I have just said goodbye to the 3 Kachin mothers that came, 2 of them to accompany the one that I interviewed. As I saw them leave the room, slowly, with their small children in tow, I cannot imagine what the future will hold for them tomorrow.
Hkawn Ja (not her real name) never once let go of her 9 month old son. During the interview, she always held him close. And she is an amazingly good mother. Her son never once cried. The few times he started crying, Hkawn Ja would immediately fret, standing up and walking around, or offer her breast to her baby. She is so well attuned to her son’s needs, as if she could read her mind.
Halfway through the interview, we were offered some cut apples and mangoes. At nine months, I could see the two bottom teeth already, and so the baby was munching on a piece of apple. After a while, Hkawn Ja took the piece of apple from his hand, and with her forefinger fished out a reasonably big chunk out from his mouth. And she continued to fish out more bits of apple from his mouth – He’s been biting chunks out of the apple but not chewing or swallowing – preferring instead to suck play with it. The way she did it was full of tenderness, talking slowly and softly to the baby all the time.
Born in May 1965, Hkawn Ja will be 42 soon. She fled Myanmar a long time ago. She was a student leader during her 2nd year in university. Involved in protests and demonstrations, she ran to a remote village after the military took over in 1985. There she stayed for a few years, until she was given the opportunity to travel to the Philippines to further her studies. She wanted very much to return to her homeland, and it was very apparent in the interview. “Conditions may be bad, but it is still our home. I want to go back”.
But it becomes apparent that she could not. Having become close friends with a lady at her embassy, she got to know that her files have been investigated and that it was not safe to go back to Myanmar. Therefore, she flew to Bangkok and made her way to the border, where she settled in a camp just inside the Thai border, trying to find a way back. At this makeshift camp, with another person and the help of an NGO, she ran a daycare centre for 60 children. “Condition at the camp was bad”, she told me. “There was not enough water, and we were not allowed to travel anywhere outside.”
Finally, after four years living there, she gathered enough courage to cross the border and make the perilous journey back to her village in Kachin State. There she stayed for a month to have her wedding party (she got married a few months before), but even then word got out of her return, and so when she returned to Thailand, she was arrested and almost deported. Only with the help of her Thai friends, pleading that she was pregnant, was she able to stay and give birth in Thailand.
Fearing further arrests, she and her family then moved to Chiangmai, where her husband worked odds jobs. Here she conceived her 2nd child, but when she was 8 months pregnant, her husband was arrested. Arrests mean deportation to the Thai-Myanmar border, where the military would be waiting for her. Fearing for her life and the lives of her children, she immediately fled, paying an agent to bring them to KL. She knew no one in Malaysia, only that she would have to run. I can only imagine the courage she had, with a little boy barely a year old, heavily pregnant with another, running thousands of miles to another country where she knew nobody and didn’t speak a word of the language. When she arrived, she didn’t know where to go so she asked her agent to send her to the UNHCR office, but they instead sent her to a Myanmarese house that turned out to be Chins, and it was only after a few houses did she end up at her tribe’s organisation, where she was given shelter and help with registering.
Hkawn Ja’s husband, meanwhile, was deported and forced by the military to be a porter. Working very hard at his job, he managed to gain their trust, and slipped away one day when they asked him to buy some supplies. He then made his way back into Thailand, where he borrowed money to go to Malaysia and join his wife and kids.
You would think reunion would be the end of their troubles, but it seems, life is just as hard as it was in Chiangmai. Hkawn Ja’s husband works 10 hours a day washing cars for RM20 (USD4. or EUR ), out of which RM7 would go towards rental and utilities for their room, leaving just RM13 a day to feed and clothe 2 adults and two children. 3 families, all with small children, live in the same small single storey house.
When I asked about what is most difficult with her life now, her thoughts immediately turn towards her children. “It is most difficult when the children get sick” she said.
“When the children get sick, I usually have to borrow money from the other families. My elder child has asthma, and each treatment costs RM100. Each visit to the clinic would cost RM50. We just don’t have the money. The UNHCR told us to go to the free clinics provided by NGOs, but I don’t even have money for the taxi.”
“If my husband is sick for even one day and cannot go to work, then there is big problem. Life becomes very difficult. The worst is when I have borrowed money from the other families for my son’s medical fees, and then their children get sick. What do I do?”.
“Back then, when I was younger, I cannot imagine when people said that life can be hard. But now I know what it is like, because I am living it”.
This 42 year old mother still has fire and passion for life, and it burns bright. When I asked about her hopes and dreams, she tells about wanting education for her children, and wanting to study political science, because as she says, all her problems and the problems of her country and her people, stem from politics. Hkawn Ja wants to know more about politics, to learn about it, so that she can solve her country’s problems.
Fearing for the safety of her family and relatives back home, she was too afraid to have her pictures taken. So I take pictures of her two baby sons instead. And as I take pictures, it is clear that they both have immaculate skin. No mosquito or insect bites, no rashes, no spots, no scars.
If there is a better mother out there, then I wouldn’t know about it.