By JAMES FORREST
They are constantly running and hiding from the Burmese army. One 62-year-old Karen man said he believed he had fled in fear more than 100 times in his life. They build makeshift shelters in the jungle wherever they can and plant fields that might never see a harvest. With only the clothes on their backs and a few tools in their hands, they build schoolhouses from bamboo and try to give their children an education. More than anything, the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) of Eastern Burma try desperately to keep a candle of hope burning in their hearts.
It is extremely difficult to reach IDPs in conflict areas. Humanitarian aid from NGOs and the UN World Food Program working in Burma does not stretch to the people of Karen, Karenni and Shan states who require it the most.
The IDPs of Eastern Burma rely on cross-border aid and intrepid groups such as the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) and the Back Pack Health Worker Teams to deliver it. The logistics are very difficult and the conditions are hazardous. With the dreaded Burmese army, or tatmadaw, controlling checkpoints on all roads, FBR teams must stick to jungle trails and use mules and porters for transportation.
It is a dangerous occupation. FBR teams have had eight members of staff killed since they set up 10 years ago. The tatmadaw often operates a shoot-to-kill policy in areas where villagers previously lived and regularly plant landmines around the villages to deter them from returning.
FBR teams travel into the most remote regions of Eastern Burma, as well as in ethnic areas in the west of the country to help IDPs with supplies of medicines, mosquito nets, blankets, tarpaulins and clothing. Sometimes, the vital aid is supplemented by organisations, such as the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People or the Karen Office for Relief and Development, but is not enough to meet the desperate needs of the internal refugees.
Naw Eh Moo Paw, 30, from Thong He Der Village in Karen State, told FBR: “My brother was 14 years old when the tatmadaw attacked our village in 1997. We all ran away, but he was not with us at the time and was too young to know how to react. He ran the wrong way—toward the Burmese soldiers. They shot him dead. When I think about him, I am sad. I want to defeat the tatmadaw, but I cannot. And so when they come, I have to run away.”
Some 48 full-time FBR teams are in operation around the country. The volunteers are homegrown—drawn from the communities they serve—Arakan, Lahu, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Pa-O, Shan and Karenni ethnic groups. FBR teaches the volunteers how to navigate safely around the areas where they operate, how to interview people and record their stories, and about international human rights. They learn how to cross rivers with ropes and how to disarm landmines. Some are selected to be trained in medicine where they learn to treat the most common illnesses they come across, including acute respiratory infections, malaria, anemia and skin diseases. Some 50,000 people—essentially IDPs—are treated by FBR teams every year.
FBR says its teams bring hope, help and a message of love to the IDPs. One volunteer medic said, “I work with FBR because I want peace.” Another said, “I have known about the relief teams since I was a little boy and I decided to help our people as best I can.”
It appears the FBR and the Back Pack teams’ tasks will be ongoing—everywhere the IDPs set up home, the Burmese army reacts by hunting them down, attacking them, burning their villages and abusing them. Several organizations have recorded the staggering amount of human rights abuses, killings and rapes that are perpetuated by soldiers of the Burmese army against ethnic villagers in Eastern Burma, but no one seems able to prevent them.
One young villager had this message: “We never think about going to the refugee camps on the border, because we want to live in our own country.
Tell the Burmese regime to put a stop to the oppression, so we can move back to our homes and live in peace.”
James Forrest is a volunteer who works with displaced people in Burma.