Decades of ethnic conflict have left south eastern Myanmar one of the most landmine-ridden regions in the world. Few landmine victims get the treatment they need inside the country, formerly known as Burma, and so spend days travelling to neighbouring Thailand for medical support.
The Mae Tao Clinic provides healthcare to more than 150,000 displaced people every year, from vaccinations, to eye surgery and emergency operations on gunshot wounds. In the clinic’s prosthetics department, where many of the staff are themselves former landmine victims, more than 250 prosthetic limbs are fitted each year.
Nidhi Dutt travels to the border town of Mae Sot to meet the people making tailored prosthetics from the simplest of tools for whoever needs them, no matter which side of Myanmar’s civil conflict they are on.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of a Thai border town is the Mae Tao Clinic’s prosthetics workshop. Marked with a simple sign above the front door, you would be forgiven for missing it if you did not know what you were looking for.
But once I found my way there, it was hard to stay away. It is a chaotic space that looks more like a suburban toolshed than a place that helps thousands of people to walk again.
For three days I sat and observed life in that one-room workshop. A collection of old prostheses were piled up on a rack and pots of glue, casts, chisels and rubber feet lay scattered across well-worn wooden benches.
From morning to evening two silent artisans manned the room. The crowd that came for their help was heaviest in the mornings. A steady line of people, mostly men, from towns and villages along the Thai-Myanmar border and beyond. With clipboards in hand and measuring tapes at the ready, the duo would take measurements and quietly get to work, crafting legs.
Many of the men who came to see them had spent days travelling to get to this medical clinic set up by Dr Cynthia Maung, herself a refugee who fled Myanmar in the late 1980s. These patients, a mixture of former military soldiers, opposition fighters and civilians, spoke of the lack of adequate healthcare inside Myanmar, of the discrimination and isolation that disabled people face there and their own personal struggles to find work and support their families. Many were open and enthusiastic about sharing their stories of pain and perseverance. Others were reluctant to talk, fearful of the repercussions once they crossed the border and headed towards home.
The process of building a prosthesis was labour-intensive and in many ways, more artistic than medical, more intuitive than scientific. There was no expensive body scanner or computer to generate a perfect prosthesis. All the specialists had was a paper form on which they scribbled numbers and drew circles on a diagram of a body.
From the application of the cast onto a patient’s stump to the molding of the plaster and the attachment of the foot, the building of a Mae Tao prosthesis happened in simple, efficient stages. I learned from Maw Keh, the founder of the workshop, that the process had been well tried and tested because many of the people who build the prostheses also use them. Indeed, Maw Keh designed and tested many of the prototypes by wearing them himself.
During my time at the prosthetics workshop I noticed that one word lingered heavily in the air: landmines. The majority of stories I heard were of accidents involving the explosive devices. The “reason” column of the patient board that documents why people visit the workshop was littered with that harsh, ugly word.
Landmines, I was repeatedly told, still exist in Myanmar and are still killing and injuring people. The need for medical care is great but health infrastructure, particularly in rural and remote parts of the country, is still underdeveloped and unable to deliver help to everyone who needs it.
The best option for many thousands of people, I learned, is still Maw Keh’s prosthetics department at Mae Tao clinic: a nondescript place that draws little attention to itself but delivers a wealth of support and potential to all those who make it there.
Most, who visit, walk away with a new limb and the confidence that physical mobility brings.