‘They say we go, we have to go. They say we stay, we have to stay, whether here, in Loepohoe or in Mae La (refugee camp).’ This is what Nomaele told me last September.
Nomaele is a plump woman, aged beyond her years by hard work. Every time we met I mistakenly called her ‘auntie’ although she is only 35. Her family and 2 others, 12 people in all, were sent across the Moei River to her home in Loepohoe at 8 in the morning of 5 February.
‘We don’t think this was set up by the UN because in the morning, when the first group were being sent back, the second group were packing their things ready when the UN officials came and the soldiers who were sending them back suddenly changed their attitude.
‘From loading them onto vehicles to take them to the ferry, they switched to asking them where they were going,’ an aged friend of Nomaele told me, a smile creasing the corner of his mouth.
We sat and chatted in a bamboo house whose walls had been dismantled ready to move. The owner, missing both legs after stepping on a mine in the last rainy season, sat listening. I was there on the night of 4 February. The soldiers withdrew, leaving just one volunteer. Out-of-uniform soldiers milling about did not appear to be checking passes as strictly as they had been doing in the past 3 months, when not even a chicken could get through.
For many people, living in crumbling bamboo houses covered with torn sheeting is better than being sent back to the big strong houses they built with their own hands in Burma.
‘When the soldiers led us back to look at our homes, I had to be careful to step into the footprints of the person in front. We didn’t dare stray from the path,’ an old woman told me, clasping to her chest an orphaned grandchild who was sick.
‘Sometimes you can see the mounds of earth piled up.’ Those mark the mines you can see. But what about the ones you can’t see, I thought.
‘I wasn’t so lucky. My old house, which my son built with his own hands, with posts so big it took 6 strong men to lift them, has been dismantled to make soldiers’ quarters. But some are worse off then me. Their houses were burned to the ground.
‘I daren’t go back. I’m worried about my grandchild. He’s beginning to toddle. If we do have to go back, I daren’t let him out of the house to walk around because 10 kilos is enough to set off a mine if you step on it.
‘If we go back now, the yellow-headdress soldiers themselves (the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) wear a yellow headdress) don’t dare guarantee our safety. At the meeting they clearly said they could only promise not to force us to be porters for the military. But can we believe them? Maybe at first, but later, I’m not sure.’
The old woman’s husband spoke up after sitting in silence for a while. ‘If we go back, after a while, they’ll make up rules and they’ll use them to punish people who break them. Punishment is forced labour, right? When a new military leader comes in there has to be a feast which has to come from the villagers. I’ve been there, I know.
‘Now it’s even harder. Our house was dismantled. The wood was taken away to build a military camp. We would have to build a new house and now there are mines all around. Don’t say we can just go out and cut timber or forage for vegetables or fish. We don’t know if we can do that. How do they expect us to live? Living like this, in a rotting house, we can survive until they chase us out. It’s safer.
‘They don’t call it expulsion, but they come asking every day, 2-3 times a day. They check the names of everyone coming and going all the time. If they check and I’m not here, they straightaway cross my name off the food register. They don’t expel you, but you are expelled. In a while they come and say that if you stay, the farangs won’t feed you.
‘My relative with 2 legs missing right now does not have his name on the list for food rations. The soldier’s list has very few refugees. In the first months after he stepped on mines and was in hospital, his name was crossed, and he hasn’t been eligible for food ration for over 5 months already. Others have to share food with him. What’s worse, his small daughter who used to get food couldn’t get any last time because there wasn’t enough.’
Hearing all this, I thought again about the report that said ‘Going back, we would be under the control of the DBKA, but that may be better than being under the control of the Thai military. Who will dare to stay, when you are expelled everyday?’ Many people think there is no alternative except to go home and die.
As the sun went down, I, looking over the other side of the river, wondered how Nomaele and the 11 others in her group would spend the night at their homes where they had not been ready to return.
They would have to survive as best they could. And one way is to sneak back into Thailand.