I felt that the Royal Thai Army guard should have stopped me, asked for my ID, and drilled me with questions, assuming I was an infiltrator. But he didn’t. His M-16 was leaning against the bamboo hut right next to the hammock he was lounging in. As I walked by, he barely noticed me.
His duty was guarding the entrance to Sho Klo Refugee camp. In front of the entrance was a small field. It had a market atmosphere with bales of cooking charcoal, bundles of leaf roofing materials, and cases of cooking oil being delivered to porters and stored in large bamboo buildings built to keep rats out. They were the only buildings I noticed with tin roofs to keep the NGO supplied wares safe from the rain.
Swe Mye and I could never speak to each other directly. He couldn't speak Thai and I didn't manage Karen, but what I learned from him by observation is a priceless gift.
As I walked down the trail through rows of light brown shacks I wondered at how clean everything seemed. Each hut owner took special care to sweep the loose dirt and refuse from food preparation into holes to be buried or burned. The resulting earth around each hut was clean and packed hard by bare feet.
On the back porch of each hut an aluminum pot sat upside down drying beside a couple tin spoons and plastic give away cups with Nestle or Coke logos on them. They had been scoured with sand and rinsed in the river, now prepared for the next batch of rice or ginger root soup.
Many of the dwellings had flowers growing from old cookie tins or depleted mortar shells.
The bamboo used to construct each row of orderly huts lent architectural appeal that I liked. All those clean lines gave the exfoliated hills a blue print like sense of order and design.
With fragrant smells of cooking, chili peppers frying, oil boiling, and exposed dirt in the air, I continued through the camp, staring and trying to process all the things I was seeing.
I wrote this narrative in first person trying to get at my memory of the day, my feelings at the time. But through the entire experience Oddny and I were together, each having a rich learning experience. Next to Oddny in this photo is Molly Mu. I'm the nerd on the back row, far right. We are standing in front of St. James Church. 1994
“He stepped on a landmine,” my host said.
She noticed me looking up at an elderly man on his porch, leaning forward to see whom these strange visitors were. One leg whole, the other a prosthetic plastic and wood contraption. His face was scarred with small marks and one of his eyes was missing. His one eye regarded me. Looking back at him I saw a vacant sign. For rent it said. Nobody home.
“Land mine?” I replied.
“Yes, many people here step on the landmine. The ones who made it here are lucky.”
Our guide, Elvira was the daughter of Molly Moo. She didn’t know how old she was or when she was born. Molly Moo and her husband had 49 grandchildren and something like 18 of their own kids. Elvira was one of their many daughters born towards the end of their child-bearing age. My wife and I guessed she was 18.
Elvira told me about the things people in the camp endured, while pointing out specific examples of the abuse she listed.
“She was tortured,” pointing with puckered lips at a woman washing clothes by a steel pump well. “The things they did to her we don’t talk about.”
“That boy by the big tree. His parents were killed, he is a, what do you call that?”
“An orphan” I said.
It's not right to meet hungry orphans, tell them Jesus loves them, and leave. It's just not right.
“Yes, an orphan.”
Elvira talked about so many things I had never seriously considered before. War. Rape. Torture. Whole villages being burned down on purpose; ancestral rice fields and meeting places booby-trapped with land mines. Elvira talked solemnly about children disappearing, being forced into the army, or worse.
“Why? Why do they do this?”
“They hate us. They hate our Karen people” was all she said.
After winding our way over some steep hills and through clusters of quickly built dwellings, we arrived at St. James church. The priest met me in front of his long bamboo and eucalyptus beam church, with a broad smile and handshake.
It was Sunday. I was the special speaker. I was seated in front of about 400 church members on a hand made teak chair while everyone else sat cross-legged on the split bamboo floor. From my elevated position I sat with wide-eyed wonder.
Through the cracks in the floor men would drip gobs of beetle nut spit, dark red and viscous, down to the ground. Mothers would hold their babies to pee and any small sized scrap of refuse found its way to these genius portals of nature.
Nursing mothers were feeding their children while the priest led mass. Some would finish nursing and absent-mindedly leave their breast hanging openly. Kids would come and go; mostly to their mothers who sat together on the left side of the room.
It was an Anglican church, with High-Church tradition. They followed the Church of England calendar and closely regarded the liturgy. The priest was a tall and kind man named Swe Mye. He wore a white robe. He was from Tongoo.
When he introduced me as the special guest speaker I stood and walked to the pulpit as if in a dream. I remember this moment with intense clarity because it felt so awkward and strange.
I delivered a very American sermon, reassuring the congregation that God loved them and had a plan for their life, that if they seek him and learn obedience, he would bless them because that is His nature. I was on autopilot. I reproduced what I had learned –what I thought was the gospel.
I walked out of the church and ruffled the tightly cut hair of some little boys playing in the dirt, then shook hands with the parishioners as they streamed out of St James church into the maintained dirt trails spiraling through the hills full of huts.
As we started down the hill with Rev. Swe Mye, I reflected to myself that this picture was all wrong, that my sermon was wrong; that what I called the gospel couldn’t function in this refugee camp.
What is that feeling? What did I miss?
Feeling ambivalent I continued down the trail to the last row of huts built alongside the small River running through the camp. In the fourth post structure on the left was the shelter of Rose Mu.
A widow in Sho Klo Refugee camp was about to become my most important teacher.