Thursday, July 30, 2009

Suffering and hope in a Burmese refugee camp

by Hnin Pan Ein

(This article describes the lives and hopes of Burmese refugees in a Thai-Burma border camp)

Mizzima News - Rays of sun pierce the clouds, bathing the entire mountain range and forest. At other times during monsoon season, drizzle and mist veil the mountains, including Noe Boe Mountain, hiding them from the outside world. In the far distance, from the village of Noe Boe, torrential streams of water can be seen cascading from surrounding mountains following the rain, the scent of seasonal wild flowers and the earth lingering in the air.

When night falls Noe Boe becomes silent, the sound of water flowing in the rain swollen streams mixed with night birds all that can be heard, ushering in mixed and sometimes haunting feelings for the forlorn and desolate refugees living in the camp.

These refugees came to this camp fleeing the severe oppression inflicted upon them politically, militarily, socially and religiously. Some have been here for over 12 years. Throughout their time in this camp they encounter only a miserable and hard life. For their survival they search for wild berries and vegetables in the dense forest along with frogs and fish from the streams. Occasionally, they make a salad by boiling banana buds and mixing them with raw onion, pea flour and seasoning powder. Those Karen refugees who arrived first serve as survival teachers for those who follow.

There are two types of refugees in the camp, those who receive a refugee ration and those who do not. Those with a ration need not worry about basic foodstuffs, while those without must rely on what they can scrounge from the forest and buy in the camp. For drinking water, rainwater is collected during the monsoon season from the leaf-woven roofs of huts, before it reaches the ground and turns reddish. To facilitate the collection, some build rainwater harvesting units comprising four bamboo poles and a plastic sheet. Bamboo, due to its versatility, is essential for the camp’s survival.

The monsoon season also brings with it melancholy feelings and stress, as refuges struggle to cope with daily livelihood and harsh weather conditions. Moreover, it is very sad for them to wonder when families may be reunited, when friends and colleagues can one day be visited and when they can again set foot again on the soil of their motherland. Yet, at other times the memories and thoughts of family, friends and home provides a feeling of closeness, togetherness, love and joy.

There is no proper work to be found in the camp, only the bartering of goods and services with fellow refugees. As a last resort, they have to rely on family members and friends who have been resettled in third countries to send back remittances.

The phone and Internet allows refugees, the latter at a more affordable rate, to keep in contact with family and friends abroad and update them as to their situation. Phone booths and Internet cafés are always busy and crowded, with refugees pouring out their despair, anxieties and hopes to those on the receiving end. It can be an experience of joy, pleasure, anger, sorrow and resentment – maybe even all at the same the time.

If friends living in outside countries do not want to talk with them or the money that is to be sent is not yet ready, they sometimes will not pick up the phone, leaving refugees to hear only the answering machine notifying them in a foreign language to repeatedly ‘Leave your message if any’. Phone booth owners warn them not to pick up the phone receiver before hearing the live voice on the other end to avoid unnecessary charges – a premature pick-up costing the dialer 10 baht to ‘converse’ with the answering machine, an expense few can afford on their shoestring budgets.

At other times family and friends will insist on calling back to save the refugees money. But sometimes refugees have to wait a long time at the phone booth for the return call, rushing forth whenever the phone rings, their necks extended like the ‘Padaung’ long-necks after waiting a long time in vain.

For those who can use the Internet, it is always hoped to find an Inbox full of mail. Even a single line from beloved friends can make them happy and bring encouragement. If they see friends online with a green light next to their name on Google Talk they are very happy and start to call them. And if those who are online try and ‘disappear’ once contacted in fear of being asked for money, refugees send an email to the concerned individual asking them not to try and avoid them, as they only wish to talk.

‘Peaceful coexistence’ for those in the camp encapsulates the feeling that the refugees live with body and soul existing separate. As most are simply waiting to leave, when the expected duration of wait becomes longer than expected their lives become more bitter and unpleasant, which sometimes brings with it cases of domestic violence and family conflict. It is natural to see counseling and psychotherapy services available in Noe Boe, while the owner of the liquor shop just outside the camp reaps a huge profit.

Asking each other about their situation and what news they have heard is habitual. And even if the news conveyed is false, anger is not shown, as the sharing of news is essential for the survival of everyone – daily news from prospective host countries, world news, news from around the camp and news of resettlement plans. We are happy when we hear encouraging news and despair when we hear bad news.

In the hope of expediting their departure and easing their transition into a new country, English lessons, especially with an English accent, are constantly sought after. It is a case of English, English everywhere, echoing forth from thatch roof huts and every nook and cranny of the camp.

New plants and trees are grown from seeds inadvertently thrown away during meal preparations. Around Noe Boe you can see chilly, pumpkin and papaya plants at almost every house with a courtyard. However, almost all papaya plants disappeared after a monk said, “If there is a papaya tree in front of your house, your departure date will be long” – though some housewives must lie to husbands not as superstitious, telling them that the plant was uprooted in strong winds. News spreads quickly around the camp of departure plans and the presence of any papaya plants in front of the concerned house.

Those who are lucky enough to leave and never again touch the red soil of the camp are seen off at the gate by those who are to remain behind, the sound of the engine starting on the blue bus which will carry those leaving for Mae Sot making those left behind further ponder just how long they will have to wait their turn. Tears of joy and sorrow mix in the eyes of farewells.

Those boarding the blue bus say to their friends after shaking hands, “Don’t worry, I’ll send pocket money to you when I get there”. And though they strolled together, fetched water together, gathered firewood together, searched for seasonal vegetables together, collected rations together, visited the market together, shared fortune and woe together around Noe Boe camp and the nearby forest – now these beloved friends are departing, not to return.

As for those left behind…it is back to the Internet cafes and phone booths in the hope of talking with a friend, securing a little pocket money and – just maybe – news on when they might in turn be boarding the blue bus to Mae Sot.

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