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Suffering and Solidarity in Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp, Thailand

Behind Barbed Wire in Umpiem Mai

THAILAND | Thursday, 15 May 2014 | Views [84] | Scholarship Entry

The first time I saw a child emerge from a bin after looking for food, I was torn. Should I take the shot? After all, that’s why I was on the Thai-Burma border, to document the refugee situation for a small local charity. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The scene was too heartbreaking, the human element too overwhelming to exploit for the sake of a photograph; even if that photograph would open the eyes of people at home to their plight. I was just outside Umpiem Mai refugee camp at a supplies station when I saw this child, his eyes darting and afraid as he scampered out of sight in the direction of the camp, clutching an armful of vegetable scraps. I lowered my camera.

Flanked by monumental mountain ranges of emerald green and surrounded by rice paddies and farming plots, Umpiem Mai could well be mistaken for a typical Thai farming hamlet with its thatched rooves and bamboo dwellings - that is, if not for the barbed wire surrounding the settlement and the Thai military checkpoints controlling access. ‘What happens if someone leaves the camp, to look for food?’ I ask Eh Paung, my Karen companion who grew up in one of these camps before coming to Australia… ‘Thai army take them, and give to Burmese, unless you have money’. I thought of the boy we had just seen as our old jeep lurched over the potholes towards the camp gate. With his ever-endearing smile, he went on… ‘But everyone still do’.

Following some incomprehensible exchange in Thai and Karen between the laconic guard and Eh Paung, we entered the parallel reality that is life inside a refugee camp, where every facet of life exists at scale. There were schools, a Town Hall, stores, a library- best attempts had been made to mimic the world outside, but there was no denying the heavily armed soldiers manning the gates. No sooner had we entered the camp than our vehicle was swamped by a throng of wide-eyed children, manic with laughter. Getting out of the car to greet them, I was not to know that in coming days I would be shown the kindest hospitality of my life by a largely forgotten people with next to nothing- I was taken into homes, churches and schools, and asked in humble tones ‘please take our pictures- and show we exist’. They were not angry, nor bitter, simply hopeful for a better life. I realised then that travelling should serve a deeper purpose- it provides us with the rare opportunity to share our experiences, enhance our understanding of others and connect in a truly global sense.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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