I was only three days old the first time I had to flee from my Karen state village. The village I was born in was called Maetherewta. The day before I was born everyone in my village ran away.
But my mother had started labour so she stayed in our house with my older brother (he was 2 years old) and her mother and the traditional birth attendant. But everyone else was gone.
There were no men to protect us.
It took me 24 hours to arrive in this world, my mother was scared because she didn’t know when the Burmese army would attack our village. Our village leaders had been warned to expect an attack very soon.
My mother was terrified they would arrive before I was born. It took her three days to build up her strength after the labour, and when she felt she was well enough, we ran away to the jungle to join our neighbours.
My father was off fighting to protect our village. My mother has told me, it was the rainy season at this time, so when we tried to cross the big river near our village the water level was up past her chest.
The water was moving quickly. Both my mother and grandmother were good swimmers but they were terrified of me and my brother being swept away. My grandmother carried me safely to the other side. It took us 24 hours to reach the rest of our village hiding in the jungle.
When we got there my grandmother cut down bamboo stalks to make a rough shelter for the four of us. She was sixty at that time. My mother was depressed because of the situation we were in. Even though we were lucky enough to have some plastic, many others didn’t have that and were only using banana leaves. The constant rain meant that we were not able to stay dry. We were cold and constantly wet and my two year old brother had a terrible cough. It was difficult for my mother to keep him quiet. The coughing was constant and it was impossible for her to stop me crying. I was hungry and she didn’t want the Burmese soldiers to hear us. There has been many Karen mothers who have smothered their children to stifle their cries and coughs and accidentally suffocated them in the process.
My mother was worried I would get sick too. Children die in Burma from coughs that turn into chest infections because there is no medicine. They die from malaria and they die from dysentery. We were not able to make a fire to keep warm because of the constant rain. In our rainy season the rain is every day for about four months. My mother and grandmother and brother survived by eating root vegetables. My mother did not have much breast milk so they fed me water mixed with a little honey that my grandmother had carried for me.
We stayed like that for fifteen days before we went back to our village. We discovered that the Burmese Army did not reach our village that time; we were lucky. But the village closest to my village was completely destroyed. Throughout my life in Karen state my family was forced to run away to the jungle another seven times. Each time had its own stories of hardship. Nearly every time we rushed off with only the clothes on our back and a little food for us to eat. It was never enough food though, and we always had to find food in the jungle to survive. We were always hungry. Eating the soft flesh inside the banana plants was one way we stayed alive. We also ate little bugs that we found in cracks in the ground. At that time I really missed our traditional chicken curry! My mother is a wonderful cook and always prepared delicious meals for us, even with the most basic food. I remember hating leaving my special things behind. I had a little bible, notebooks, photographs of my grandparents and great grandparents, my shells and coloured rocks that I had gathered in our river. They all had to stay behind.
Four times in my life, our village was completely destroyed by Burmese soldiers: the houses were burned, the school was burned, the church destroyed. Our belongings were either looted or destroyed, they even went to the trouble of putting holes in our cooking pots. But most serious for us all was the Burmese army burned our rice crops and rice stores and killed our animals: chicken and pig and goat. We would spend the whole year planting and growing and harvesting rice, and we kept those rice stores for the next year. So when the Burmese Army destroyed these precious supplies we had a big problem; we had nothing to eat for a whole year. After the eighth time the Burmese Army attacked our village my parents decided we would flee to the Thailand border and attempt to live in one of the nine refugee camps along the Thailand/Burma border.
I was 17. It was 1997. And at that time the Burmese Army were increasing their attacks; so it was simply not safe for my family to stay in our village. I did not want to be a refugee. I was very upset. I felt angry about the situation me and my family were in. But we really did not have any choice. Before we arrived in Nu Po Refugee camp in Thailand we were staying half way up a hill and we had made a simple shelter for our family. There was my mum and dad and two sisters and three brothers. I saw something there, I will never forget and I would like to tell you about that.
As I was looking down into the valley near our hill I saw a young woman who was by herself. She was pulling up the long grass out of the ground and making a rough bed for her to give birth to her baby. She had nobody to take care of her. She delivered there, and after her baby was born she stood up and she picked up her baby and there was nothing to cut the baby cord. She used a dirty knife and she cut some bamboo thinly and used that to cut the baby cord. And after that she wrapped the baby in dirty clothes and lay down next to her baby to rest. It was so terrible. I will never forget it. Her tragic story gave me the passion to want to help ladies like her. A few days later when we arrived in Nu Po Refugee Camp in south-east Thailand. We were given a small patch of land; about six square metres for my parents and me and my five brothers and sisters and my grandmother. We had to cut down the bamboo for the walls and floor. The leaves for the roof were supplied to us by the camp leaders.
Three months later I travelled to Mae Sot about four hours away. A group called the American Refugee Committee had sponsored me to learn how to be a midwife. I studied for twelve months before returning to Nu Po to start work. I worked in the reproductive and child health clinic at Nu Po Refugee Camp for 13 years before I came to Australia. When I left I was in charge of the clinic. In that time I have seen some terrible things. There were women who came to birth their babies that were so poor, after they had delivered they had no other clothes to change into. There has been a number of times I have taken off my own sarong to give to women like these. At least once a month a lady would die in child birth. Many of the women and children were sick and died from things like diarrhoea. Many new born babies died from umbilical cord infections. Poor hygiene was also another big problem. We usually birthed about 35 babies a month. My monthly pay was equivalent to $24 here in Australia.
Camp life was not easy. We were given simple food rations but they were never enough. We ate rice and yellow beans and chilli and fish paste and we were given oil and salt for cooking. Because my brother and I were working our family was lucky. Because we had a little money we were able to buy fish and chicken twice a week from the Thai people who visited our camp. But many other families could not afford it.
This June my family have been in Australia for three years. We arrived by plane sponsored by the Australian Government. We will always be grateful for Australia because they gave us a second chance at life. My two brothers, and one of my sisters and I, we are all working in full-time jobs. Each of us has a car and last month I got my licence! My parents both live in Millmerran near Toowoomba and spend a lot of time with their three grandchildren. My mother spends her time growing vegetables. My father was working full-time until recently.
The first day we arrived in Brisbane we were taken to our new house by our case-worker. I could not believe that we had been given furniture and cooking equipment. I was overwhelmed with happiness. I work in a flower factory in Brisbane; our company makes the arrangements you see at Coles. I am doing very well there. I like working with flowers every day, but I miss the plants and flowers from my own country. I still have friends and family in Burma and in the refugee camps in Thailand. All of the Karen here in Queensland have stories about their loved ones who they are separated from. That is difficult for all of us. I have been separated from my boyfriend for four years but this July we will be married. We are grateful to be here. We feel safe. And mostly we feel happy. Thank you for listening to my story.
This is a transcript of a speech delivered by Silver for Footsteps for Burma at the Blackall Range Zonta Club’s International Women’s Day function on March 8 2012.