Few days ago, I went to visit an old lady in Mankhaw Village where I am currently working. She was sitting on a mat inside her house at the top of the hill. Upon seeing me, she flashed a sweet smile in her deep wrinkled face.
Everybody calls her Pa Mi (aunty Mi) and she is almost 100 years old (as she forgot her own age), her long life has been full of surprises and not an easy one.
Pa Mi was born at the border of Laos and Thailand. “At that time there were no boundaries among the two countries, unlike today…” she told me. “We used to work in the fields and in the mountains and usually spent the entire season there living in a hut. We went back home only once or twice a year. Nobody cared if our property was in Laos or Thailand, nobody asked us any kind of identity document. That was life! We worked all year long bringing home only what was enough to survive”.
“In 1975, if I remember well, everything changed. The Prathet Lao seized the power in what is now the Republic of Laos and the Thai Government. Already worried about the progress of the communists, soldiers of both countries started to patrol the border until they decided to prevent any kind of transit and the people of the two countries without a passport. We had no documents at all, we didn’t need them before. Everybody knew that we were Thai, maybe with a Laotian accent, but Thai by birth. From that day on we become refugees in our own land…” narrated the old lady.
That’s how the people of Mankhaw started their long peregrination. These groups of men, women and children spent 13 years in Nan, a place in Thailand close to the Laotian border, stuck in a refugee camp managed by UN. At the end of the 80’s, they went to Payao, also in the Northern part of Thailand, then they moved to Nakhorn Phanom in the North East of the Country near the Mekong River. At that time the Government recognized their origins, but there was no way to have proper documents. In order to start an integration process, a piece of land in the mountain range of Phetchabun was assign to them. When the inhabitants of the place knew about the imminent transfer of “Laotian” refugees, they refused to accept them so that this poor people had to move in an even farther settlement deep in the forest. “There were no roads only a muddy footpath, there were no houses. We had to build our own hut. The positive thing about that remote place was that there was plenty of water so we could start what we were good at: work in the fields.”
The people of Mankhaw rented pieces of land from their neighbors who refused to welcome them more than 20 years ago, sometime they buy land plots and they improve them, so that they can survive in that hostile environment.
Pa Mi stopped to work on the field only few years ago: “I am too tired, I cannot go up the steep slopes that use to feed me. Now I am relying on my children even though they have not too much either”.
“Many thing have changed since that year almost forty years ago when we became refugees. Poverty is still there, but is not as harsh as it was. To work on the mountain fields is still hard, but at the end of the week everybody come back home and, maybe, find time to joining the Sunday mass. Some of my nephews work in the city where they receive a better salary and their life do not depend on the moods of the weather or changing needs of our landlords.”
“I am old – said Pa Mi – I am preparing myself for the last journey in the world I lived in. Life is journey where I discover always new worlds. Life brought me here, now my children and my children’s children have the duty to continue the journey I started.”