The adrenaline rises up high from my toes. I almost start to sweat instantly but that is quickly turned into goose bumps…
Here I am, far away from the civilised world, in a Shan refugee camp in northern Thailand, right on the border with Burma, in the middle of the night and a sinister sound is being echoed through the mountains. I am scared to death by the little explosion close to me; an order is being called, directly followed by a collective salute, then a respective bow. Short and sturdy: for just a second it falls deathly silent. I am the last one standing straight, but before I can react and bow as well, the fireworks start. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not yet midnight, but the Shan obviously can’t be bothered.
This night we celebrate, so why should we wait any longer? There’s loud yelling in a language that I don’t understand, with a limited translation to English in my ear. They’re talking about freedom, about human rights, about peace. About fighting for a proud nation. The same people who appeared so shy during the day, are now dancing exuberantly and loudly voice their longing for existence into the mountains, into the dark night. It’s cold, I am standing there with my flip flops and dressed in a Shan skirt. Nicola, a good friend with whom I witnessed a traditional sunrise dancing ceremony in an Indian reservation in Arizona 6 years ago, is standing next to me and I can see her wondering glance:
“Look at us standing here…How did we end up here?”
Mae Sot, my homebase, explodes by the large number of aid organisations. Up north along the Thai border are large numbers of Shan refugees who are still only sporadically noted on the international agenda. I decided to increase working with the Shan which was easier said than done; I had to find your way around in an invisible world and got to know the people who (officially) don’t exist. I had to gain trust and at the same time make sure not to trust the wrong people by mistake. It’s a complicated process.
But if there’s a will, there’s a way and if there’s a way, I want to go there.
The way that led me to this remarkable place was a tough one. Since the Thai authorities are playing hard these days, I can only reach the camps through the familiar ‘backroad’. It’s a rough ride: the 4×4 makes its way right across the jungle, for hours in a row. It seems to be never-ending and I am expecting a Thai tiger to jump on our bull bar any moment. But no; the only one we see along the way is a boy washing himself in the river. During the rainy season the only way to get here is by horse, but we continue on 4 wheels as long as it’s doable. The last half hour we have to go by foot and as soon as we enter the camp I feel like we’re stepping into a different world.
We are in Loi Taileng, a camp where I haven’t been before. It’s one of the three camps where we will be supporting landmine victims by facilitating their livelihood activities. Besides Loi Taileng there is Loi Kaw Wan camp, and Khung Jor; all situated in the no-man land right on the border between Thailand and Burma. During an intensive visit along the project-sites I try to match the needs and wishes with the possibilities, and to start things up. If all is going according to plan there will be about 65 landmine survivors working within a few months, breeding their own pigs, chicken, and fishes, and cultivate their mushrooms. Possibly weaving thatch and bamboo for the houses as well, and repairing motorcycles. One man wants to become a hair dresser!
I meet a person from New-Zealand who installed a water pump system with solar panels and we try to find out if it could also deliver the energy for the prosthetic workshop. I am checking out the prosthetic legs that were recently made by two Canadian volunteers. What theoretically sounded like a masterplan (minimizing the security risk for everyone by distance-production) turns out to hold some practical issues. The protheses don’t fit well, or are not being used for other reasons. The toes are being cut off since a short foot makes for better walking on the steep hills; the exchangeable ‘knob’ which was introduced for exactly that reason needs to be attached with a certain tool and storing it at the chief created a large barrier to actually use it. Severe challenges came up and I am honestly happy that I have something to offer from my professional background. I plan the next visit in January to train the local medical staff about the rehabilitation treatment of amputees.
Back to the party, Shan New Year. Last year I already celebrated the Karen New Year on a similarly unusual place, close to Mae Sot. Contrary to the Karen, who have their celebration spread out over 4 days (meanwhile regarded as a ceasefire) this Shan-festivity is short but intense. Not long after midnight I’m lying on a wooden floor with my eyes wide open. Outside I had been amazed about the astonishing starry sky; I am now surprised by how dark the night can be as long as you’re far enough from civilisation.
In the morning I’m waking up with the smell of wood fire and I still have difficulties realizing where I am. Sai Y. T. my contact person with the Shan Health Committee has undergone a metamorphosis. Whereas I normally know him as a decently clothed man with gentlemen’s trousers and shirt, he is now dressed up in a full Shan State Army-suit. We are expected at the yearly ceremony this morning, honouring the newly-trained soldiers. Last night we’ve seen them building up the podia; the melody of ‘Mission Impossible’ came out of the loud speakers when we passed by. Looking at all the army green I wondered if I happened to be at the film set of the newest Tour of Duty movie. Almost all the men of this 2000-persons refugee camp are dressed up in green SSA-suits and the women turn up in their most beautiful sarongs.
Again I find myself standing amongst them and I look up into the mountains. At the left there are the monks lined up; at the right are the guys ready to show their tricks. The ceremony consists of several parts: first there is a demonstration of physical capacities, a serious exercise of muscle provocation to which heavy tree trunks are being thrown up in the air, then caught again to being put back on the ground, etcetera. Collaboration is a must and the discipline can be read upon their faces. Then there’s the weapon part: weapon control in different positions, including rolling over the ground and prowling through the jungle. The fire shots are being answered by the sounds of mortar coming from the mountains. Someone assures me that it is part of the ceremony but I can’t help myself closing my eyes for a second and imagine what it is like when these sounds peal through the jungle when it is ‘for real’.
The ceremony continues a bit longer and one could write 3 books about everything that’s happening. The way back wasn’t unscathed, but after all I’m in the bus and safely on the way back to my home base Mae Sot. Before we pass the last checkpoint, something remarkable happens. 3 men are being pushed into the toilet and the door is locked. The controlling officer picks out another passenger from the bus, he needs to stay behind and we continue on the way. The 3 men get out of the toilet and snigger released. Upon arrival at the bus station I jump on the back of a motorcycle taxi to drop me off at home. Over less than a kilometres ride we pass by at least 20 police men. My driver explains with a short ‘Farang’, meaning foreigner, and because I’m wearing a cap they light up my face with a flashlight. My blue eyes confirm that I’m a foreigner, so we can continue. Now I also snigger and feel released, since the police men don’t realise that I’m carrying a bag full of pictures and other documentation from the northern camps – both the Thai authorities as well as the Burmese intelligence would make themselves a great catch if they’d find all the information that I’m carrying with me. I hold the calendar which I received as a present from the camp commander rolled up in my hand; even the most reliable blue eyes could not defend a story that I’ve bought it at the market or so. There’s an unusual and almost grim atmosphere in town and I wonder what’s going on. Tomorrow morning I will try to find out what it is, but for now I want nothing more than a cold shower and a warm bed.