I am amazed. Amazed that she is still sitting in front of me, telling me her story in her soft voice, punctuated once in a while with tears and sobs, but still here, still full of spirit.
She will be only 26 years old this year. Born on the fourteenth of June 1998, LL is the middle child of five – the oldest and youngest being boys, and the middle three girls. Her parents are farmers, and so she worked the land, planting paddy in her village in Arakan State, Myanmar. LL has fine straight hair up to her shoulders, and today she has it centre parted, and pinned on the right side with a delicate pin of two small crystal flowers to prevent her hair from falling across her face. She has strikingly fine features, and her face is framed by two striking crescent shaped eyebrows and thin lips.
She married when she was 19, and only a few years after that, her husband had to flee Myanmar after refusing to work as forced labour and fought with the military. She too had been conscripted several times to build roads, where from between 2-4 weeks, she had to work from 8 am to 5 pm without pay, without food, and without water. The workers had to carry their own food and water.
Afraid of the insecurity and continued forced labour, LL decided that she too would flee Myanmar, and in November 2005 crossed into Ranong in Thailand and made her way towards Malaysia, eventually arriving in Taiping where she had relatives.
It was around this time that her father and mother passed away in quick succession. The father after a long illness and paralysis from a stroke, and the mother from cancer. Being poor farmers, they could not afford hospital treatment.
For two months LL tried to find work in Taiping but failed. Eventually, she managed to contact her husband, who came from Kuantan and brought her to KL, where they stayed in Selayang. Still, she could not find work and for 5 months they both survived on the husband’s wages. When she finally found work, it was with her husband peeling and sorting prawns at the wet market before it was frozen and distributed. It was hard work. Working 12 hour days, from 4 am till 4pm, LL was paid the princely sum of RM25 (approx. EUR or USD ).
They lived in a small room provided by the employer. “it was this big“, LL said, gesticulating as her arm drew a line across our already small interview room. In this tiny little room, no more than the size of my brother’s bathroom, was “…where we slept, we sat and we cooked“.
Five months into the job and her employee went bankrupt, leaving husband and wife without any income. They went to Kuantan, as the husband found a job there. But one day, as he went out to buy groceries, he was arrested by the police. So LL had no choice but to live in Kuantan with some friends she made, living on their generosity. But she too was arrested early one morning in January 2007 as immigration officers raided the apartment she was staying in. Sadly, both LL and her husband were carrying UNHCR cards which proved that they were persons of concern with the UN Agency. In both cases, the UNHCR card was ignored by the Government officers. She spent 2 months in a detention centre in Terengganu. Being the only Arakan woman in the centre made life difficult, as she could not speak Malay or English. “They didn’t give us enough food to eat”, she said. What did they give you, i asked? “Rice, eggs, sometimes fish, and a little bit of curry“. How much rice? “This much“, she said, pinching the fingers of her right hand together to form a cone. That much rice, I thought, even my 5 year old nephew could eat in one sitting.
The immigration department eventually deported her (a UNHCR card carrying person), crossing the border town of Golok and handing the group over to human traffickers. She had to promise to pay RM1800 for her freedom and ticket back to KL. On arrival in KL, she borrowed RM900 from friends and paid the rest of the money she owed them. But still, she couldn’t find work. Again, she had to stay with friends.
And again, unfortunately, she was arrested, this time when a riot ensured at a grocery store she was visiting when some drunkards demanded more liquor. Everybody was arrested, including her, even though she told the policemen she was there to buy groceries, and that she had a UNHCR card.
This incident was still fresh in her mind, and it was as if this broke her resolve. She cried for a long time, telling me how ashamed she was that her picture was in the papers, about how people would mistake her for a thug, about how people would look at the pictures and look at her in a different light as she was the only woman in the group. She spoke to of being really frightened, that people would come and harm her. She has nightmares sometimes, and doesn’t dare go back her house. Paradoxically, LL is now afraid for her life here in Malaysia. She ran away from one nightmare only to wake up in yet another one.
“What about your plans for the future”, I asked? “No clothes, no money, no idea…” she said, tears streaming.
Trying to make her feel better, i asked where she got her strength from, as I would have most probably be a broken man after going through what she has. “Life in Malaysia is full of struggle“, she said. After a while, she said that she thinks the police and immigration were only doing their job, their duty to arrest her, as she does not have a passport. “But why arrest someone with a UNHCR card?”, she said.
“My dream“, she said, “is to live in a secure place, and be reunited with my husband and my 7 year old son.”