A man  in front of me on a bicycle. A rickety creaking bike, which he rides not faster than needed in order not to fall over. On his carrier –made from pieces of wood and steel wire- he carries a large black bowl with yellow, white and pink flowers. When he hits a bump the water splashes over the edge. I saw him many times before; he is to me the prototype in the Mae Sot street view. Wherever I see him, he is always on his way to the market. He wears a shirt which must have been blue once, but turned black in the meantime. His green longyi –a type or skirt worn by most Burmese men- is knotted tight around his waist. Because I always wonder how they can ride their bicycles in their logyi, my eyes drop down towards the pedals. Only then I notice that he has two different legs. One brown and one grey leg. He’s wearing a prosthesis from the Mae Tao clinic. He, like many others, has cut the toes off his prosthetic foot. That way his flip flop fits better.

I’m back in Mae Sot. The past few weeks I was stationed elsewhere for work and relaxation. After many adventures, and a fantastic time, the daily life starts again. In particular the colours, but also the smells on the market make me feel being back in Mae Sot. Their faces painted with tanaka (yellow tree root extract which Burmese use, but Thai don’t)… I stroll the streets on my flip flops, as one is supposed to do here. A man occupied the pavement with green leafs, smeared with white paste. With great precision he puts some tobacco on each leaf, a second man follows with crushed betel nut. Some other undefined bits and pieces are added, and finally the whole is wrapped into little packages. Betel nut bites for sale, for 1 Baht (2 ct) per piece. A sturdy woman in the stand next door minces chunks of meat. The tool that she uses would rather be called a sword than a knife. Not a lady to mess around with! Then I notice what she has on display at her table: sheep heads and everything that used to be attached to them. That’s remarkable, while sheep are not so frequent here.

A dog stretches itself out and slowly makes his way to the pig stalls a bit further down the road. Then I see another two dogs lying, right under the cutting board of the dangerous lady. They look up and seem irritated, but it’s too warm to put once paw in front of the other. I continue my way, along the fishes. And again I’m surprised, this time because of a few enormous species. The smaller fishes are being dried in the sun. Some are packed with 3 in a little basket, others neatly put side by side, shining in the sun. The view of the clucking chickens being feather picked makes me decide to return home. I found what I was looking for: a camouflage coloured hammock and kindling-wood to use for our cooking stove at home.

On my way home I pick up a small noodle snack in banana leaf and I realize it is today the 29th of January. I exactly one month I’ll be back in the Netherlands. The king’s flag flutters in the wind, on the balcony of my Thai little house. It’s quiet in our street, even at the neighbours across. Just recently there was a big street festivity. The entire neighbourhood was present, they put up a party tent and I had difficulty making my way through the motorcycles. 4 days and 4 nights of Thai music, alternated with the monotone humming of the monks’ prayers. The neighbour from across the street had died; it was celebrated heavily.

But now things are quiet again. The only sound remaining is the steady approaching of a cow with a cowbell. It’s a beautiful white cow, with impressive horns. An old man with wrinkled skin and thatch hat walks it through the street twice daily, on his way to the field further down. Always in the same slow pace, bull Herman and his owner. A big lizard warms up on the neighbour’s roof and I install myself to get to work. Duty calls, here too

Shan New Year

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.

Life at the border

A year ago I couldn’t point out Burma on the map. Now I can point out more than I would like to. So much has happened…so much that I can’t just say “Been there, done that, I’ve had my experience”. I have seen too much to be able to close my eyes for what’s happening here, just like to many others do. I’ve heard too much, tasted too much. The past 8 months have been a rollercoaster of developments. I started to compile and teach a basic medical rehabilitation course, which got quickly out of hand. Clear Path asked me to take over the responsibility for all the projects in the area. Me? Do I have that capacity? I can at least try…

I first reviewed the 4 running projects and meanwhile 4 more projects have been started up. Over the next 4 years we will be building the foundation of the concept of “medical rehabilitation”. Not only producing prostheses, but also providing physiotherapy, psychological care and social reintegration. I.e. though setting up pigs farms and fisheries, the prosthetic users can make their income and become independent again from financial support.

In order to avoid a major transportation obstacle, I’m working out a plan to build a floating prosthetics workshop, with which we can drive up and down the river passing by several villages, so that people don’t need to undertake the life-threatening (sometimes weeks-long) journey crossing the jungle to our clinic.

Besides that, and gratefully thanks to donations, we’ve been able to build 2 schools for 1000 children and a new medical clinic. I’m furthermore involved in setting up another 3 clinics, a bamboo house-boat for storage and evacuation purposes. I also try to provide side-support some projects in Vietnam; an institute for the blind, and a child rehabilitation centre. There is so much need; there is so much to do…

Life at the border is challenging, unpredictable, exciting, and close to the fire.

