By SAW YAN NAING / THE IRRAWADDY
Fifty percent of his body is burned, and the pain is evident in his eyes. Cha Nay Choo is lying in a hospital bed. He can’t speak, but communicates with visitors by shaking or nodding his head.
Cha Nay Choo, 14, was a victim of the fire at Ban Mae Surin refugee camp on Mar 22. The inferno swept through the camp in minutes, killing 37 and injuring 100. A 55-year-old man was taken to Chiang Mai with Cha Nay Choo, but he died several days ago in the burns ward of Suandok Hospital.
More than 2,300 people were displaced by the fire, which burned down about 200 wooden houses.
Other injured Karenni refugees were taken to hospitals in Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam, the closest town to Ban Mae Surin.
Since he was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday his condition has improved, although he still requires a constant supply of oxygen to breathe. It is unlikely skin graft treatments planned for the next few months will fully heal the scars, nurses told The Irrawaddy.
Doh Say, a medic with the Free Burma Rangers, said: “He has had hardly any visitors. He is very happy now that you guys have come to visit him. I can read his face.
“When you guys said you were leaving he seemed sad.”
Cha Nay Choo’s story is one of bravery. His parents and four siblings fled to flames and thick black smoke that engulfed Zone 1 of the camp. Ignoring their calls for him to follow them, Cha Nay Choo and a group of his friends headed back toward the fire, hoping to rescue other refugees. His skin was scorched as he attempted the rescue mission.
He escaped death, unlike so many of his fellow refugees, and was driven with the help of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the back of a truck down the treacherous dust road that leads to Khun Yuam. As his family is stateless, lacking the necessary documents they were not allowed to go with him.
Cha Nay Choo and his family fled Burmese army attacks on their hometown in Karenni State in 2007 and have been living in Ban Mae Surin ever since.
Normally, the Thai authorities would not allow refugees to leave the camp at all. If they are found outside the camp perimeter, they can be arrested and are sometimes forced to pay bribes to avoid arrest.
Despite the Thai restrictions, the IRC has negotiated to have Cha Nay Choo’s brother, Do Du, be transported to Chiang Mai later this week to care for him and keep him company.
The IRC provides basic medical care, including low-cost nutritional supplements he needs to remain in a stable condition. The Thai authorities have refused to pay the costs of any injuries as a result of the fire.
Garrett Kostin, who runs the Best Friends Burma Library in Chiang Mai, has fundraised for Cha Nay Choo, and visited him on several occasions to check on his condition.
He told The Irrawaddy Cha Nay Choo’s medical bill would be more than 6,300 baht (US $215) a day, not including the cost of keeping him in a bed at the hospital, if he was to receive the highest quality medicine and nutritional supplements.
The medicine, which he is not currently taking, is called albumin. Albumin, says Kostin, will help maintain Cha Nay Choo’s protein. Currently, he is seeping proteins into his bandages, which have to be changed at least once a day as a result.
“Unless other organizations and individuals get involved, then the care that is possible for the refugee to receive is very basic and substandard,” Kostin said, adding that he had been impressed by the compassion show to the refugee by the Thai nursing staff.
Cha Nay Choo is at risk of infection, which is potentially fatal. But so far blood tests show he is clear. It may be three months before he is well enough to leave the hospital.
Kostin has collected public donations for the refugees at Ban Mae Surin since the fire, but he got the biggest response when he posted pictures of Cha Nay Choo on the Library’s website.
About 114,000 baht ($4,000) has been collected so far, in less than a week, mostly from the US, UK, Australia and Thailand.
To make the donations process transparent, Kostin will take people to the hospital to buy the necessary medication in person.