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Aid Organizations Face Continuing Hurdles in Myanmar

May 13, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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France, Britain and Germany called for humanitarian aid to continue to flow to cyclone-ravaged Myanmar despite sporadic government resistance. Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children in Myanmar, describes the challenges aid groups are facing.

GWEN IFILL: Now, an update on efforts to get aid to the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Ray Suarez earlier today spoke with Andrew Kirkwood, the country director for Save the Children. He was in Yangon.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Kirkwood of Save the Children, welcome back to the program.

ANDREW KIRKWOOD, Save the Children: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: You got a chance to head out to the affected areas in a helicopter. Tell us what you saw.

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: I was able to get out on Saturday. And we were not able to fly as low as we would have liked. We flew most of the way at 3,000 or 4,000 feet.

From that altitude, I mean, it really became clear the scale of the devastation to me for the first time, anyway. And large parts of the area we flew over were still underwater and, I mean, as far as one could see on either side of the helicopter.

In some ways, I arrived back in Yangon slightly more hopeful than I had left, because in all the inundated areas, there were pockets of high ground, where people were obviously sheltering, and there were signs of people drying rice on plastic sheeting.

And in most small- or medium-sized villages, there was at least one or two buildings that seemed to survive relatively unscathed. And we assume and certainly hope that people are sheltering in those buildings.

RAY SUAREZ: There are a lot of people out in the open, though. And the rain is back?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: The weather, for five days or six days after the cyclone, the weather was quite good here. But it’s turned really terrible again, and there are very high winds at the moment, and it’s raining very heavily. And that’s forecast to continue for the next three or four days.

But I was worrying for two reasons. I mean, obviously, people who are living on the very flimsy, makeshift shelters of whatever they can find, I mean, this is going to be extremely, extremely difficult.

And, also, the floodwaters are — this is going to slow down the floodwaters subsiding.

Some gains made in relief effort

RAY SUAREZ: Can you point to any good news over the last several days?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Absolutely. I mean, I estimated about three days ago that we had reached perhaps 10 percent or 15 percent of those affected. And that number came from those agencies reporting the number of people they had been able to reach so far.

But I estimate that we may have been able to triple the number of people reached over the last three days. And if some of these major logistical challenges are overcome, we could see another doubling in the coming days.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, isn't the risk rising for people who haven't yet been reached at all?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Oh, no question about that. I mean, we are already seeing lots of stories of staph infections in places where people are sheltering. And this is a sign that more superficial infections that people had are now entering the bloodstream. And this is a very, very worrying sign.

RAY SUAREZ: Some E.U. member states have called for the beginning of distribution of aid without the cooperation of the Myanmar government. Now, you're very familiar with this area, very familiar with this country. Could that work?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: I think that's quite a naive thing to say. I think that sometimes plays well to people at home, but, I mean, that's just not practical on the ground.

If you try and mount an operation inside Myanmar without the cooperation of the government, is just, I think, completely impossible. And I think it would be -- I can't think of very many countries in the world where it would be possible.

RAY SUAREZ: There's reporting day after day of a certain tonnage of food, tonnage of medicine that's one way or another entering the country from the outside and then elsewhere, on the wires or in the same paper, reports of things simply not getting out to people. Where is all this stuff?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: I'm not sure where these stories are coming from. I think we have helped unload one aircraft four days ago. We had an aircraft completely consigned to us two nights ago.

And, I mean, I can confirm that all of those materials were cleared through the port and into our warehouses and out to the affected areas for Save the Children.

Now, my guess is that a lot of people are speculating about what's happening in the country when they're sitting outside the country. And I'm not sure that's very helpful for anybody.

Children face immense hardship

RAY SUAREZ: What are the risks to children that you see in the weeks and months ahead?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: What really worries us today is we were able to identify 800 children who've been separated from their families, quite often young children, who are now living without any parental care in three -- and that was only in three locations.

And I think it's, you know -- extrapolating from that, it's very, very easy to conceive of thousands of children having been separated from their family. I mean, they're vulnerable to all kinds of issues, health, infection and otherwise.

And tracing the families of these children is going to be a big effort. We started that today. We've started tagging very young children in centers so that, if they do get separated later, it will make it easier to find their parents.

You know, I mean, education, the schools are supposed to start on June 1st here. We think 3,000 schools have been damaged or destroyed. And that's 500,000 school-aged children who don't have any prospect of going back to school immediately.

So I think the message has got to be that there are some very, very serious issues we're confronting at the moment, very serious needs of the people. But this is an operation that I think we're all going to need to sustain over years, not months.

RAY SUAREZ: Given the kind of inundation that happened and the way the surge tide rolled out and carried so many people with it, is it conceivable you'll never know the fate of some of the adults who are the parents of these separated children?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Absolutely. I know that, you know, as a public health measure, that people have been, you know, are being buried and have been buried already. And it's very likely that the identity of many of those people has not been established, so that's a good point.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Kirkwood, thanks for joining us.

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: You're most welcome.