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Born in the crossfire

Caught in the murderous conflict between the Burmese army and Karen rebels, the people of a makeshift jungle village witness a new arrival

Born in the crossfire

While the Karen National Union, Burma's oldest and perhaps most important ethnic rebel group, continues its fight against the Burmese junta, Karen villagers are forced to flee their homes to avoid the fighting.

These Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) have very little to eat, drink or wear, and no access to healthcare or education. They hide quietly in the jungle, living in constant fear of being tortured, raped or murdered, or being taken as military porters and used to clear landmines for the Burmese troops. The mothers are forced to keep their children from laughing during the day and crying at night, fearing that they may be heard and discovered by the enemy.

In a small, unnamed village just by the Moei River that marks the Thai-Burmese border, approximately 100 Karen villagers are hiding from the Burmese army and Thai Border Police. Kyit Tay, an experienced medic from the 21st Battalion of the Karen National Liberation Army, Seventh Brigade, walks through the tangled jungle for an hour to deliver clothes and perform medical check-ups on the locals.

Barefoot children wearing dirty ragged T-shirts and no pants run around the village, apparently oblivious of their misfortune.

At around 8pm, darkness fills the small village. Kyit Tay visits a pregnant woman who is almost ready to deliver. In a small bamboo shack dimly lit with a single alcohol lamp lies the mother to be being massaged by two midwives.

Her husband knits a tray from bamboo and leaves, ladles out some rice and chilli and walks up to the pond with it. The food is an offering to the spirit of the place in return for its protection for the mother and baby.

Back in the hut, one of the midwives grabs a stick of charcoal and begins drawing lines, seemingly randomly, across a piece of wood. She counts them, erases them and starts drawing again.

These are Buddhist Karen, but animist practices form an important part of their faith.

Sometime around midnight, the midwives notice a suspicious light flickering outside in the distance. They seem anxious and "Mo Kyaw", the name of a notorious DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) officer feared by all IDPs hereabouts, is whispered. I ask them for more information, but they go back to their chat, occasionally glancing out into the darkness, fearing the DKBA attack that could happen at any time.

After half an hour, the lights vanish. A look of relief washes over the midwives' faces and smiles return.

IDPs have to work, eat, sleep - and give birth - in this harsh jungle environment with no electricity, medical facilities or clean water, and in constant fear of attack.

At around 2am the groans of the pregnant woman start to get louder. Then, for around five minutes she struggles hard. As soon as the baby's head is visible, the midwife takes over, grabbing it and pulling him free. The afterbirth and amniotic fluids flow out onto the straw mat. I stand speechless, forgetting that I'm here to take pictures, tears flowing down my face.

I wipe away the tears and hold the viewfinder to my eyes. But it's no good - fresh tears take their place making things impossible. It's hard to take in - even under these squalid conditions, life flourishes.

Next morning, the 22-year-old mother, Mu Ku, and her husband, Hsar Ku, look happy and relaxed. "My mother thinks I should name the baby Kolawa [Karen for foreigner]," the young mother says.

The family had previously fled their home in Pa'an District in the Karen State to escape attacks by the Burmese army and the DKBA.

Their story is not an uncommon one. According to a report by the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium, a group of 10 NGOs with offices all across Thailand, the estimated population for IDPs last year was 500,000.

In the shadow of the international community's effort to free the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, IDPs in Burma are living a harsh life in harsh surroundings, with little support or attention. So long as the struggle continues in Burma, so will the IDPs' suffering.

Dai Kurokawa

Special to The Nation

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