Kataerina, 35 years old, from Pyin Soung village in southern Shan State, Myanmar
Kataerina, a Kayan (also known as Padaung) woman from Pyin Soung village in the southern Shan State, is now 35 years old and has three daughters. Her life seems smooth for now, but it used to be tough and full of struggles for food, education and freedom. Kataerina’s story echoes so many voices from the people of Burma (Myanmar), who have had to endure child labour and an ongoing struggle for basic living standards. From armed conflict to being locked up and nearly killed by Burmese soldiers, Kataerina’s struggles finally led her to the Thailand-Burma border where she now lives in the Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province.
When Kataerina lived in her native Pyin Soung village, both the Burmese government and ethnic Kayan leaders were controlling the area. Poppy, an essential ingredient for opium, has been cultivated in southern Shan State and northern Karenni State for more than a decade.
“The Burmese government is not good. And our ethnic people [also] tortured us. When I was young, the fighting happened and my house was broken. All the trees were destroyed.”
“We faced many difficulties and had to struggle a lot. […] My parents are not educated people. So, they just did farming. I just attended primary school until grade two. I just know A B C D. My parents couldn’t support me to go to school and there was no one else who could work. I quit the school and worked for my family. Even though my parents did farming, it was not enough food for the whole family. Because I worked, my family could eat daily. I sold things and helped my parents.”
Kataerina didn’t have her own shop, so she could only go around and sell things from village to village on foot. She was 14 years old at the time.
“I did trading. But some places we couldn’t go and buy things. […] There was one place, where if I would go and sell my goods I would get a higher price, but I was not allowed to go. The road was slippery and there were many leeches in the rainy season. I had to climb down and up the mountains.”
“One thing I didn’t like in the village was Burmese soldiers. Because, they use their power. They didn’t want us to sell things. They were always watching our steps. They always wanted to blame us. When we sold something, we had to ask their permission first. They had many rules for traders.”
“There was one time when I visited the town Lwen Kaw. At that time, Burmese soldiers checked me and questioned me a lot. They thought that I travelled outside of the country and sold drugs. They came and caught me at 1 am. They caught me and sent me to jail for one month.”
Kataerina was put into jail when she was only 17 years old. She was too afraid and did not dare to tell the soldiers anything.
“They don’t respect people when they (the soldiers) are drunk or use drugs. I had to help them when I was in the jail. I had to serve the leaders. I had to do cooking.
I almost died at that time because one of the soldiers used drugs and got drunk so he was going to bully me or hurt me. Because of one of the leader’s help I am still alive. That night, they hit a boy on his shoulders. Actually he didn’t do anything wrong. They just accused him of being a spy.”
Kataerina’s mother knew that she was in jail but her father did not.
"Because he (my father) was deaf and couldn’t hear anything, my mother didn’t tell him anything. The day they put me in jail, I was with my mother, my younger brother, and two others. My youngest brother was 14 years old. They were released."
Kataerina finally left her village and came to the Thailand-Burma border because of the conflict in the area. On the border, she met her husband-to-be. The couple got married in 2007 and soon after Kataerina gave birth to their first child. In 2009, she moved to Nai Soi Camp with her family. The only way to be in contact with her parents for nearly ten years now, has been through asking for news from people who have travelled from her village to Thailand. But she has never heard good news, and she thinks there is no change in her village.
“I want them to change the policy in the county because if we go back to our village, when we speak out about something that is wrong, they just punish us or even kill us. That’s why the villagers don’t dare to speak out.”
Nai Soi Camp has over 11,000 residents, most of whom are ethnic Karenni. The camp is only four kilometers away from the Burma border and has been attacked by Burmese troops and their allies in 1997 and 1998. Surrounding the camp is a landmine field. Kataerina has stayed in the camp for six years and two of her children were born there. Kataerina does housework and feeds pigs in her free time and her husband sometimes works in the fields outside the camp. She attended sewing training and finished the basic level and says the skills are enough to sew clothes, and thus she hopes to attend a higher level sewing training. In the future, she wants to make a living by sewing and selling clothes.
“Currently, I am alright. But I don’t have much money like other people. They have phones or bikes. Some people can earn money for their children. But for me, I just have to be satisfied with the rations I get.”
When asked about what she wants to change in the camp, Kataerina names the age limits for trainings and jobs as the most important issue.
“In the camp, we don’t have money and job. We are not allowed to go outside. I want to work in an organisation in the camp but I am not an educated person.
They always limit the age to do some jobs in the camp. In some training they limit the age like people after 30 years old can’t get the interview and won’t be accepted. They focus on young people. So, I want them give us the same rights. In training they give the certificate for young people, which is recognised by the Thai government but people like me it’s just recognised in the camp. I would like to say that I want organisations to give us training until we get the skills like sewing. We want to be skillful with sewing.”
Photo & Story: Burma Link
Note: Only part of Kataerina's story is shared on Voices of Refugees. To read the full story, visit: www.burmalink.org