Engulfed in Flames and in Retrospection – How I came to understand Karenni Refugee life

On Monday I relished in my ability to blend into the local community (as an Asian woman) and sneak unseen into the Karenni refugee camp. It was an exhilarating motorcycle ride through dusty, mountainous paths, the width of a ruler. Death dominated my thoughts – better than amputation or brain injury – as neither the driver nor I, wore a helmet. The mountain path eventually, and rather gloriously, weaved into a zen-like canopy of bamboo that glided us in the direction of the gates.

My initial impressions of the camp were favourable. In the organised chaos that often describes situations and locals in low income countries, stood hundreds of cubed bamboo huts on stilts; raised from the dusty road that wound its way over littered streams and mud shaped hills.

Buckets of water line the footpaths to the verandas of huts where owners and visitors alike partake in a ritual of hand and feet washing; keeping the huts and the living quarters clean. Virtually every house has a veranda with the sole purpose of welcoming guests over sweet Karenni rice wine. It is a social culture, with everyone spending a few hours per day visiting relatives and fellow displaced villagers.

Life does not seem so bad in this place. It certainly is not like the often touted stories of starving, dehydrated children living amongst stressed and trauma-stricken adults. It is happy. There is wine to relieve stress and there is music to help the time pass.

There are a number of donor funded schools, community centres, and psychosocial/medical clinics run by the multilateral institutions and organisations that work within a refugee framework – UNHCR, ACTED, IOM, IRC. I have never seen so many stickers and patches of the US flag plastered on wooden buildings, cars, clothing, blankets, and mats. This serves to me as the main distinguishing factor between this refugee camp and a slum. At least here, there is food ration and material hand-outs.

By 11am on Tuesday, my thoughts on camp life began to take a dramatic shift. A fire had broken out in a section not far from us. As hurriedly as the smoke filled the sky, so did the women fill their sacks with their belongings; abandoning their homes for safety.

Panicked, shaken, and unsure of what to do, I inched towards the direction of the fire but was immediately pulled back by a student. “No teacher, there is nothing we can do”, a worried voice whispered. With hesitation, I followed her to the river, watching women and children carrying blankets, mats, and food.

In the distance, I saw a young boy carrying a file folder. He was the son of the family whose house I visited just minutes before. They were to resettle to Canada before the end of the year. They had been waiting for nearly 20 years to get this chance. It dawned on me right then, just how easily fortunes can change in a refugee camp. Had the fire been closer to their home, had they not had the chance to grab their files, perhaps it would be another 20 years before they could again gather the necessary documents, identification, and evidence to apply for resettlement. Just like that, everything that they had worked for would have disappeared.

Judging from the children’s complacency as they walked silently through the forest and the womens’ haste in gathering their belongings, this was not an uncommon occurrence. These women and these children had done this before. What kind of life is it to constantly be reminded that, at any moment, you could again have nothing. That, at any moment, you could lose everything that you have worked for, through occurrences that you have no control over. My body shook. My whole world and understanding shook.

Just the day before, I visited a corner house where the woman had converted her veranda into a shop. Her shop had at least 30 different items for sale, making it one of the larger shops in the camps. They also had several chickens and three large pigs towards the back of the house; surely an indication of the success of their micro-business and their ability to invest in livestock. As I sat drinking Karenni rice wine, I smiled in Western approval of their entrepreneurial spirit and clever use of time and space. As the fire raged from one wooden hut to another, I grappled with this ignorant and ethnocentric perception of efficiency and purpose.

Within two hours, we could hear from the walkie talkie that a fire engine had arrived and that the fire had been contained. It was now time to walk back home, through the fire damaged area.

There was destruction everywhere. Entire huts had collapsed to the ground, their supporting posts singed and their leaf-woven roofs still aflame. The Thai military and authorities surrounded us, and as I was a foreigner, without the language ability of a Karenni and lacking a permit to be there, I remained silent, fearing for what would happen to my student if I had been found out. We walked quickly, trying not to look anyone in the eye, yet still assessing the extent of the damage. I could see no dead bodies thankfully, but pigs, chickens, and dogs lay singed; some still aflame. I never thought I would see the anatomy of a pig so closely and so vividly.

As we crossed over the knee-deep, muddied water, a puppy that I had mistaken for a rock lay singed with its guts spewing out. My whole body shook and my student grasped my hand tightly to warn that I should not speak just now. We continued in silence, passing the corner shop that permeated my thoughts just an hour before. It had been completely engulfed, with the three pigs laying dead.

Everything was gone. Within two hours the fire reached three sections of the camp, engulfing nearly 200 homes and leaving thousands of people without shelter. It would take a several months before they could rebuild.

For the next two days, as the Thai authorities, UNHCR, and several NGOs assessed the damage, the camp was on lockdown. The barbed wire gates were closed and security guards stood on every major street. As an unauthorised visitor, I remained confined within my outsider identity, unable to freely speak and move about. I was powerless; just as they are, just as they have been, just as so many of them will continue to be.

Their entire life is regulated. Water is distributed in communal tubs for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening. Electricity is switched on only from 8pm – 9:30pm. Their rations are increased or decreased depending on international trends. The path of their entire life depends on whether or not they were lucky to have received a UN refugee card.

The Thai government, not having signed the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, does not recognise them as refugees, but as illegal migrants fleeing from displacement. As such they have no identities. They cannot leave their compounds and they must seek permission from the Thai authorities in order to do so. The camps have existed for nearly 20 years now, since the start of the Burmese Civil War.

Many who arrived as babies or as toddlers are now full grown adults. Having known nothing but the camp, their education and their development is stunted. Although their hearts and desires are large and their determination strong, I worry about the capacity of society to allow them to fulfil it.

Never has the importance of one’s birth and circumstance been so evident to me as these last few days. They say money and power is what makes the world go round. Perhaps they should also add that paperwork and bureaucracy is what stops it in its place.

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One thought on “Engulfed in Flames and in Retrospection – How I came to understand Karenni Refugee life

  1. Pingback: How Unexpected Turmoil Became Ordinary Bumps on the Road: Ban Nai Soi Refugee Camp | a life well discovered

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