Aid organizations are complaining that they are not being allowed to deal effectively with the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma. Ingo Radtke, director of Malteser International, spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the frustration of not being able to help people who are in desperate need.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Radtke, how many volunteers from your organization are in the Burmese crisis region?
Ingo Radtke: We currently have 40 staff there – five foreign specialists and 35 local, highly specialized aid workers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you are not able to deploy them effectively. Aid organizations are complaining about being harassed and supervised by the military junta. Can you confirm that?
Radtke: Malteser International currently has absolute freedom of movement in two of Rangoon’s townships. But we have not received any travel permits for the delta area from the government. We need to go there. Conditions there are like at the time of the (2004) tsunami. Our staff reports that, in this region alone, more than 1 million people are homeless. That is where we are needed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are your aid workers doing now exactly?
Radtke: Our people are divided up into various relief teams. Some are taking stock of the situation, while others are driving out in vehicles fully loaded with medicines and delivering, as far as possible, direct first aid on the ground. Our aid work is made possible through close cooperation with partner organizations. But of course the situation is unusual. We know that we could do even more if we had more freedom of movement.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the biggest problems?
Radtke: The logistical problems have been caused mainly by the disaster itself. All the roads and means of access are blocked by the branches, trees and poles which are lying around, or are under water. The already poor infrastructure has been further worsened by the cyclone. In addition, we have a massive problem in the area of energy supply. At the moment, every person, including each aid worker, is allowed a total of just eight gallons of gasoline per day. So we can’t get very far with that. The country’s entire telephone network is down, and satellite phones are prohibited. That makes urgently needed aid work extraordinarily difficult.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you even bring in relief supplies?
Radtke: The importation and transport of relief supplies are strictly controlled and regulated by the government — a hugely bureaucratic and restrictive process. That paralyzes every act, every movement, every trip from A to B. As far as we can, we are trying to purchase the food supplies in the country. On the one hand, that saves money on transport costs and boosts reconstruction in the country, on the other hand, we want to provide the victims with products they are familiar with. We are getting other food from neighboring countries, mainly Thailand.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do the victims need most urgently now?
Radtke: A roof over their heads, medical care and access to clean drinking water. Otherwise, there is a huge risk of diarrhea.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you maintain contact with your people on the ground from Germany?
Radtke: The lines to Burma are down. It goes without saying that the lines are down within the country itself, and even from the outside it is practically impossible to contact people there. Once a day, always around 12 noon, we communicate with our team via a long instructional e-mail. They give us status reports while we, for example, give them a list of the financial resources that they can use. That is the only communication that we can really rely on at the moment.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For the small number of staff on the ground, the operation must be extremely stressful. How do the aid workers cope with that?
Radtke: Our volunteers are able to deal professionally with these kinds of situation, even if what they are currently experiencing in Burma is very stressful. It’s difficult to put this disaster into words. Of course the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of injured and survivors affects our employees very deeply. But they manage to find the necessary distance that allows them to help the people. And they talk about their experiences with each other, so that they can process what they have experienced.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Again and again, shocked eyewitnesses have mentioned the countless corpses still lying in the streets four days after the cyclone.
Radtke: The dead must be buried as soon as possible. Indeed, and this is very important, piety must be respected despite the terrible circumstances. The survivors need this time to say goodbye to their relatives. That was possible at the time of the tsunami disaster. It must not be forgotten in Burma either.
Interview conducted by Schabnam Tafazoli.