NEARLY 100,000 Burmese refugees live in nine camps just across the border in Thailand, trapped in a life in limbo. Having fled the decades-long civil war they are not convinced their country is becoming more stable – while the Thai government is suggesting that they might soon have to leave the haven of the camps.

Reporter Catriona Stewart visited Mae La and Umpiem Mae camps to speak to those trying to find a way to return home with help from Christian Aid.

KOH LOHWAH remembers the race to the paddy fields, the desperation, the urgency to become invisible.

She remembers the fear felt and she remembers her parents, who were left behind.

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Koh Lohwah

Koh, a bright and calm woman of 49, dressed in light florals, darkens when she thinks about the time before. The mother-of-two is of the Karen people, a minority group targeted by the Burmese Army during nearly six decades of fighting in what is one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.

When word came that the army was approaching their village, the villagers would run and hide. The consequences of being caught were too terrible to contemplate. The soldiers used civilians as slave porters. They would be forced to carry supplies, walking before the troops as human shields against the bullets and landmines.

Some tell stories of family, neighbours and friends having limbs blown apart by mines and being left to bleed to death.

The porters were starved and worked until they fell where they stood. Villages were plundered, burned and women raped.

The refugees still call their country Burma, although the ruling military junta renamed it Myanmar in 1989.

"I had to move many times when I lived in Burma, when the Burmese Army came," Koh says. "We had to move a lot – run to the paddy fields, the forests, to avoid the army. Sometimes every day. Since I was 18 years old. We had to."

Koh is safe now, living in Mae La refugee camp, just across the Thai border from her home country. She left Burma in 2007 when being forced to flee every day became too much.

"I came with families from my village. I didn’t want to stay any more because of the fear but even now my parents are still in Burma in a remote area."

Koh, mother to two daughters aged 10 and 13, moved with her husband, whom she married at the age of 34, relatively late for a Karen woman. She is chairwoman of the Karen Women's Group, which provides refuge and education to women experiencing domestic abuse or who have been raped.

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The organisation provides wide-ranging support in the camp – healthcare, counselling, support for widows and grandparents raising their grandchildren. They also work to discourage girls from marrying too young. Weddings of 13 and 14-year-old girls are not unheard of.

But she still thinks of Burma as home. Last year, the Karen National Union (KNU) signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), but skirmishes continue. While residents of the camp have hope, it is tempered with caution.

"It’s better here, because we don’t have to move anymore, and we don’t have to hide," Koh says. "We have food rations, we have a home. Maybe inside Burma, if you stay in your house, the army will take it all. Now there’s still fighting, so it reminds me of what we faced.

"I’m worried about the people still in Burma, about what they’re facing, even though there’s the ceasefire. I don’t have a home inside Burma any more. When I think of home, I feel disappointed because I had to leave. If the peace happens inside Burma, I’d like to go back to my home," she says wistfully.

The Karen minority group makes up around seven per cent of the Burmese population but is the majority ethnicity of Mae La camp, which is nearly 40,000 strong.

Just over a year ago, the Nobel laureate and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi, with her National League for Democracy party, reached a landmark election victory in Burma, bringing democracy to a country that suffered decades of punitive military rule.

However Suu Kyi has now authorised a lock down of an impoverished part of the country, Rakhine state, that is home to the Rohingya Muslim population. Human Rights Watch says at least 100 people have been killed in the area and 1250 homes have been burned – which the Burmese police claim were actually done by the people themselves!

According to Amnesty International at least 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh, many more have been forcibly pushed back in violation of international law.

Against this continuously troubled backdrop, residents of Mae La think about their own experiences in their homeland.

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Like Koh, Shew Hlaing, remembers a life of continual movement. Shew fled Burma in 1990. Before then, life was marred by fighting as his village was on the Burmese Army's regular route. Now 55, he has spent around half of his life sheltering in Mae La, waiting for a time he might return to his home.

"Before I came to Thailand I was studying in Burma, during the fighting," he said. "I was a student but I had to move from place to place as the Burmese army went through the villages. They wanted us to be their porters, to carry their things for them. They would see us and just arrest us and make us work for them, like cooking, carrying. Like slaves for the army," he recalls.

Adding, "My village was on the way for the army during their journeys, it was on their route. We had to always move at that time, to escape the Burmese army. If we heard they were coming, we had to move. Especially at night, we could never sleep."

Shew and his family lived in Hpa-an township in Burma, the Karen capital city. The army occupied the area so every time fighting broke out the villagers would be forced to run. An exceptionally volatile area, the village was near the Thai border, between the capital and the Karen National Union (KNU) base.

The whole village would move as one to the forest and the paddy fields.

"Usually we moved with friends. [If we were separated] I knew where my family moved to and we’d all go back to the village in the morning," he said. "It happened more than 50 times a year. They were really scary. Even now I’m scared, I don’t want to look at the Burmese faces."

