Week in the Life: Daisy Dooe, Aid Worker, Thailand: Easing the pain of exiles' life in limbo

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The Independent Online
THE DRY season in Sangkhlaburi, western Thailand, has brought a steady stream of displaced and desperate people from across the border with Burma. They come to join the 7,000 or so already here. They are illegal immigrants, caught between one of the world's most repressive regimes and the dead-end life of a refugee camp.

Ten years ago, Daisy Dooe was one of the first to arrive, after her home was attacked and burnt down by Burmese troops. Today she operates as an independent aid worker, helping her compatriots to hold body and soul together in the limbo that has become their home.

The smoke of a hundred fires is mingling with Monday evening's mist over the hillsides when a man comes, tentatively, into Daisy's yard. As he sits on the Burmese teak chair on her balcony, his shoulders convulse uncontrollably.

The man's 14-year-old daughter lies ill, he explains tearfully, and he fears it is malaria. Over the past year, a hundred displaced children have contracted the disease, and 21 have died. Daisy finds him an extra blanket from her emergency supply, and, somehow, she finds him some money to help him with the bill for medical treatment.

The following day brings a reminder of happier times. Some girls in Daisy's pantry are preparing crabs for smoking. These delicacies have turned up unexpectedly. They are a gift, Daisy explains, from a family she helped in Sangkhlaburi who later went back to Burma with a promise to send her "nice things" to show their gratitude. Daisy's culinary fame dates from the old days in Three Pagodas, a town just over the border in Burma, where she ran Daisy's Revolutionary Restaurant - slogan: "Better Fed than Red".

In those days, the frontier crossing was controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army, the strongest rebel force opposing the Burmese regime and indefatigable fighters for autonomy within their own ethnic homeland of Kawthoolei. Today, every mouthful of contraband crab will carry with it the taste of freedom, alongside such Burmese delicacies as nga pi gyaw, prawn paste fried with onion, dried chillies and garlic.

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There are practical ways to help the struggle. Sharing Daisy's backyard with 15 chickens and nine dogs is an entire production line of men and women, creating the most stunningly colourful array of fabrics. Every stage of the process helps to keep alive traditional skills.

Today's task is to boil the skin of fruit to dye the cloth. Men pore over designs sketched out on pieces of paper before looms clatter into action. They sell the finished product to tourists.

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Daisy's fellow Karen are not the only ethnic group fighting the regime. There are also the Mon, and many ordinary Burmese, too. In the past, ethnic divisions between the groups in Burma hampered the struggle against the military junta, but Daisy feels she is helping to weave a new collective identity among the exiles.

She hopes it will contribute to the solidarity that Burma's peoples will need to build a peaceful and democratic future: "Here, we must all work together and look after each other," she says.

Thursday finds Daisy exhausted and suffering from toothache. Roused before dawn to help a Karen man at the hospital, she hears a terrible tale. The man was driven into the jungle fearing a round-up of illegal immigrants and being sent to a refugee camp. There he was attacked by a bear foraging for food. "His scalp was bitten half off," Daisy recalls with a shudder.

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Later she convenes a women's group to discuss how they can help poor Burmese girls held in Sangkhlaburi's brothel. "These are innocent, ignorant girls," she explains. "Some of them did not know about condoms. I had to go to the brothel and show them how to use them. Me, an old lady! It was embarrassing."

Among the displaced and destitute who come to Daisy's door are a growing number of people with HIV or Aids. But most are just victims of state- sponsored violence.

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Zarni Thway, a veteran of the students' uprising in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, in March 1988, now helps as a "barefoot doctor", applying his rudimentary medical skills. Daisy has equipped him with a stethoscope and blood- pressure testing kit, donated by hospital doctors in Britain. She takes him to see a woman of 60 who says she left her village to escape "forced- portering" - the cruel practice of the Burmese troops, who force civilians to march through the jungle carrying ammunition on their way to wage war.

The woman is suffering from hypertension but her political awareness is in rude health. "Some day soon," she declares, "Aung San Suu Kyi [Burma democracy leader] will come to power and there will be democracy. Then, I will go back to Burma."

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