Myanmar Survivors Share Heartbreaks After Cyclone Shatters Lives

As the cyclone raged around him, Ko Zaw Min clung to a tree with one arm and clutched his newborn son with the other. He watched as the boy died in his arm, and then saw his older son drop from the tree into the churning, salty waters below.

Ko Zaw Min, his wife and 11-year-old daughter managed to hang onto the tree for 10 hours as the punishing rain from the cyclone lashed their fatigued bodies.

The rain and the howling winds began May 3 at 8 p.m. By 10 p.m. the floods had washed away his home. Three hours later he had lost both his sons.

Unable to breathe in Cyclone Nargis' blasting 120-mile per hour winds and rain, Ko Zaw Min's infant son, born in April, died as his father clutched him to his chest for protection. About 30 minutes later, the rice farmer's 9-year-old son fell soundlessly off the tree and was swept away by the floods.

Ko Zaw Min said he held his dead baby through the night and finally let go in the morning to perform a simple funeral.

"I was so sad but could not do anything to save him," he said, dressed in the same T-shirt and shorts he wore on that tragic night.

He said the cyclone took away everything he owned, including 70 baskets of rice from the last harvest stored in his hut in Kyungyangon South village in the Irrawaddy delta.

Located on the banks of a river, and not too far from the sea, the village -- a patchwork of rice fields, huts and some concrete houses along one unpaved road -- was directly in the path of the cyclone.

Every brick house was damaged, and huts such as Ko Zaw Min's, made of woven bamboo poles and thatched roofs, are now merely heaps on rotting vegetation.

"I lost everything and I am scared," Ko Zaw Min said, sitting in a brick house, one of the few still standing in the village. The ceiling and walls of the upper floor of the house were gone -- only four pillars in the corners remained.

"I have no idea what to do," he said, speaking in a soft monotone, his face showing no expression. The long silences between questions and his answers were broken by buzzing flies and the grunts of a pig lounging outside the house.

Ko Zaw Min's suffering is not unique in a tragedy that claimed more than 28,000 lives and left about 33,000 missing, according to the government.

In another low-lying delta village, Pain Na Kon, only 12 of the 300 people survived. They now share a large tent and their larger heartaches.

"We are family now. We are from the same place. We are together," said U Nyo, who lost his parents. The only survivors from his family are his wife and his 6-year-old niece, Mien Mien.

"We saw some people (from the village) dead on our walk here. The rest are missing. We didn't find them anywhere," said U Nyo.

The 12 walked to Labutta town, wading for hours through knee-deep water, slush and mangrove debris. They erected a tent on the outskirts.

"There were dead buffalos and dead bodies everywhere," said U Nyo's wife, Saw San Myant, her voice shaking. "We didn't dare look. We didn't want to see."

Inside the tent, the only signs of comfort were a few thin blankets, some high-energy biscuits and watery curry soup which they found at a monastery in Labutta.

"We don't know when they will also run out of food," he said, casting glances at his niece, Mien Mien, who sat outside in the dark in the ravaged rice field.

U Nyo called out to her gently. But Mien Mien stared emptily into the darkness. Overcome with emotion, U Nyo walked, teary-eyed, over to the girl and sat beside her in silence.

Saw San Myant described in a hushed voice what had happened to Mien Mien's father.

"We hung together on a coconut tree as the tide continued to rise. Her father was separated. He tried to hang onto a pole of the hut but that was broken. The wind was too strong. She saw her father swept away by the water but we didn't see anyone else. We think they are all dead," she said.

They waited until the water subsided before climbing down the trees and going from house to house in the area to find out who had survived.

"We are the only ones left," she said.