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Grim job of mopping up after flooding

MANDALAY (SE): The young novices giggled at the convent door as they donned big rubber boots. These are not the normal wear for a young woman in the Union of Myanmar.

But their laughter was brief, as both the older sisters and the novices took the task of bringing help to the victims of the devastating floods of late August seriously.

They had been packing bags with supplies of water and food to bring to families in the riverside suburbs of Kalay-myo in Kalay Town near Mandalay.

They had been loaded into small trucks and the sisters then went block by block, street by street, to the affected areas.

They waded through mud. Most homes were timber framed, with walls of woven bamboo, and each one, to some degree, was affected.

On one corner, a substantial two-story brick house, larger than the rest, was not respected by the floodwaters either.

The flooring on both levels was wiped out, leaving only a mud-stained shell.

The colour everywhere was grey, the grey of mud. A grey bicycle poked up from a pile of grey timber, which might have once been a house.

In the countryside, there were worse sights, where not just houses, but whole villages had been swept away. For the people, this was devastating, as they had nothing left.

Their few possessions were gone. Most houses had a little garden, growing vegetables for the family, but now there just mud. People gathered a few sticks which they could use for firewood, sticks which perhaps had been someone’s house further upriver.

At one point, the bright green of the rice field still glowed in colour, while just nearby the river had swept away fields and family boundary markers. At some points, the river had changed course and the fields simply no longer existed.

Across the Kalay diocese, the people were active. When I arrived at the bishop’s house, life-jackets had been stacked up for use in rescue operations. The rescue phase had passed, but further flooding was expected and they would be needed again.

As I observed the immediate aid the phase, I saw the distribution of food, especially rice and clean water. About 50 young people studying a vocational course at the parish church volunteered to shovel mud from people’s houses.

They were joined by more and more young people, until nearly 200 were helping. Cheerful adults cooked food for the hungry youngsters. A parish hall was the base for loading rice and other supplies into small four-wheel drive vehicles.

These were being sent further north, where landslides had brought down the roads and there was no way for trucks to get through.

The Catholic people did not work alone. I came across a coordination meeting of different Churches and other groups. Food, clean drinking water and other supplies were shared.

The floods were, and still are, a disaster, but I found the response of so many good people a sign of hope.

Although my visit to Kalay-myo was brief and there was little I could do to help, I came away impressed by all that was being done by the locals themselves. The young novices, slopping through the mud in their rubber boots, were living the gospel each minute.

(from an Australian priest visiting Myanmar after the August floods.)


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