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Back to Myawaddy

This morning I packed my bag and told myself I was ready for anything, but the truth was the afternoon threw me a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I raided the office this morning for all donations I had of clothing and blankets. I loaded up a big bag with underwear and warm clothes, a couple of high heeled shoes that had come my way and a bag full of bandaids and tylenol.

I drove down the highway to the migrant school that has been helping children on the riverbed between Thailand and Burma for years. Twenty of the children who usually come across the river every day to come to school had arrived with their families to find shelter. We distributed underwear (most of it too big) and sweaters (most of them too warm) and some party dresses. Then we picked up a list of things people needed and a truck and spent the morning shopping for food, blankets and other needs.

We left the school at 1:30pm and made it to the highway. That’s when things went wrong.

The flow of people pouring out of Burma yesterday were now being regurgitated back. Lines of people with bags and blankets on their heads, holding children, carrying babies, and walking back towards the place where shelling took place yesterday.  People were held up by traffic police to cross the road, so I tried speaking to people. Where are you going? I asked. Do you want to go there?

People were confused (and not just by my bad Burmese). Some people wandered down one road, other people down another. Some just got herded along, without any idea where they were headed or why. Checking in with people, I was told that five villages were being sent back. We followed the flows back down to the bridge and it seemed like either those were five extremely large villages, or there was a lot of people heading home.

At the bridge, I ran into Help Without Frontiers who were handing out bags of rice and curry to those heading back. Several other trucks filled with food pulled up, so we loaded up ours and headed down to another, informal border crossing.

It made my heart smile to see these pick up trucks full of rice and curry and families who had just loaded up what they thought people needed most and went out on the road to give it to them. Despite the fact the area had been shelled yesterday, there they were, passing out food to anyone who wanted some. Bless them.

The HWF truck headed to Pier 10. And for the next eternity, handed out food to those getting off trucks. The Thai army arrived with a truck full of bottled water and a few bags of oranges and a box full of snacks, so we helped give that out too.

People arrived by all kinds of trucks, from pick ups to construction trucks to pig transports packed with people. The back gate would come down and people would hop off and then reach up and help others down. People would pass their bags down to waiting arms, pass down their babies, and get helped down and turn to help someone else. And more people would pour off, like a box endlessly unpacking itself. I had no sense of time, only that the people came off the truck for what felt like an age, grabbed food, grabbed water, grabbed their children, their family, their friends, and were herded down to the boats to go back to Burma.

After getting food, people had to navigate some steep dusty steps down to the boat area. When the food started getting low, I stood at the steps, taking babies from overladen mothers, or carrying heavy bags down the steps, onto the barge and to waiting arms on the boats.

My small stock of Burmese was a treasure to me today. I asked people if they were ok. I asked children their names. We chatted about the most mundane things, with a smile. I sung to babies. The day passed.

The thing that struck me most was the sense of rush. Everyone packed in, pulled off, herded out, disappearing across the river into a haze of uncertainty. When flow of trucks ebbed and then stopped, it was shocking to look at my watch and realize we had only been handing out food for two hours.  It takes one person to screw in a lightbulb but how many people can you repatriate in two hours? The answer, from my eyes alone, is thousands.

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