I introduced myself, the ICRC and its programme of assistance to the war-wounded as I handed U Hpa Da an ICRC leaflet. He had never heard of the organization or the programme before, but said he was glad to know about them.
He looked tired; his face was thin and pale. During the conversation, he turned away many times and fell silent. His eyes spoke volumes.
The incident that put U Hpa Da's in hospital occurred on the evening of 4 October 2009, while he and his eldest daughter were on their farm herding buffalo. As they returned home, it was getting dark. Father and daughter were in a hurry to bring their buffalo home as it was starting to rain.
His daughter walked ahead of him. While following with the herd, he stepped on a landmine, which shattered his right leg. His daughter ran back to help him. Amidst the pouring rain, she tried to stop his bleeding with her blouse. Then, she carried him on her back, hurrying toward their village. It was difficult for her in the rain with his heavy body on her back. But she carried him without complaining or slowing down. "Be patient, Papa, and don't fall asleep,'' he recalls her saying repeatedly.
As if the situation was not tragic enough, she too stepped on a landmine. The blast tossed her and her father apart. She lost her right leg. From the distance, she tried to shout to him, saying she was sorry she could no longer help him and that she knew she was dying.
He shouted back to her, trying to comfort and reassure her as much as he could under the circumstances. He called out to her, but heard no reply. Everything fell silent. The rain was still pouring.
Up until this point in his story, he had been brave. But now, his eyes filled with tears. He was sobbing, heartbroken, and it made my eyes well up. He tried to stop crying and wiped away the tears. All I could do was hold his hand gently. I hoped he felt my empathy, even though I could not find the words with which to console him. He continued his story, trying to control his emotions.
An hour after the mine incidents, two people from his village who had heard the explosions came and rescued him. They carried him on foot back to the village where he received an injection and treatment from a traditional healer.
The villagers buried his daughter that same night.
On the morning of 5 October, the villagers took him on foot to Mae La Oon camp, in Thailand. They spent two nights in the jungle before reaching the camp. He received further treatment from a clinic run by Malteser International (MI), an NGO that works in the camp, and stayed there overnight.
On 7 October, MI drove him to Mae Sariang District hospital in Mae Hong Son Province, a three-hour journey. However, owing to lack of appropriate surgical facilities at the Mae Sariang hospital, he made another three-hour journey to Nakornping hospital, in Chiang Mai province, where I visited him.
His right leg was amputated below the knee. He received good care from a doctor and nurses here despite the language barrier.
The future after the rain
He was eventually sent back to Mae Sariang Hospital. It will be difficult for his family to earn a living, because his wife has to do all the work with no one to help her but their little daughter. He said he would try to continue his treatment in Mae La Oon refugee camp until he has fully recovered.
Although he has suffered great loss as a result of the mine incident, he remains optimistic. The ICRC and its programme of assistance to the war-wounded covers the high cost of his medical treatment. He is grateful to the organization and its staff.
U Hpa Da has spent most of his life fleeing life-threatening incidents and coping with difficult circumstances, including forcible relocation and forced labour. And he feels as if he has being going around blindfolded because he has not been able to anticipate danger and keep his family safe.
One positive thing that has come out of his ordeal is that he has discovered a safe haven to flee to. And that place is the Mae La Oon refugee camp. He has considered moving his family to live there.
If only he could also guarantee his little daughter a good education and future.
There had been a small school in his village but it was burnt down. This saddens him when he thinks about his daughter's future and her determination to become a doctor and help others.
U Hpa Da wonders how his daughter will fulfil her dream if they have to spend their lives fleeing.