help from the military."
Some international aid agencies are working through these webs themselves to keep their supplies moving and carrying out basic relief work, quickly training volunteers before dispatching them to the delta.
Burmese-run aid groups also are playing an integral role in organizing and distributing supplies to survivors, as are businessmen. Some have offered diesel at subsidized prices to volunteers traveling to the delta, while others donate rice, water and water purification equipment. One shipping company offered to hand over two boats for floating clinics.
Some Burmese volunteers unable to find cars or fuel were visiting hard-hit slums on the outskirts of Yangon. College students went door-to-door handing out a few pennies to families for rice and gave sweets to impoverished children. Members of a hiking team from Yangon University gathered donations to take to the delta.
"Since I don't have the means to provide cash or kind, I contribute labor by helping distribute relief goods," said Nyi Nyi, a 21-year-old university student. "Whenever we distribute rice and clothing, I can see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It is very rewarding to see them smile."
After enduring decades of poverty and government oppression, Burmese people are known for their resilience, having learned to depend on each other from day to day — especially in times of crisis.
"There's no question, people here are of Buddhist and Christian ethic, and they have decided, 'We're just gonna do this,"' Costello said.