Being alert 24/7 is tiring, but in a way addictive. Now I’m sitting here, at the brand new airport in Bangkok, with the dust still in my nose, and the sand in my pockets of the last meeting with a high rank official at one of the military headquarters attached to a refugee camp, hidden in the jungle. I take a moment to look back at the time that’s now behind me and it feels like watching a bizarre movie. I read the last words of this page, of this chapter. But for sure not of this exciting book. I’m curious to the next chapter, which is written in Dutch. I’ll be spending a few months in Holland, before returning to the Thai-Burmese border; in the meantime I’ll continue my work from a distance by monitoring the proceedings and steering where needed.

Monday at work

I’m on my way to the clinic; a few minutes’ bicycle ride away. The weather has changed since a few days and instead of raining it’s now heating up early morning. Several “sawngtaws” pass by: some sort of extended pick-up-trucks full with people and piled up high with anything you can imagine. Straw baskets, chickens, spinach, fish oil, televisions, printing paper, rice bags, coke crates, eggs, noodles, flip flops, salted bacon, pots and pans, clothes, wooden cupboards and chairs. Now and then a vehicle like this tips over and lands alongside the road; that’s when you can only stop and stare at the sight of all that’s fallen out!

The sawngtaws are  driving back and forth between Mae Sot market and the Burmese border. Underway they pass by several checkpoints, where in case of bad luck everything is off-loaded and re-loaded again should the Thai authorities see a reason for it. The thick air of diesel exhaust mixes with the smoke of the barbecues that are lined up along the road from early morning until late at night – they grill fish, chicken, and frogs, wedged between 2 sticks or served in banana leafs. I quickly close my mouth, nose, and eyes when passing the last stall, where the sharp air of fried chillies squeezes my throat and makes me cry. Then I pass the fruit stalls; a bunch of mini-bananas for 10 Baht today, juicy watermelons, and pomeloes.

My favorit part of the journey come after I passed the last stall: brightly green, stretched-out rice fields, with the rough Burmese mountains in the background. A beautiful view. I think about the documentary that I was watching yesterday, about the brutal Burmese regime. About the slavery, the practices of torturing the political prisoners, about the massacres and the numerous people that were driven out of their homes, struggling to survive in the jungle, probably just there, in that ‘beautiful view’ right in front of me …

I continue over the bridge, where the boys are fishing and yell “Wow! Hello, hello!”; finally I arrive at the clinic’s compound. I make my way  through the motorcycle taxis that troop together around the clinic and knot their fishing nets in between rides. Down the little hill, avoiding to step in the mud poles and along the car from MSF (Medecins sans Frontiers), who is responsible for the treatment of TB-patients.

It’s a strange day today. The helicopters, which normally fly over once or twice, circle around every 10 minutes now. There’s clearly something going on. In the clinic it’s hectic too. Other than for the circling helicopters, at ground level is doesn’t take long to find out what’s causing the chaos: the sceptic tank is being emptied. Shit, that stinks! I decide to go on to the library and do some computer work first; there I encounter next unpleasant surprise: a dead rat under the table. I’m instantly demotivated to stay here too, so I start my round in the ward.

A small group of people gathered around one of the wooden beds and several hands are signaling to the guy: ‘Do something!’. The patients who’s causing the consternation screams “Awèh, awèh!”, madly kicking and waving. Two medics fixate his hands and feet with a piece of nylon rope and everything becomes quiet again. “Malaria-madness” is the diagnosis and seems to frequently result from the malaria-medication. It doesn’t take long until there’s a next break-out of unrest. This time it’s a goat who slipped in and is chased away by two dogs. ‘It’s a bit like a farm’ I think and the rooster who’s always sitting on the corner at the toilets completes my imagination.

In front of the trauma department, the guys hang around and onto each other as usual, and as soon as they see me arriving, the yelling starts: “Hi teacher! Flexion, extension, abduction, adduction! Lessons today?” I started to train a small group of medics en prosthetic technicians last week in the basics of rehabilitation of amputees. I enjoy the enthusiasm of the group – and they seem to enjoy my course. Rumours spread rapidly, and someone asked me the other day: “Are you the phylosarist?” Well…something like that, yes. What’s in a name anyway?

That evening I’m having diner at Casa Mia, the place to be for good food and tomeet the newly arrived foreigners. “Hi Charlie!” is the usual greeting upon arrival there “Hiiiii, Luka!” he enthusiatically replies with his charming dark eyes. My name is hard to recall for many, so I think Luka is good enough. It’s not really clear what happened to Charlie back in Burma, but he is limping and he’s somehow not completely switched-on. He left his family and all his possesions behind in Burma. He works 7 days a week in the little restaurant, from 8am until 10pm. When I asked him if he would like to go back to Burma, the sparkle in his eyes turned into a dreamy glance: “Maybe, one day”.