Dignity in Distress
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Dignity in Distress

By Jim Andrews AUGUST, 2010 - VOL.18 NO.8

Nine Thousand Nights. Refugees from Burma: a People’s Scrapbook, Thailand Burma Border Consortium; Bangkok,www.tbbc.org.,2010. P 180.

Two and a half years after losing both legs in the August 2003 attack on UN offices in Baghdad, Gil Loescher visited a camp for Burmese refugees in Northern Thailand—and found the inspiration to continue coping with his severe handicap.

The camp, near Mae Hong Son, has a center for helping amputees. “I was inspired again by meeting these refugee amputees,” he wrote in a handsomely presented publication issued by the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) to mark its 25th anniversary.

The TBBC is an umbrella organization that cares for more than 140,000 refugees in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border.

A boy peeps out from behind a fence in Mae Ru Ma Luang refugee camp.(Photo: CHRISTIAN BOBST)
The impressive publication marking a quarter century of TBBC work, titled “Nine Thousand Nights,” describes itself as “a people’s scrapbook,” which sums up with disarming modesty its 180 pages of contemporary reports, reminiscences, photographs, art work and poetry gathered since refugees began to arrive in Thailand in significant numbers.

Six chapters cover the history of the refugee crisis, its causes, the appalling suffering of the uprooted Karen, Shan, Karenni and Mon, their new lives in the Thai-Burmese border camps, their hopes, dreams—and nightmares. One section is devoted to the students who fled the 1988 oppression and continued their struggle in the jungles of eastern Burma.

The publication’s text and illustrations yield a complete picture that is often difficult to contemplate—descriptions of torture, rape and other documented acts of brutality by soldiers of the Burmese armed forces.

One contributor was seven years old when his village was attacked by Burmese government troops. His father was forced to swallow three live bullets and left to drown in a puddle of water, his head serving as a stepping stone for the departing soldiers.

One documentary filmmaker wept as he heard an account of how a child soldier had died, while a hardened team leader of the Free Burma Rangers relief group was moved almost to tears by the helplessness of a 97-year-old blind woman who was hiding in the jungle.

Heartache and anger are the natural reactions of many relief workers. One wrote of watching film coverage of the violent suppression of the 1988 uprising and experiencing a “fire in me that still burns.”

Yet the scrapbook is also full of uplifting stories and accounts of incredible stoicism and resilience displayed by refugees who lost everything they possessed after being forced to flee to the safety of Thailand.

“Dignity” and “resilience” are ever recurring words in the scrapbook. Homeless, destitute and reliant on charity, refugees have generally retained these two characteristics, which no oppressor can take from them.

“You’ve got generations of families whose lives have been acted out in the camps—and yet there is this sense of order that comes out of the dignity of the people,” wrote Roy Hasan of Christian Aid.

“I have always been inspired by the incredible resilience of refugees in the face of hardship,” wrote Gil Loescher after his visit to the handicap center at the camp near Mae Hong Son. “In fact, their example has been very important to me in my own recovery these past several years.”

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Bernice Johnson Wrote:
Jim, another excellent review! I look forward to getting a copy of "Nine Thousand Nights."

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