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Shew Hlaing

Shew is composed, although he uses his hands for emphasis. He has the natural authority that comes from being a respected man, or perhaps he is a respected man because of it. The father is a Zone Leader, part of the system of self-government that has grown in the camp, separate from the Thai authorities.

Shew came to the camp with his wife and two children who were aged three and one. "The situation in Burma was so bad, we had to come here. Before we arrived we had to stay overnight many places in the forest to get here.

"Sometimes I had to carry the children. It was hard. We had to walk here, about three or four nights. At that time, there were no roads so we had to walk through the forest. When I first came here, I was going to stay here just a few days."

Shew speaks at a table scattered with insect wings and dust. A red ant crawls towards his hand. He remembers his good fortune in escaping.

He says: "My older my brother died when the Burmese army arrested him. They wanted to control all the villages, all the areas, all Karen land and all ethnic groups. The Burmese army arrested him and he went with them to act as a porter. We found out that later he died in the forest when he was with the army.

"Fighting started in 1946, so I can’t remember a time without fighting."

Shew is now a father of five. Another man I speak to, Ah Kol, the Zone A leader, arrived in 1983 when the camp first opened and his pregnant wife gave birth under a tree. Two of his children have been resettled in the USA and three are still with him in the camp, although one has applied for residency in Canada and another Australia.

The family has been supported by The Border Consortium (TBC), a network of humanitarian and development agencies that includes Christian Aid. They receive food rations from TBC – rice, charcoal for cooking, fish paste and peanut oil. Shew, a Buddhist, knows that this, the camp, is not his land and one day he will have to move. .

"I got some training from TBC about savings and loans linked to animal raising. My wife raises pigs and looks after our kids. Myself and my wife haven’t applied to the third country. Because I will be here, I’m Karen, I’ll look after the community and people here. Maybe one day there will be peace in Burma, then it will be time to go back."

The camp was established following the fall of the KNU base in Mae La in 1984, with a population of 1100. After the fall of the KNU headquarters in Karen State, in January 1995, a number of camps were attacked in cross-border raids and the Thai authorities began to consolidate them to improve security.

Two hour's drive from Mae La is Umpiem Mai.

While Mae La benefits from its proximity to the town of Mae Sot – there are goods on sale, brought in to the camp by entrepreneurs who have sparked a cash economy – Umpiem Mai sits in the hills, cut off during inclement weather. It is home to 11,500 people, including former KNU soldier Tai Kyaw.

The camp is his home but his world is a small tent and a flat mattress. Tai stood on a landmine, irreparably damaging his leg. At 67, he could be a decade older, frail, toothless, wistful.

The women of the camp come to feed him his meals – rice, chicken and fish, although he would love some sardines – and help him to the lavatory, a drop toilet in the corner of his hut. For privacy, around his mattress hangs a shower curtain with child cartoon characters in blue and red.

He is paralysed down one side following a stroke. With his good arm he shows off his military tattoos, which sleeve his arm in bones and spiders.

"My mother allowed me to join the KNU, but my father didn't know," he says. "During the fighting I lost four friends and I had to dig their graves and bury them. I was really upset about losing them."

It was his superior officer's idea to come to the camp. He was no longer able to fight. However, the camp he initially settled in was attacked by the Burmese Army and razed by fire. He speaks of the event with fury. He would have liked to catch the soldiers but was too feeble with age.

Tai never married or had children and does not know if his parents are still alive. He says he gets lonely in the camp but would never manage without the support of TBC for food and a hygiene pack with soap, shampoo and candles. He also receives a blanket, like other vulnerable residents.

Before his stroke, nine years ago, he grew yellow beans and used the profits to buy gold jewellery. That all has been sold on now for food for himself and others and he is reliant on TBC for support, this fighting man.

"When I was young," he says, "The leaders encouraged me, saying if I could join the army, you could get peace. I hoped that we would get peace, that’s why I joined the KNU.

"When I look at my tattoos, they remind me and I’m angry with the Burmese army. It keeps the rage alive."

Next week:

IN the camps there are thousands of young people with no first-hand knowledge of the world outside, or of their homeland. Catriona Stewart talks to these stateless young adults about their hopes for the future.

Christian Aid is urging people to support its Christmas Appeal this festive season, so that it can continue to provide critical support to some of the millions of people worldwide who have been forced to leave their homes through fear and uncertainty in the worst global displacement crisis of our time.

Just £5 could give an essential set of clothes to a person fleeing violence, £11 could supply a week’s worth of hygiene essentials to a family of five in Serbia, and £50 could provide seeds and tools to help a family forced out of their home in the DRC to grow food to feed themselves.

For information, or to donate to the Christmas Appeal,