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Myanmar: wild honey and landmines

24-02-2006 Feature

Kyaw Htoo was only 19 when he stepped on the landmine. He was leading a group of villagers up a small bush track, two hours walk from his village. The next thing he remembered was staring in shock at the mangled remains of his lower left leg.



The three hour walk to Hpapun hospital was excruciating and made worse by the prospect of never again being able to farm the hilly slopes near his village.

" It was 12 March 1997 " , he said, the date etched indelibly on his mind.

The region of Hpapun in the north of Kayin State is famous in Myanmar for two things: wild honey and landmines. Both are a product of the area's jungle-clad hills: wild bees choose the isolated cliffs in which to hide their molten gold, and insurgents used the jungle cover to resist and engage government forces in battle until a fragile ceasefire put an end to open hostilities in 2003.

Landmines, used by all sides in the conflict, remain as a deadly reminder of the human cost of conflict, particularly for civilians.

Kyaw Htoo recovered from his injuries and in 1998 travelled with 14 other amputees from Hpapun to the ICRC-supported National Rehabilitation Hospital in Yangon. He was fitted with a prosthesis which gave him back his mobility and independence, and he returned to Hpapun to join the monastery.

A few years later he began helping others like himself regain their autonomy. He travelled to remote villages looking for amputees and referred them to the Hpa-an Orthopaedic Rehabilitation Centre (HORC), constructed by the ICRC in 2002 in the capital of Kayin State.

The offer of free transport, lodging and treatment was often not enough to convince amputees to leave their villages for the unknown, and Kyaw Htoo accompanied his charges on the seven-hour bus ride to the HORC. The respect accorded to him as a monk helped him pass through checkpoints without incident.

Between March 2003 and December 2004, he assisted 120 people from the Hpapun region recover their full potential by introducing them to the ICRC's orthopaedic services.

Improvements to the hospital 

At Hpapun hospital, Saw Kyaw Day, an amputee who was referred to the HORC by Kyaw Htoo in 2003, sits by the bed of his three year old daughter, who has malaria. He stepped on a mine while farming in 2002. The last time he was at this hospital was when his leg was removed, and he is surprised to now find running water and flush latrines inside. He has never seen flush toilets before.

The ICRC installed a system of running water, latrines and washing areas in the hospital in 2005 to replace the blocked and leaking internal system and dilapidated wooden latrines outside. The ICRC also introduced a waste management system to dispose of hospital refuse safely, and began health education sessions. Previously, all rubbish was discarded into a common pit that overflowed when the water table rose during the rainy season.

" General hygiene has improved a lot " says Naw Hla Hla Thi, Head Nurse of the hospital, " and now many more people in town want to have a flush toilet and are more conscious of how they dispose of waste. "

The next phase in the hospital rehabilitation for the ICRC team of engineers includes renovation of the operating theatre and repair of the kitchen cum storeroom, whose roof has partly collapsed. Such projects not only assist the patients and hospital staff, but also permit the ICRC to have a regular presence in this remote jungle outpost to speak with the population about their needs and concerns.

An Integrated Approach 

The assistance programme has also opened doors with the authorities, and permitted the ICRC to show films and hold talks about humanitarian principles and the ICRC's mandate and actions around the world. Whole families accompanied police officers to the most recent screening, and eyes were transfixed on the film being shown. It is a slow process of trying to build understanding and trust, but through it the ICRC hopes to be granted access to conflict-affected areas in even greater need of assistance.

News of loved ones 

Returning from Hpapun, the ICRC team stops in the town of Kamamaung to see if the local Red Cross volunteer, Saw Han Nyunt, has received a reply to the Red Cross message that was given to him on the way up for delivery to an address in the town. He has been an MRCS volunteer since 1974, and says that Red Cross message delivery is the best part of his job.

" I love to make people happy by giving news from a relative that they had not heard from for ages " , he said. " I have even d elivered Red Cross messages from people the family believed were dead. That is very emotional " .

On this occasion, the message was for the wife of a labour camp inmate from whom she had had no news since his arrest 7 months ago. She attached a laminated photo of their baby son to her Red Cross message reply to show him how the boy had grown. 

As for Kyaw Htoo, he left the monastery when his father became ill and now earns a living cutting cane. He travels for hours each day to collect the cane but does not mind the tough work as it keeps him in touch with the people he helped. " I like visiting the villages around Hpapun " , he said, nimbly climbing on to his bicycle, " and feel happy when I see someone who I had to convince to get a new leg, farming their land and being productive again. I am welcomed wherever I go " .


  Read more about the Hpa-an Orthopaedic Rehabilitation Centre.