14 July 2017
Pre-freedom years recalled
Picture: Ockert Le Roux
As published in the Border Watch.

Refugees reflect on horror life prior to Mount Gambier settlement

The deafening sound of gunfire still haunts Karen refugee Thoo Lay Paw Eh as she remembers her life before finding freedom in Mount Gambier 10 years ago.

On a full moon night, approaching so quietly the dogs in the village did not even wake up, Burmese soldiers let off a sudden spray of bullets that pierced the thin bamboo house in which she lay fast asleep with her husband Po Khin Wah.

“We jumped up and ran, trying to get away – I don’t know when I got shot,” Thoo said.

“The bullet is still lodged thereafter all these years – you can still feel it.

“I think my husband got shot in the back of his heel when – in the process of us trying to scramble to safety – he came running back into the house to get me.” In shock and badly injured with blood pouring from their wounds, the young Karen couple left all their belongings behind and fled their village.

By their side were Karen soldiers who dressed their wounds and managed to remove the bullet from Po Khin’s flesh during their week long walk through the jungle across the border from Burma and into a refugee camp in Thailand.

But this was not the first time the 22-year-old Thoo had to scramble to safety.

Burmese soldiers started persecuting the Karen and Karenni in their independent states in Burma long before she was born.

With her father being a Karen soldier, the family had to constantly be on the move.

At about the age of eight, during another brutal attack on her village, Thoo fled with her parents to the safety of a refugee camp in Thailand close to the border of Burma. But the Burmese soldiers entered the camp, and shot and killed those who had thought they found safety from their brutality.

Refugee reflection
City provides escape from war-torn country

In 1999, the UNHCR closed the camp andmoved everyone, including Thoo and her family in trucks on a 10 hour drive to Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp.

It was here that she grew up to later meet and marry her husband. With an adventurous spirit and strong desire to return to Burma to teach her people about God, Thoo and Po Khin left the refugee camp in Thailand and returned to her birthplace – to work as a teacher. “They did not pay me with money, but with food,” she said. “My husband farmed and built a house for us with bamboo and the people in the village brought us food including rice, vegetables and chilli.

“We never starved.”

But the constant fear of attack was always looming and they relied on the heavily armed Karen soldiers who were always scouting the area to warn them when the Burmese approached. “One day, the Burmese soldiers caught my husband while he was working on the land and arrested him, accusing him of being a spy,” she said.

“They took him into the jungle, tied him up and tortured him for days before releasing him again.” But on the night of the full moon, there was no warning, and Thoo and Po Khin had no choice but to leave their country again and seek safety in a refugee camp in Thailand.

It was here where two of their three children were born – Nerr Soe in 1997 and Mercy in 2005.However, it was not until two years later, on June 6 2007, Thoo and her family’s lives changed forever when they become the first of two refugee families to start a new life in Mount Gambier. “We knew nothing about Australia before we came,” she said. “It was the first time we slept on beds and it gave us backache – we were too scared to sleep in separate bedrooms, so we all slept together in one room. “We didn’t know any English and we were scared people were going to come into our house and kill us.

“Staff at the Migrant Resource Centre showed us how to shop for food – the meat tasted different and you could smell the chemicals. “We learnt how to use an electric stove and often we set off the smoke alarm with our cooking.” A year after their arrival, the couple’s third child, Hannah, was born and they continued to learn English at TAFE while adjusting to their new life in Australia.

Thoo studied aged care and became employed in the industry, while Po Khin worked as a seasonal worker around the Limestone Coast. They worked hard to save money to buy their own house in 2013.

“It was important for us to buy a house, to have a car and to be educated,” she said.

“All those years we were living in refugee camps in Thailand we were hoping and praying they would give us citizenship, but now, looking back I realise it was never going to happen. “In 2008, we passed the test to become Australian citizens.”

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