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U.S. Aid Team Stuck Waiting For Burma Visas

U.S. Aid Team Stuck Waiting For Burma Visas


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- America's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) team said Thursday it was stuck in Bangkok hoping Burma would issue visas, so the U.S. could provide water, food, shelter and safety to countless thousands of people suffering from Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 100,000 people.

"We are trying to get access, to send our team to Burma," DART leader William S. Berger said in an interview.

"We are awaiting visas now. They haven't granted us visas," Mr. Berger said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) deployed 10 DART experts in response to the cyclone, along with an initial $250,000 for emergency relief assistance.

"That money was given to UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Program," Mr. Berger said referring to United Nations organizations which are also providing assistance.

USAID gave an additional one million dollars to the American Red Cross to help rescue survivors in Burma, he said.

But the 10 DART "technical experts" have been unable to fly from the Thai capital to Rangoon, Burma's cyclone-stricken commerical port which is also known as Yangon.

The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon is trying to convince Burma's anti- American, military junta to issue the 10 visas, without immediate success.

Mr. Berger said he did not know why the regime has not acted, despite an escalating death toll after the cyclone pulverized Burma's southern Irrawaddy River delta on May 2 and 3.

USAID is unwilling to simply pack airplanes with emergency items and dump the boxes at Yangon International Airport, because it needs to coordinate the use of relief goods to make sure help reaches people in need.

If they get visas and enter Burma, the 10 DART experts would first try to assess what "non-food relief items" are available in the impoverished Southeast Asian country, and what supplies would have to be flown in from USAID's "warehouses" located in the United States, Italy and Dubai, he said.

For this disaster, which includes massive floods and destroyed homes, items such as "plastic sheeting for shelter, plastic jerry cans for water, blankets, tents" and other basic survival goods are a priority, he said.

DART's 10 experts include people experienced in providing "livelihood, shelter, water sanitation and hygiene, protection, food aid, information, logistics, communications, safety and security, and administration," said Mr. Berger, 58, originally from Austin, Texas, but now based in Bangkok after spending about 15 years in Asia.

The DART leader said "protection" means making sure "vulnerable groups, such as women and children," remain a priority during emergency relief operations.

"'Safety and security' means making sure we are safe and secure when we are traveling around," he said.

"I've been working with USAID for 10 years," and coordinated their Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) during the December 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, plus the devastating earthquakes which hit Gujarat, India, in January 2001 and in Pakistan's Himalayas in October, 2005, he said.

OFDA responds to major natural disasters worldwide, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, floods, droughts, fires, pest infestations, and disease outbreaks, plus civil conflict, terrorism, and large-scale industrial accidents.

"Every disaster is unique," he said, pointing to the Pakistan earthquake as an especially tough assignment because of the steep mountainous terrain, approaching winter snows, and isolated wrecked villages which were difficult to reach.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to the Burmese people, and those who lost loved ones in this major natural disaster," USAID Administrator Henrietta H. Fore said in a statement.

"The road to recovery will be long, but the United States stands prepared to provide additional assistance should it be requested" by Burma, she said.

Burma has allowed a few planes to land with emergency goods, but has not given out visas to the U.S., U.N., and non-governmental organizations waiting in Bangkok to deliver massive aid and ensure it reaches survivors.

Burma's government-controlled media said the cyclone killed 23,000 people, while 42,000 others were missing, mainly on the heavily populated, worst-hit Irrawaddy River delta.

"The information we are receiving indicates over 100,000 deaths,"

the U.S. charge d'affaires in Burma, Shari Villarosa, said on Wednesday. None of the various death toll estimates could be independently verified.

Disease carried by polluted water and mosquitoes, threatens to sicken hundreds of thousands of people trapped on the delta, hungry and homeless.

Some survivors described horrific scenes of bloated, rotting corpses floating in flooded rice fields and fights erupting over scare commodities.

On Thursday, "a total of 330 six-person-capacity tarpaulin tents and 50 generators from Japan arrived at Yangon International

Airport," Burma's government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said. "Two tons of medicine, one ton of dry potatoes, clothes, and seven tons of tarpaulin from Bangladesh arrived here by a C-130 flight" also on Thursday, the paper said.

"Three tons of dry noodles and dry meat and US $ 20,000 from Laos," plus "two tons of dry noodles and 1.2 tons of rice from Thailand," landed the same day, it said.

China delivered dry pork, drinking water, corrugated iron sheets, nails, hammers and candles, the regime said.

India and Singapore also delivered aid, the junta said, without mentioning that Burma has not given visas to other countries' personnel.

"More aid from foreign countries will arrive here. The aid from the foreign countries is immediately distributed to the storm victims," it said.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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