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Relief Trip to the Refugee Camp Destroyed by Fire

In the middle of a border mission near Karen State, we received news of a fire decimating a refugee camp in Northern Thailand.  Dozens killed and many homes burned.  Scattered updates, thin reporting, and suspicious causes gave us little comfort that needs would be well handled.  Being many hours away, there was little we could do immediately.  The refugee camp in Thailand is not within the typical scope of the FBR mission to serve the people of Burma—the Thai refugee camps have many NGOs proving aid.  Still, several ex-Free Burma Rangers and many once-IDP families in Burma now call Camp 2 home.

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With no clear answer on what to do, Dave prayed for a way FBR could help.  Minutes later, he opened his computer to find an email from ____–they had relief supplies, but no means of transporting them to the camp.   FBR had trucks and rangers ready.  Doh Say, a Karenni FBR leader, led the trip, joined by Jonathan, Lisa, and me.

The mission would be no slam dunk.  Refugee camps in Thailand notoriously restrict visitors—especially foreigners, since the camps “technically” do not exist.  Despite the challenges, our team took off Saturday morning for an anticipated five-hour drive.

Ten hours and several engine overheating stops later, our truck rambled into the first checkpoint along the road the refugee camp.  We were not sure what would happen next.  Three hours prior, we received a phone call that the camp gate would close at 5 p.m.  We prayed for an opening and kept moving, anticipating that we might sleep on the hood of the truck at the camp gate.

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News quickly turned worse.  A Thai army at our checkpoint told us that only 30 minutes ago, the refugee camp commander called up and said “Allow no more trucks through.”

“You missed it by half-an-hour,” the soldier explained.  “Only registered NGOs and people with camp permits.”

We had neither.  We decided to wait them out.  Two other trucks from Chiang Mai arrived just in front of us.  They received the same frustrating news.

After waiting 30 minutes, the Thai soldiers came to us and said they called the camp commander who would allow us to drive to the gate and then make a determination there.  With no guarantees our relief supplies or our FBR team could get into the camp, we pushed ahead.  There would be no turning around for the next two hours.

The road to Camp 2 winds up and down a ravine, crossing a large river in at least a dozen places.  The off-road trail requires four-wheel drive with deep ruts and steep climbs through the jungle—picture taking the back entrance to Jurassic Park.  With darkness already upon us, the pace slowed to a crawl.

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Two hours later, our truck entered the rocky flats along the riverbed.  A surreal world greeted us.  Hundreds of candlelit tents lined the steep canyon walls around, reflecting off the snake-like river our trucked waded through.  We drove straight up the river in places, finally coming to a halt at an oasis of technology in this remote camp: the emergency response center, complete with satellites, internet, and aid workers.

Doh Say stepped out to negotiate.

“We can go,” he told us minutes later.  If we had a place to stay in the camp, we could walk in and drive our truck in tomorrow.  “Hurry before they change their mind,” Doh Say stressed.

By flashlight, we began a walk into an extraordinary land of suspended bamboo walkways and tree trunk footbridges.  Crisscrossing the river, entered a portion of the refugee camp burned to the ground.  The air smelled of recently scorched earth and, in places, the fire still burned and logs continued to smolder.  Charred bamboo poles rose eerily from the ground and each step left footprints in the ash.

We soon arrived at the bamboo home of the camp chairwoman.  I’m not sure whether they knew of our arrival, but they made space for us to sleep in and prepared dinner.

We rose in the morning to deliver relief supplies, including rice and cooking materials, and begin interviewing victims.  We made visits to families in two sections displaced by the fire, as well as interviewing several other victims and the camp chairwoman.  The fire victims received temporary tarp shelters.

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In total, the blaze destroyed at least 380 homes out of 685.  The fire consumed 55% of the camp (2 sections), displacing approximately 2,300 people.  In addition to the homes, the fire burned 2 churches, 1 Bible school, and a large clinic.  39 people died in the fire, including two unborn children.

The sections of the destroyed refugee camp contained predominately Christian families.  They requested new Bibles, which mostly burned in the fire and relief organizations do not provide them.

The refugees interviewed said they had a lot of time between seeing the fire and it arriving at their home.  One section burned in 10-15 minutes while the other burned over the course of 30-60 minutes.  Yet, they did not know what to do an often ran in and out of their home in fright.  Despite the amount of time, they did not save any possessions from their homes.  Others attempted to fight the fire instead of saving possessions.  Also, many of those who died did so because they went in to rescue victims.  All of this gives rise to some questions about the adequacy of fire response training among the refugees.

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The cause of the fire remains unknown as well as the subject of suspicion.  Early reports suggest a cooking fire.  Some refugees, however, cite seeing an aircraft fly overhead and drop a glowing material.  The Thai government operated rain-seeding aircraft in the area at the time of the fire.  Other refugees said the size of the fire was too large for it to be a cooking accident because the fire had to jump a wide river in several places.  Additionally, they said the fire appeared to begin burning in two places almost simultaneously.  The cause remains under investigation.

After spending about 10 days along the border, I am way behind on my bogging and report.  More to come soon!!

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