We just returned from a very tiring campaigning trip up into the deepest reaches of Sarawak, almost near the border with Kalimantan, Indonesia. We had to travel in four-wheel drive vehicles from the airport to the first point of departure. Yes, the roads are that bad; pot-holes every few metres caused by trucks overloaded either with timber or oil-palm for the mega-companies. A journey that should take less than two hours took us an incredibly bumpy four hours.
We finally arrived our point of departure and you can see one of our four-wheel drives parked right at the water’s edge, dislodging supplies. The men are extracting gasoline from yellow drums to power our boats’ motors.
Waving at the camera is Baru Bian, our party’s State Chief. He had to take the dangerous option of sitting on a chair (not rigged to the boat!) because his knees cannot take the strain of an eight hour boat ride. Yes, eight hours on a boat!
This is how we travel; crammed into longboats with no shade from the scorching sun like sardines out to dry. Do not be fooled by the serene looking water and the greenery on the mountain-tips. The first few minutes were horrible. Sulphuric fumes from the foul smelling waters held back by a hydro-electric dam of this man-made lake were choking us. And these really are mountain tops; the rest of the mountains and the valleys below are now flooded over forever.
After four hours, we arrived at the halfway point; a small floating village of huts built on logs floating on the water. The residents here were told to evacuate to resettlement schemes miles down-river and leave their ancestral lands or suffer inundation. These remnant few chose to stay. But what a life. Imagine living in huts floating on logs, your former homes submerged miles beneath your feet. Rustic does not even come close to describing the scene which met us.
We stopped here for a simple lunch, prepared by the folks living here. Their hospitality and generosity moved us all. Of course, we insisted on compensating them for their troubles. Baru Bian then shared with them our political struggle for change; that our struggle includes their struggle, to end deplorable and inhumane situations like the one they face now.
The waters are polluted, foul smelling and muddy. Their only source of clean water is from heaven; rain-water collected in plastic tanks fitted with piping to supply the main hut. What an irony, when you live on top of so much water. I cannot bear to imagine what they must resort to in the dry season.
Nevertheless, the biggest irony of it all is the fact that these folks’ only source of electricity is from generators powered by gasoline they have to buy from the shops at the foot of the dam, when the very reason why they were uprooted from their original homes in the first place was to make way for a hydro-electric dam that generates surplus energy! All in the name of development! But at what cost?
The fishing nets on the wall caught my eye. Fish is plentiful and I am amazed how fish thrive in such waters! At least these folks’ supply of calcium won’t run out in the foreseeable future. They cultivate what they can on the bits of land left on the mountain tops; land that once used to be theirs is now ‘State Land’ and legally, therefore, they are but squatters.
The ‘kitchen’ is just a corner of the hut. A gas stove on a wooden table, with condiments on shelves attached to the hut’s wall.
And this is how you ease yourself; a hole in the floor of a tiny space made out of zinc at the back of the main hut. This lifestyle would be a hygiene-freak’s worst nightmare. And people actually live like this in Malaysia! In the 21st century!
This is the head of the family of the hut we found shelter in from the midday sun, with his wife and kin. They smile, but only for the camera. Their eyes betray their loss, their pain and their hopelessness. Yet their determination and will to live on what is left of their former homes humbles me.
Despite the betrayal, hurt and anger they must surely feel, they could find momentary joy through laughter and dance.
As I watched through a window by the ‘kitchen’, I thought to myself; there is still hope for these people. The party flag flying proudly through the afternoon breeze symbolised their only hope. We are their only hope. We cannot let them down.
We continued on our journey for a further four hours. But in those four hours, I had plenty of time to ponder. How incredibly fortunate many of us are. I would be returning home to the creature comforts of air-conditioning, hot showers, fine-dining, surfing the internet, watching box sets of DVDs and a comfy bed to retire to. But seared into my mind are the images I just shared with you. These images and the stark reality they reflect will spur me on to continue the work I have set out to do.
Bron, please share these images with as many of your friends as possible. The world needs to see and know what is happening in Sarawak.
Hugs and love,
By Vernon Kedit