Lismore aid worker, Nathan Willis.
Lismore aid worker, Nathan Willis. Stuart Corlett

Lismore aid worker's horror

AFTER a month of trying to get into Burma to help victims of Cyclone Nargis, Lismore aid worker Nathan Willis has finally succeeded.

He secured a visa to enter the country on Tuesday, after being denied three times before, but he could not disclose how he gained entry as it wasn't technically legal.

"It's a back-handed way of getting in, but it's the right thing to do," Mr Willis said, from his base in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

"We did manage to get in an Australian nurse that I work with and she's been in Burma since last Friday.

"She's been able to help from the inside to secure a visa for me.

"We're also hoping others will be able to gain entry using the same method.

"It's not an official relief visa by any means, but we have to be proactive and get on the ground."

As a national director of Partners Relief and Development Australia, Mr Willis said he knew a Burmese national who gained entry earlier in the week and was co-ordinating relief efforts in the country.

"He's been able to help 2700 people directly in just one part of the country by himself," Mr Willis said.

"Various groups of people are going in and we're just starting to get back reports from them now.

"The area we want to get to most is the Irrawaddy Delta, and we're hearing the government has put a cordon around and they're not letting foreigners out.

"And the reports we have on the death toll is definitely a lot higher than what the government wants us to believe.

"I feel like we're a heartbeat away from genocide by neglect."

Latest reports put the death toll at about 134,000.

Mr Willis said one of the most heartbreaking situations in Burma was the number of unaccompanied children who had lost both parents and were wandering the streets.

"One of our contacts inside the country was approached by a mother with her nine-month-old baby in her arms," he said.

"She was so desperate and she told our contact she just wanted him to take the child and care for it, as she couldn't.

"We are putting these children in a home with people we can trust - people I've known for more than 10 years - and they'll take care of them."

Mr Willis said he had also seen some disturbing photographs his contacts had smuggled across the border.

Now that he is in Burma, Mr Willis is hoping he can help relieve some of the ex-pats on the ground who have been working since the cyclone hit.

"They're in need of someone with some skills to come in and lead the operation and I'll be helping with that," he said.

"The helpers are getting colds and flu from working around the clock."

Mr Willis said he was also concerned the aid being sent in through official channels to help the Burmese people was being undermined by the junta.

"It's a problem when anything that gets sent straight through will land in the hands of the generals, who have been ruling for 50 years without caring for the people," he said.

"Only a small percentage of what is being sent is actually getting through to the people.

"I've heard reports that some of these care packages are turning up in local markets and being sold to the cyclone victims who have nothing left in the first place.

"It's disgraceful."

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