Retracing the steps of 40,000 forgotten refugees
Four unlikely Australian friends are set to become the first Westerners to retrace a major forgotten piece of WWII history, trekking 450 kilometres through remote northern Myanmar.
When documentary maker Kenton Reeder reached the beginning of the once crowded track, he found the roads still littered with 1940s trucks, left over from World War II. It was the first time he and Kevin Commins had travelled to that northern part of Myanmar near Thailand, in order to research what will become one of the toughest journeys of their lives.
“It was as if that remote part of South East Asia had frozen in time,” Reeder says. “For me, being able to become the first guy to get in there with my video camera is pretty overwhelming. When I saw that it was this beautiful valley filled with rice fields, and elephants ploughing those fields, and two big mountainous valleys on each side, I thought… 'I can’t believe it!'”
Despite living in 2016, some parts of the world still aren’t properly documented. You won’t find high definition photos or videos of them online, ‘Google Maps’ won’t be able to help you if you get lost, there’s not even government intelligence to let travellers know if it’s safe to attempt to travel there. One of those places is the Northern tip of Kachin State in Myanmar. The area is politically unstable, and difficult to access.
In World War II, around half a million people fled Myanmar (then called Burma) to escape the Japanese invasion. Around 40,000 of those refugees trudged roughly 500 kilometres to safety through the luscious but dangerous Hukawng Valley and Patkai Mountains, and into India.
Colin McPhedran was one of the survivors, fleeing with his siblings and mother. He was just 11 at the time but was the only one in his family to survive the trek.
It was his story which inspired these four Melbourne adventurers to take on the challenge.
Psychologist Michael Clarebrough came up with the idea after hearing an elderly McPhedran talking about his past on the radio. Trek leader Kevin Commins, Jacob Garrett and documentary maker Kenton Reeder have since joined the cause.
They’re planning to become the first Westerners to ever re-trace the terrifying journey of the Myanmar refugees. Commins says the group is realistic, what they uncover could be confronting.
“I think we’re all a little bit nervous because it’s a bit of an unknown. In 2016 it’s reasonably difficult to find part of the planet which is as exposed and remote and unsupported. Physically it’s a big undertaking, mentally and emotionally it is too. I think we would be a little naive not to be nervous,” says Commins.
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There are many dangers. The cross-cultural groups residing throughout the land they’ll be travelling through, don’t always see eye to eye. Local tribes living in the region are known for being head hunters. As recently as last year, freshly severed heads were observed hanging in trees.
The group knows they could find themselves surrounded by gunfire at any moment. One huge benefit is having trek leader Kevin Commins on side, who’s a paramedic. But if there are any major medical emergencies, at one point they’ll be 400kms from the nearest hospital. So it’s no surprise that most travel insurance companies refused to cover them.
“Without insurance, this just wouldn’t be realistic,” Commins says. “There’s a very old travel adage that if you can’t afford the insurance or you can’t get the insurance, you can’t go. It would be irresponsible and reckless for us to do so.”
But Bupa Global recognised the historical importance in what they were doing, and felt moved by their plight to improve local maternal health services. So the company decided to sponsor the team, and provide free travel insurance.
The team aims to raise $60,000 to cover the cost of their month and a half long journey, anything extra will be donated to the Burnet Institute. It’s an organisation which is based in Melbourne but works on the ground in Myanmar to improve maternal health outcomes in impoverished communities.
“Maternal health in Myanmar, where the Burnet Institute is not operating, is catastrophic,” Commins says.
“In terms of bang for your buck, the sort of knowledge and training we’ll be funding can be rolled out and passed on. If you lose Mum, you don’t just lose Mum - you lose a carer for possibly six kids. To lose a member of the family like that in somewhere like South East Asia, that can thrust three generations into poverty.”
There are still a few hurdles to get over before the team has the all clear to travel, but they hope to be able to start their journey in early February 2017.
If you’d like to donate to their cause, you can do so here.