Sunday, May 18, 2008
Mae La Refugee Camp
As we walked along Mae La's main street, a dirt pedestrian road bordered by two story bamboo huts, a man came over a bridge ahead of us. I leaned over to Eline, "He looks rugged." Well-worn rubber boots, farmer's hat, and typically Burmese stout build. When his eyes caught us walking towards him, he stopped in his tracks, and covered his mouth. As we met he started becoming very emotional. His face read of long years working in fields and living in the jungle, wide and honest. After limp handshakes, his eyes fell misty upon us, and his chest started quaking. He made an action of a wave coming down onto his shoulders, perhaps Cyclone Nagris or an SPDC attack. He bisected his torso with his hand, pointed to one side and shook his hand away. Then he bisected my body and pointed at my better half, Eline. It would seem that he lost his wife. After the explanation, the strong "rugged" man fell into tears in front of us. I held his hand, but could offer very little verbal comfort. After our moment together, he blessed us and we parted ways.
Mae La is a vibrant, happy place full of playing children; home to about 40,000 refugees, mostly Karen minority. This encounter reminded us of the harsh reality facing the refugees not in Thailand by choice, but trying to make the best of it. 500,000 people are on the run from the Irrawaddy Delta and the Thai-Burma border camps are feeling the influx, though to what extent we are not sure.
The camp sits along a highway in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains and limestone cliffs. Inside its barb-wire fence, makeshift bamboo huts crowd over dirt paths and small streams. Australian, German, Japanese, American, and many other nations' flags decorate NGO walls. Schools and hospitals are extraordinarily prevalent. Churches, Buddhist temples, and Mosques belay diversity of religion living together in the camp.