Thailand Day 8: Nupo Refugee Camp – The Return

Click HERE to view all of the portraits of former political prisoners in Nupo refugee camp.

An early start for what will be a long day – or rather an intensive day as we have to try and wrap things up before the sun gets too high overhead and we’re left with nothing but shadows and highlights. Last night we had a meeting with many of the former political prisoners here in Nupo to learn more about their current precarious situation living in the camp and the ongoing disgraceful situation in regards to the UNHCR resettlement program. There is great fear amongst many here that they will be returned to Burma – all refugees that is – after the election. There are already noises being made from Thai authorities than suggest that this could be the case. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why the USA has all cases currently on hold. So it’s an early start after sleeping in the camp last night and after morning coffee in the school’s coffee shop “Memento” we started with the portraits. Luckily a group of former political prisoners met us early at ESC school so we started looking for suitable backdrops around the school.

First up were Myint Oo (5 years in Insein, Bago and Taungoo prisons), Kyaw Han (3 years in Sittwe prison) and Zaw Win Naing (4 years in Myeik prison). The day is almost a race against the clock as we have to get the last line car out of Nupo at about 3pm or we get stuck here (no bad thing in my book) but with a tight schedule we cant afford any more slip ups like yesterday. Also it’s a race against the sun – in fact the whole thing is one continual race around everywhere, tracking people down, trying not to draw too much attention to yourself – it’s a total challenge that is impossible to do without the ever present help of Thiha and of course the Secretary-General Jacquelin San who as well as being on interview duty and translation is also filming everything – and she’s getting very good at it to!

First ones in the can (as they say) and we spend the next few hours trekking across Nupo camp starting in Section 16 where all POCs are living. It’s a cramped section of the camp in comparison to almost all other areas – another hardship faced by former political prisoners and their associates – conditions also vary across the camp depending on the usual things in life – how how much money you have and who you know. The portraits keep coming thick and fast – first up my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu who was photographed for the 3rd time (the previous two political prisoners had been released so she now is known by everyone as having the lucky hand!). She was jailed for 6 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons. Zulu has been the main organiser here in Nupo so a massive thanks to her for making today come together so well. Making our way swiftly through Section 16 we pick up quite a crowd along the way, one by one having their portrait taken as we desperately try to quickly find differing yet most importantly interesting backgrounds to be able to take the portraits – Kyaw Win Swe (7 years in Insein and Mandalay prisons), Kyi Toe (3 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Kyaw Zaw (11 years in Insein and Kalay prisons), Su Su Win (8 years in Insein prison), Kyaw Tint Oo (2 years in Maubin prison), Win Hlaing (6 years in Insein and Thayet prisons), Yu Yu Hlaing (1 year in Myant prison) and her husband Soe Moe (6 years in Dawei prison). We also had time in passing to catch up with Lwin Lwin Myint (U Gambira’s sister) who with her husband were busy building their new house.

Heading across towards the monastery on the other side of the camp we take a detour to the graveyard where two former political prisoners who died whilst in the camp are buried. U Than Myint (who’s wife and child we met and photographed – see above) passed away on 23rd January 2009 aged 52. He was a member of the NLD and BPPU. Unfortunately I never had the chance to meet him but when I visited in July last year I met Myo Khin. He had been jailed for 7 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prison and he was suffering form bad health coupled with no home in the camp – his life was one of extreme hardship and makes you seriously reflect on everything you have in comparison. He died on 15th December 2009 aged 53. He was a member of the NLD and BPPU. I was very sad to hear that he had passed away in  of liver failure amongst other serious health problems. Both men had gravestones in the rundown graveyard of Nupo camp – it was a true moment of reflection and sadness. Our final stop was over at the monastery to photograph U Aubar before making our way back through the wide open boulevards (in comparison!) of the Karen section of the camp to ESC Nupo for a final meal and well earned rest before catching the line car back to Umphang. Yet another brief but totally exhausting and truely rewarding time spent in Nupo camp. I thank you all for everything that you did and hope that in turn we can in some way help with your current situation. God knows we’ll try.

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