A couple of days into Mae Ra Moe with my senses full of the smells of the refugee camp; I remember how debilitating it can be for outsiders. The assault on our senses seeps slowly into our being, at first as a passing stench of something foul you can turn away from. However, as the days go by a deep rooted sourness spreads throughout your system, seeping into your pores and resting in your gut. I am reminded of this each time I am in the camps and even more so when I come out.

It is not eliminated simply by removing yourself from the camp. The only cure that works for me is the deep breathing that sleep brings under the scent of freshly washed cotton sheets.  It doesn’t happen overnight rather it leaves the same way it slithered in, with beads of sweat breaking through as the foulness seeps out with every breath. Even as I write this and take a deep breath I am aware of its lingering inside me. I’ve been home in Chiang Mai for three days.

This is but one of the challenges that face the more than 20,000 refugees that remain trapped in Mae Ra Ma Luang camp, also known as Mae Ra Moe. The camp, located in Mae Hong Song Province, is approximately four to five hours from Mae Sariang and four kilometers from the Thai/Burma border. Mae Ra Moe was first set up in February, 1995; its current population is 99.75% Karen people.

Orphaned people of Mae Ra Moe

Orphans of Mae Ra Moe

The purpose of my visit was to bring letters from some of my re-settled Karen friends in Ottawa to friends and family still living in Mae Ra Moe and Mae La Oon camps. I also wanted to visit some of the people I have come to know over the years and hear their opinions about the current situation. We spoke about re-settlement, changes in Burma and Karen State and their lives in the camp. One of the families who shared their home with me was husband, Htoo and his wife Naw (not their real names).

Naw and Htoo have many children, they have lived in refugee camps for more than thirteen years and spend the majority of their time caring for the needs of their extended family. We spoke well into the evening as friends and neighbours casually dropped by to share their story or just to listen. Most spoke about re-settlement or education opportunities, no one spoke about going home (more on this another time.)

When we woke the next morning Htoo approached me, his face was intense and serious. He asked if he could share a truth with me, a truth that he and his wife had talked about late into the night, trying to decide whether to speak out or remain silent. Speaking out can often bring unwanted repercussions, staying silent could be worse.  It was then that I learned about the situation of many of the orphans that are being cared for.   Htoo spoke in earnest as he shared the reality of the situation regarding funding cuts in the camp.  One of the groups that have been hit the hardest is the orphans. Many CBO (Community Based Organizations) simply do not have the funds to continue support. Much needed repairs to ensure sanitation levels remain safe are being neglected. Clothing, medicine and other basics are below bare minimum.

We head over to the orphan’s building and I am walked through the countless needs.  The majority of the toilet doors at this location have been lashed shut with woven bamboo, no longer safe for use.   Htoo pulls back one of the doors to reveal the broken cement slabs and cracks where disease lies waiting for victims. He chuckles as he tells me that he told the children that they can use them but without water. There is nothing funny about it and his chortle is not released in humour rather as an involuntary reaction to a stark truth. They wait until they go to school to use the toilet.

As I think about where to go with this or even how to end this writing I realize there is nowhere to go, there is no end. In fact there doesn’t seem to be one in sight.