Shacks offer little respite for refugees

Residents left homeless in blaze forced to rough it in shelters

A week has passed since the deadly fire at Mae Surin camp, but the frightening scene of the disaster still haunts 60-year-old Karen refugee Na Mu Ta.

Refugee kids at a temporary shelter for Mae Surin camp fire survivors in Khun Yuam district of Mae Hong Son play inside their shanty as their mother looks on. THITI WANNAMONTHA

Nightmares have woken her in the middle of the night over the past seven days, she said.

"In my dream I was running around and around. I saw my house in flames," she said.

The March 22 fire damaged 420 houses and killed 37 people.

Na Mu Ta and three of her family members have been living at a temporary shelter near the camp with more than 2,300 refugees displaced by the blaze.

The temporary shelter is divided into several zones with around 20-30 families in each.

Hardships at the temporary shelter have worsened her mental condition, she said.

Na Mu Ta's family lives in a makeshift shack built with the remnants of the burnt houses. A plastic sheet serves as the shack's roof.

The shack neither protects the family from the severe heat during the day nor the cold at night.

Her back aches from having to sleep on the ground with only a thin mattress, she said.

There are no private toilets and the refugees have to share the latrine with many others.

Despite the shelter's discomfort, Na Mu Ta said it is better for her to stay there than to return to the main camp.

"I went back to see my old house. But there is nothing left," she said. "I won't go back there anymore. It's too painful."

Donated goods and food have been sent from across the country to the temporary shelter. The goods are stored and managed by a group of non-government organisations working to help the refugees.

The donations are handed out based on a registry to ensure fairness. Each day, the NGOs call names and the refugees can pick up food and other necessities.

Na Mu Ta's name is called. She returns with blankets, clothes, water, instant food and dry fish.

Life at the temporary shelter after the fire is very similar to what life is like at Mae Surin camp, she said. The refugees there also have to depend on donated dried and instant food.

"We are not allowed to fish in the river," she said.

"We are not allowed to farm or to leave the camp. We can't do anything by ourselves."

Next to Na Mu Ta's shanty, a family of nine is packed into a tiny shack that is covered with a plastic sheet.

Ves Ta Tu, 15, runs back to the shack with water and instant food. She is dripping with sweat.

Two of her younger brothers crowd her, excited to get a share of the food.

Apart from cooking three times a day, the refugees have nothing much else to do at the shelter."I can only wait to be rescued," Na Mu Ta said. "Hopefully I will get a new home soon."

A staff member from the Border Consortium, a non-profit organisation taking care of the refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border, said the organisation is looking for a contractor to supply building materials. They need cement and more than 10,000 bamboo poles to re-build the houses.

Mae Hong Son governor Narumon Panwan said she would talk to the Ministry of Interior about using metal sheet to roof the new houses instead of thatch.

The ministry forbids refugees from building permanent homes using cement and metal. The ministry has designated the refugees as temporary residents.

However, Ms Narumol said the use of metal sheet will reduce the risk of another deadly fire.

Mae Hong Son Land office will design a plan for Mae Surin camp to reduce the risk of fire, she added.

The office is expected to begin preparations to re-build the houses in the next few days, the governor said.

About the author

Writer: Paritta Wangkiat
Position: Reporter