Myawaddy and Mae Sot

I spent the last two hours looking for a needle in a haystack, and the remarkable thing is: my friend and I found it.

My day started out rather ordinary. We heard rumors that Myawaddy, the town across the bridge in Burma, had been taken by a military faction. But we also heard rumors that wasn’t true. Who knew?

I spent the morning observing Nobel’s first agriculture training where she taught how to make organic fertilizer and organic insecticide and how to manage a garden. When we got back to the office, we heard news that there was fighting across the border. I had just booted up my computer in the office to get to work on some reports when my friend called. She sent me a link to a video of people walking down the highway in Thailand, from the border crossing. So I finally knew the rumors were true. She said her aunt’s house was two houses away from a house that got shelled. Her aunt and family had crossed into Thailand and she thought they were in a holding center and she couldn’t get in touch with them on the phone and could I help? We located the holding center but she was afraid to go herself, because she is illegal and Burmese and she thought they were locking people up there.

I hopped on my motorcycle and headed off into the madness. I had her family member’s names written down and the description that they were several people with her grandmother and a few children including a newborn baby.

There were a lot of people there when I arrived and more steadily coming in off trucks. It felt overwhelming. I had to take some deep breaths. I called my friend and let her know she should come. Then I dived in and got started. I looked for families with three young children. I looked for babies in swaddling clothes. I squatted down and talked to people. “Do you know these people?” I asked, reading off their names, and showing them a card where the names were written in large Burmese script. No luck.

I walked all around the grounds. I talked to probably about a hundred people. I had absolutely no luck.

My friend arrived. She looked for family. She had no luck.

Her phone finally reconnected with theirs and after a long conversation, it became clear that they were at another site entirely. In the meantime, I ran into someone I knew working on organizing the chaos. She said there were probably 3,000 people where we were already and that there were probably another 3,000 at another site who were being relocated to where we were. So my friend and I walked out to the road and started meeting the trucks.

Truck after truck after truck pulled in all full of people packing in like livestock. Some trucks all we could see were the hands clutching at the bars. People poured onto the sidewalk and were shepherded in through the gates onto the field which was filling up fast. Within hours there were already medical services in place, canopies giving people shade, food and water being distributed and plans being made through the coordination of various groups.

My friend and I stood on the sidewalk beside an ice cream vendor who was doing surprisingly good business, and I watched people’s faces. I was looking for a family with a baby in swaddling clothes, but I was also looking at people’s faces. There was a girl in a pink taffeta dress with a pink crocheted shrug and a boy in a very dirty t-shirt and stained shorts. There were people with large bundles tied up in blankets and people completely empty handed. There were people smiling, people laughing, people looking relieved, people looking tired, people crying, people looking angry, people looking confused, and people looking to get some ice cream.

What hurt my heart the most was how normal everything appeared on the surface. The range of emotions I saw wasn’t one of trauma and shock, it was ,one of dealing with the crap that life gives you. A little more crap than usual today, it seemed. But today I saw the strength of people used to crap. What hurt my heart was the knowledge of all those years and years and years of crap and crap and more crap. So much crap that it becomes the fabric of your daily life. So that when a man in a uniform with a gun tells you to move along the sidewalk, it is totally normal and completely usual. I loved the people’s strength for taking it in stride and hated the world that has shaped their path this way.

That said, underneath it all, I saw a lot of unease. There were currents running along the streets today, deep currents that pulled people out of their homes and onto trucks, pulled the trucks down the street, pulled people off the trucks and onto the sidewalks and keep the sidewalks a current of people moving towards the tents in the field. Every inch of that flow was wound with unease. What will happen next? Where are we going? Some people got of the trucks and just stood against the wall for a while, catching their breath, looking about them, gathering their family, their belongings, and their wits, before joining the flow again and moving along.

I felt like a rock, standing there on the sidewalk, watching all these people move around me. I tried to look into people’s eyes as they moved past. Sometimes I smiled and shared a smile. Some people reached out and held my hand as they moved past, sometimes my hand reached out to touch someone’s arm or shoulder. I don’t know what else we have in times like those but a few moments to breath, and find strength.

Then the moment came: my friend spotted her family. Perhaps twenty trucks and several hundred people had came and paused and flowed past us while we waited and scanned and hoped and finally out of the thousands of people there, she found her aunt and grandmother and cousins and the tiny baby in the swaddling clothes.

The sun was setting as I hopped on my motorcycle to head home, but the currents were still flowing, sweeping people away from the fighting and towards that field a few kilometers down the border in Thailand. Tomorrow I head back out there, to another location where people are sheltering, to deliver clothes and food and supplies. My phone beeps on the table next to me, letting me know that more fighting is expected tonight on the other side of the river. We are safe here in Mae Sot, but others are not so lucky and tomorrow is a whole new day.


2 Replies to "Myawaddy and Mae Sot"

  • Aoife
    November 9, 2010 (9:24 am)

    Great writing Jen – thank you.

  • Terri
    November 9, 2010 (10:00 pm)

    Thank you for taking the time to keep us informed about the conflict. My son in law Al just got to Thailand. His wife (my daughter) Christine and their 4 girls (under 6) are moving to Mae Sot in Dec. My son and I will be go with them for a few months while they adjust. Please keep us in the U.S. informed about what’s going on. I especially want to hear the impact it will have on the NGOs. Love and prayers for all.


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