In his tiny village in Chin State in western Myanmar, Khupsan Hlah grew up dreaming of big buildings, sturdy bridges and impressive offices -- all of which he would one day build. The dream was shattered when Khupsan passed Class IV and his school life got over. Unable to move to a bigger town where schools don’t end at Class IV, Khupsan like other young people in his village became a porter for the army. The little boy with an imagination and the ambition to become an engineer transformed into a porter lugging heavy arms, equipment and luggage, climbing the steep hills, poorly fed and under constant threat.
“I wanted to study; I wanted to become an engineer. But none of that could happen. I could not escape the army’s tyranny and then one day I decided to run,” Khupsan said through his interpreter. He is in India and official parlance describes him as an “unaccompanied minor or UAM”.
In 2011 unable to endure the life he was forced to live, Khupsan did what a number of boys and girls from his village and the nearby areas have done; snapped the filial ties and in the darkness of the night crept along the perilous Indo-Burma border, spied for unmanned crossing points and made an optimistic dash towards freedom.
“I knew I had to do this…in Myanmar there was a pressure on me. I knew if I wanted to study and be free I had to flee,” he said.
Chasing a dream
A year after his courageous entry into an unfamiliar country, Khupsan is learning English and computers; and hoping that the Indian Government will support his ambition to become independent. Most of all, he is still chasing a dream. “I cannot become an engineer now, but there is something that I need to do, to stand on my feet,” he said.
San San is 17, her story is not very different from Khupsan’s, she too had to leave her parents behind and sneak her way into Mizoram with no money on her. In Delhi where she is currently being imparted lessons in English, San San’s thoughts are often with her parents; she cannot call them or write to them. “If the army finds out that I am here, my parents will be tortured,” she said.
In an alien State where she “looks different” and “speaks a different language” life is difficult. “When I step out, people stare at me, I cannot even convey what I have to say, because I don’t know the language. The fear of being teased is always there,” she said, but the teenager is barely complaining. “It is still better than back home. I don’t feel much comfortable here, but our government was the reason why I fled. And there is no going back till we have democracy in our country.”
Seventeen and restless, Thun Thun’s anxiety about his future can be gauged by the way he keeps flipping his phone, tapping his feet and struggling to hold back the memories of his past. He too ran away from the Chin State to escape being a potter for the army. “In India I can look forward to education and earning,” he said.
There are 750 UAMs registered with the UNHCR in India, most of these are from Myanmar. In the absence of care-givers, the UNHCR helps them with education, health care, monetary and psycho-social support. For the 14-18 year olds there are also life skill training sessions to help them learn skills to earn.
Lessons in life
“Some of them just break down sometimes, finding it hard to cope. That is when we step in to counsel them, encourage them and help impart life skills. Apart from a monthly payment, we take care of their health,” said Ananta who works with BOSCO at the UNHCR refugee centre in Vikaspuri.
Lessons in English and computers are offered to the adolescents and lessons in making handicrafts keep them engaged.
“Conflict and violence have separated millions of refugees from their loved ones. And we believe one family torn apart by war is too many,” said Nayana Bose, Associate External Relations Officer, UNHCR.
While most of these are in their teens, there have been cases of pre-teens and children as young as six or seven crossing over the border. Most of the younger ones come with their older siblings, but they are all put up with care-givers. The UAMs in the teens often shack up together living in closed neighbourhoods, trying to recreate a family.
While most of the UAMs seemed uncertain about going back, the thought of their parents and their people makes their voices quiver. The thought of not being able to meet their families again is traumatic; the fear of their parents being caught more painful. Talking about her family and the pain of separation San San said: “I always think of my parents. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again….nobody should be uprooted.”
(All names changed to protect identities.)