Undaunted: My struggle for freedom and survival in Burma
Zoya Phan with Damien Lewis.

One morning I plucked up the courage to ask my mother the one thing that was preying on my mind.

“Moe, when can we go back to the village?” I asked. “Will it be long?”

Bwa Bwa and Slone pricked up their ears. It was the one question that we had all been dreading to ask but to which we all wanted an answer. When can we go home?

My mother looked at me with tired eyes. “I’m sorry, Po Mu Sit, we can’t go back. Everyone has left.”

I was silent for a moment with the shock of it all. “Never? We’ll never go home?”

My mother shook her head. “Po Mu Sit, the Burmese soldiers have taken over our area. We can’t go home. There’s no home to go back to.”

I stared at the sand, tears pricking my eyes. I couldn’t hardly believe it, but that was what my mother had said. We weren’t ever going to go home. Despite everything, I had always believed that we would be able to return to our village and our life when all this was over. It was the first time my mother had told us the grim reality of our situation, and I felt devastated.

“But Moe, we just want to go home,” I heard Bwa Bwa whisper. “What’s so wrong with that? Why can’t we?”

“There’s nothing there for us anymore,” my mother answered. She was on the brink of tears herself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry – but the village is gone.”

Tears trickled down Bwa Bwa’s face. “We’ll never see it again? Never?

My mother gave Bwa Bwa a hug and held out her free arm for me. “We have to go to Thailand as refugees and hope for the best. But we’ll still be together, we’ll still have each other won’t we?”

“But I don’t want to be a refugee,” I told her. “Refugees are people who need help. People who can’t survive on their own. We’re not like that, are we?

No, Po Mu Sit, we’re not like that,” my mother agreed. We have to go to Thailand. There’s nowhere else we can go.” p. 104

“Eat quickly,” she urged. “Don’t speak – just eat! If the enemy comes and you’re in the midst of eating, you’ll be left behind. Always be ready to run.” p. 106

In summer 1995, a few months after our arrival at Mae Ra Moh [refugee camp], the Thai authorities issued orders that we were to assist with the building of a fence around the entire camp [an echo of the brick walls Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had to pay for and build, JH]. Each section had to construct its own fence, and barbed wire was provided for the purpose. Those barriers sent a clear message: Don’t venture outside Mae Ra Moh. At all times we were to remain within the confines of the fencing. p. 116

For the first time I felt a new language [English] really coming alive. We had to learn to reason for ourselves and develop basic critical thinking skills. I loved the way she involved us in the learning process and found her way of teaching captivating and challenging and full of laughter. p. 140

There was no end to the need. The next village was full of families in similar circumstances to the one we had just left. In one hut, they had nothing. Nothing. No pots and pans; no blankets; precious little to eat; no medicines. Their little children were sickly and ill fed. Their eyes had a listless, hollow look. How could they live? I wondered. How could they survive this?

I gave them my father’s hammock, one of the last possessions I had. I wanted to give everything away to each family that I met. I wanted to give something to each of them, just to ease their pain a little. There were hundreds of families like this — maybe three hundred in this village alone. Each had the same chilling story of running from the Burmese Army, of hiding in the jungle, of darkness and terror.

It was all so hopeless here in our homeland. In the refugee camps we’d at least had the basic requirements to sustain life: food rations, clean water, shelter, a little medical care. Here there was nothing. They died from hunger; from simple, curable diseases; or from the bullets or the bayonets of the soldiers who hunted them. p. 209

Where was the United Nations? It was operating in Burma. But not here. The regime told the United Nations it could not come here, and it just accepted that. The denial of aid to these people was part of the Burmese dictatorship’s ethnic cleansing policy and was a effective at killing them as bullets. p. 106

Many of my Karen friend who appear in this book are now scattered all over the world. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Karen, have been resettled: some to Australia, others to the United States, and some even to the frozen landscapes of northern Finland. One ethnic Karenni woman in her forties whom I met on a lobbying trip to Finland told me she felt hadn’t been born until she arrived there. She had lived her entire life in fear, she said. But she also said what everyone else says if you talk to them long enough: I want to go home. While the UN resettlement program is giving people a chance to escape from the misery of the refugee camps and start a new life in safety, I can’t help thinking that the Burmese generals must be delighted with the United Nations for doing this. Instead of taking action to stop the attacks, the United Nations whisks the refugees thousands of miles away. In a way, the United Nations resettlement program is cooperating with the ethnic cleansing policy of the regime. And no matter how many people it resettles, more come to the camps to fill their place, because the attacks haven’t stopped and the United Nations isn’t trying to stop them. p. 268

One Response to “UNDAUNTED…”

  1. […] — Last evening I finished Zoya Phan’s Undaunted: My Struggle For Freedom And Survival In Burma. This portion of her story ends in the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution of August 2007 and in […]

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