Bamboo huts roofed with tea tree leaves perch on the thickly wooded hillsides above a gorge leading to the wide, muddy waters of the Salween River marking the border.
Scores of small, smiling children play in the stream below, gather on the verandahs of the huts or swing in hammocks slung between the stilts that keep their homes clear of the dusty hard earth or the floods that strike in the rainy season.
Their mothers are washing clothes in the stream or cooking in big pots on stoves in the main meeting room. The men are out cutting more bamboo for the health clinic they are building for their families.
Seen from the sandy beach that fringes the sluggish river and the landing stages where the long boats are moored, it is an idyllic spot.
But up close and personal Ei Tu Hta camp is a harrowing place, marred by tales of torture and death. Within a few miles of little children with their face paints and playfully applied mother’s lipstick are four Burma Army camps. And every one of the 3,000 people sheltering in the huts has a story to tell about being driven from their villages and farms by rampaging soldiers and being forced to trek for weeks across rough country to the relative sanctuary of the settlement on the border between Thailand and Burma.
This is Ei Tu Hta camp, a fragile haven for internally displaced persons, on the Burmese side of the border. Other camps lie across the river in the relative safety of Thailand. But this one is in Karen state, in the eastern part of Burma, where the military regime has launched a new and deadly offensive against rebels who are fighting a civil war dating back to the 1960s, the longest-running conflict in the world.
Hser Paw is a frail, heavily lined woman who looks much older than her
60 years. Her husband’s crime was to go into the township of Mon to buy
fishpaste and salt.
“The soldiers arrested him then they tied his hands and hung him
outside down in a tree. They gouged his eyes out and tortured him. Then
they cut him down and left him to drown in the water,” she says softly
through an interpreter.
She came to the camp with three of her five children. Two are still
hiding in the jungle but she seems confident that they will join her
Paw Thet, also 60, from the Toungoo district, is close to tears as she
tells of the death of her 15-year-old son, who was beheaded by the
military. She and her surviving six children fled to the camp because
they knew they could not hope to survive in their homes.
Another women tells a dreadful story about the death of her husband,
whose lips, ears, and nose were cut off and whose eyes were gouged out,
before the Burma Army soldiers left him to die in the jungle. His
brother found his body a few days later and buried him.
These are not isolated atrocities. In less than a year, 3,000 people
have arrived at the camp and they are still arriving at the rate of
60-70 a week. Relief workers from the Free Burma Rangers and Partners
World, who regularly defy the Rangoon regime by crossing the Salween
River into Burma, documented seven new cases of death and torture on
the day of our visit.
Across the whole of eastern Burma there are thought to be 900,000 refugees.
Non-governmental organisations battling to help the refugees fear that
with the military offensive against the Karen National Union and its
military wing at its most vicious in a decade, the Rangoon regime is
engaged in “ethnic cleansing”. They suspect that the regime, which has
troops from 50 battalions pursuing the Karen tribe, is out to wipe its
opponents from the face of the earth.
But at Ei Tu Hta, the only concern is survival. They have built a
school – an outsize bamboo hut – which is badly needed with 400
children under the age of five and 1270 aged 5-12. They have more than
20 teachers and a few books. The medical clinic is still under
construction. New cases of malaria are running at 20 a month and
dysentery cases at 50. Despite the efforts of the aid workers, drugs
are in desperately short supply. Minor surgery can be performed in the
camp but anything more serious must be dealt with at longer established
centres further down the Salween.
The brightly painted long-boat heads down river with relief workers and
camp organisers aboard. A small goat is tethered to the rudimentary
decking, a gift for the Thai guards who turn a blind eye to the illicit
cross-border traffic. There are no gifts for the Burma army troops
watching from their fortress on the other side of the Salween.
Nick Wood was accompanying Shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, who is pictured below.