Friday, February 6, 2009

A Journey to another World

Scenes of everyday life in the Karenni Refugee Camp-1, near Mae Hong Son.
(Photo: Kyaw Zwa Moe/The Irrawaddy)

The Irrawaddy News

Mae Hong Son, Thailand – The journey took only 30 minutes or so but it brought me into a different world. The old motorcycle, bouncing along on a rough, unpaved path, sent up clouds of dirt that penetrated my mask and scarf. It was a rollercoaster ride, through steep mountain slopes that dropped away on either side.

Small groups of people made way for us and children looked enviously at the motorcycle, as if dreaming that one day they perhaps could also drive one home.

The snarling machine maneuvered its way stubbornly upwards until another world opened up before me. A world of tiny huts, people carrying bamboo and timber poles, others waiting for their rations, children in soiled clothes playing in the dirt in front of their makeshift school.

Many of the adults wore longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, and their lips were stained scarlet from chewing betel nuts.

Thousands of huts huddled on the hillsides, cut off from the outside world. No permanent building was to be seen, no power lines, no telephones, no paved roads, only a few motorcycles negotiating the rough paths.

Welcome to Karenni Refugee Camp-1, located only 15 km from Mae Hong Son, a bustling resort town in northern Thailand. The camp houses more than 20,000 ethnic Karenni from Burma’s Karenni (Kayah) State in eastern Burma. A further 4,000 Karenni refugees live in a second settlement, Camp-2.

The camps—and eight others along the Thai-Burmese border—are products of the decades-long rule of Burma’s oppressive military regime. More than 148,000 refugees live in the 10 camps, which are supported by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a non-governmental humanitarian relief and development agency financed by 11 charities and other donors.

Across the nearby border, other Karenni refugees—estimated at the end of 2007 to number some 81,000—are living rough or in relocation sites, classed as internally displaced persons, or IDPs. Fighting between government forces and ethnic rebel groups such as the Karenni National Progressive Party uprooted them and sent them seeking the safety of the jungle.

More than 30 percent of the 300,000 Karenni population are refugees or IDPs. As today’s IDPs are the refugees of tomorrow, Camp-1—like the others along the Thai-Burmese border—is preparing to take in more in the future.

The refugees have dramatic and heartbreaking stories to tell.

A teacher told me how his brother was arrested and tortured to death by government troops. He died in the early 2000s shortly after visiting his brother in Camp-1.

“Our family lost him,” said the soft-talking teacher. “I felt so sorry for my brother.”

Many young people in their 20s know no other world than the camp. They were born and grew up here, educated in the camp schools and starting families of their own. A few had managed to visit Thai towns beyond the camp gates.

Kay Mehl, 23, was born in the jungle, daughter of a Karenni rebel soldier. She can’t even imagine what her homeland looks like. “I’ve never seen the Salween river,” she said—referring to one of Burma’s biggest rivers, which runs close to the border.

As hope fades of ever seeing her homeland, Kay Mehl wants to be accepted for resettlement in the US.

Her aim is shared by many refugees. Five hundred residents of Camp-1 have been resettled in western countries so far, while others have been waiting for up to 20 years—living in the hope that one day their turn will come.

Young people were happily playing chinlone and football in the late afternoon sunshine as I left the camp. The images and the questions played in my mind on the rough ride back to the comforts of Mae Hong Son—how long will they have to wait before they lead normal lives, how long will the refugee camps be in existence? How long, indeed, until Burma’s leaders create a country where every citizen can live happily in peace and freedom?

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