Silent victims: Mariyah’s son holding a photograph of his father, who was killed in 2009 by unknown gunmen while working as a village volunteer defender at their home in Rotan Batu. — AFP
NARATHIWAT: Widowed and blinded in one eye by vengeful rebels, Tungrudee Jaiin was left to raise four children alone in insurgency-ravaged southern Thailand.
A scar knotting her brow marks where she lost an eye to a bullet fired by suspected militants who had already gunned down her husband in a punishment killing.
It left Tungrudee among the ranks of widows in a decade-long conflict, which has seen 5,900 people killed in the Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Thailand.
The majority of the victims are civilians squeezed between Thai security forces and ruthless insurgents seeking greater autonomy from Thailand, which annexed the deep south over a century ago.
Tungrudee, 39, recalled the chilling events from five years ago when the rebels killed her husband for being a government informer.
“Two weeks later they came back, shot me and left me to die. Then they set fire to our home,” she said.
Destitute, Tungrudee and her children found refuge in the army-protected “widows’ village” of Rotan Batu, which has expanded to house some 140 women and 300 children.
“Sometimes I feel weak and think, how can I live without my husband? But when I see my children I think, who will take care of them without me?” said Tungrudee, who supplements her monthly widows’ stipend from the state by selling vegetables.
Experts say that Muslim women face particular hardship in the conservative region.
“Women often have no voice,” said Angkhana Neelapaijit of the Justice for Peace Foundation.
A recent survey by the foundation found poor education compounds their woes, squeezing them into low-paid work or unemployment.
But there are also encouraging signs that women are stepping into the political space vacated by men, with some joining civil society groups calling for justice.
“The role of women is getting bigger because the role of many men has been greatly diminished as they are under suspicion by the authorities, jailed or dead,” said filmmaker Noi Thammasathien, who has worked extensively on women’s issues in the region.
Bonded by a shared grief, the widows of Rotan Batu trade jokes as they carry out daily tasks.
“Women suffer a lot here,” said Mariyah Nibosu as she shaped a clay pot for sale in a workshop.
“But we are strong. We have to feed our children by ourselves. We have to survive.” — AFP