Teams of church volunteers to offer medical care, moral support

YANGON, Myanmar (CNS) -- Small teams of doctors, nurses and volunteers organized by the Catholic Church in Myanmar have been visiting cyclone-affected areas to offer medical care.

A team of 40 began visiting parishes in the Archdiocese of Yangon May 12 to offer moral support and medical care and to gather data on people's needs and the extent of the damage from Cyclone Nargis, which hit southern Myanmar May 3.

Father Noel Naw Aye, archdiocesan project coordinator, told the Asian church news agency UCA News May 14 that "this medical group will help with severe illness, injuries and treat cholera."

Another church team of a priest, a doctor and some youth volunteers set off for Labutta, a devastated Irrawaddy delta area in the Pathein Diocese, about 100 miles southwest of Yangon. Father Naw Aye said this team also will offer medical treatment and deal with other needs, depending on the situation.

The teams left after attending a morning meeting May 11 in the archbishop's house in Yangon to discuss the medical needs of survivors and how to assess needs in the field and offer appropriate assistance. The Myanmar Disaster Relief Committee, formed in the cyclone's wake by the archdiocese, Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar, organized the meeting.

International aid agencies said up to 128,000 were killed in the cyclone, although the government estimated fewer than 40,000 dead. The United Nations said 2.5 million people are in urgent need of aid. Officials of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent expressed concern that a new storm with heavy rains that could hit Myanmar May 16 would hamper relief efforts.

In an e-mail obtained by Catholic News Service May 14, a church worker helping to train the volunteers expressed the emotional pain volunteers have faced while assessing the situation. The worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, wrote the e-mail after several days of visiting some of the worst-affected areas.

Myanmar "weeps today and the tears of the innocents wound our sensibilities. I have seen the suffering of these graceful people," said the worker. "When nature colludes in compounding their agony, (the) heart gets mutilated with despair."

The worker said the cyclone came "in a sadistic show of shock and awe" and "attacked the hapless men and women at night, attacking them from the seas, river and from the air. Menacingly howling winds at a blistering pace tore through (the) settlement, as fighter bombs would have bombed."

The worker described a child's body floating in the water and women crying because they could not find their babies.

"It is a sad sight. To my eyes which have seen (the) tsunami (and) Kashmir earthquake, this is really overwhelming," the worker said.

Father Dominic Thet Tin, executive secretary of the bishops' conference, told UCA News May 13 that he offered guidelines to the doctors and nurses on helping people in need regardless of their religious affiliation.

"We intend to support the cyclone survivors who need medical assistance in affected areas," he said. "We will carry out this out according to the needs of the situation."

Sister Angelina Reuben of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who works for the education sector of the church's national Karuna Myanmar Social Services, told UCA News May 12 that "the main aim of the nuns is to offer medical assistance, data collection and to give moral support."

Moral support is important, she said, because people are "so depressed."

Sister Angelina suggested that the nuns could devote more time to the mission than could lay volunteers, who might need to take care of their own family matters.

The nun praised the doctors who work at government hospitals but were volunteering their time in the parishes.

The problems the medical teams face are immense. In Zalatkone village, near Pyapon, 75 miles southwest of Yangon, one man spoke of the difficulties his family is going through.

"We have to eat rice that has been made wet by the flood," U. Paulinus told UCA News May 8, saying some members of his family have been suffering from stomach pains. He said he received medicine from the local hospital and that some of his children may be suffering from cholera.

In addition to sending medical teams, Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon plans to send seminarians from different dioceses to do relief work in cyclone-affected areas.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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