Image: Ceramics class
Sakchai Lalit  /  AP file
A group of Muslim and Buddhist Thai women attend a ceramics class in Narathawit, Thailand in August. The class is a learning opportunity for women widowed by fighting in southern Thailand.
updated 10/1/2006 3:26:23 PM ET 2006-10-01T19:26:23

Rent is free in this gated community of white clapboard houses and prim flower-lined paths.

But the 103 families who live here have all paid dearly for admission.

The women of Rotan Batu, known informally as the Widows’ Village, have lost their husbands to the bombs or bullets of a Muslim insurgency that has made this area of jungle and dirt-road villages the most dangerous part of Thailand.

“This is the only place where you can feel at peace,” says Sabiro Hama, a 36-year-old Muslim in a light blue head scarf. She moved in at the beginning of the year, after her husband was shot while walking home from evening prayers at their mosque.

His being Muslim was no protection. He was targeted, his widow believes, because he was a soldier.

The village is one of the few places in southern Thailand where Muslims and Buddhists live together peacefully. Another 47 homes are being built, and a hospital and school are planned.

About 1,700 people have died from nearly three years of violence that the government blames on militants in the Buddhist country’s only Muslim-majority provinces — Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat — in the southernmost tip of Thailand that borders Malaysia. The government’s heavy-handed response bred discontent in the army that was one of the factors driving the military coup of Sept. 19.

Most of the Islamic violence targets soldiers or civil servants, delivering a message that the government is not welcome in this region, which was an independent sultanate until Thailand annexed it a century ago. Hundreds of innocent bystanders have also been killed since violence flared in 2004.

On Sept. 23, bombings in a tourist town claimed the insurgency’s first Western fatality, a 29-year-old Canadian teacher, and wounded an American and a Briton.

Risks every day
Daily life in this region is a string of risks — driving after dark, eating at restaurants frequented by police or soldiers, shopping at an outdoor market, walking the kids to school.

The village opened in September 2004 on 282 acres bought with a $535,000 donation from Queen Sirikit.

The royal family has a history of charitable work among Thailand’s poor, and the queen’s goal in this case was to create a haven where widows could grow their own food and learn a trade.

Here kids kick around soccer balls and tear down streets on their bikes without worrying about speeding cars and stray bullets.

But until the Widows’ Village gets a school, the children have to be driven to one outside the village, in a military convoy.

Sabiro left her four children, aged 5 to 12, in her old village living with her mother, who insisted they finish their schooling and didn’t think the Widows’ Village was the right place for children.

Sabiro said it was heart-wrenching to leave them behind. “But I was too scared to live there. I had to leave.”

The only time she leaves the Widows’ Village is for a weekly trip to visit her children, give them money and wash their clothes.

Fifty soldiers stand guard round-the-clock at the Widows’ Village, but past their checkpoint, the lifestyle seems idyllic.

Women toil side by side in the fruit orchards and chicken coops outside their homes, each of which comes with a plot of land. When the afternoon sun gets too hot they gather in the shade for pottery classes. Sometimes, a doctor drops by with antidepressants to ease the trauma that brought the women here.

Long waiting list to get in
There’s a long waiting list of widows, but a dozen similar villages are being built across the southern provinces, said Supachai Anantawara, a retired army officer who helps run Rotan Batu.

“The people here can survive even if the village is surrounded by insurgents, because they have everything they need,” Supachai said.

Porntip Bunin was one of a dozen women learning how to make pottery figurines that will eventually be sold at a village gift shop and, they hope, at souvenir stores in Bangkok, the capital. A Buddhist and 40-year-old mother of three, her husband was buying groceries near a restaurant frequented by soldiers last year when a bomb exploded and killed him.

“I don’t feel lonely here,” Porntip said. “I have vegetables. I have a house, and I have safety.”

“I’m so happy to be here,” she said. Echoing many of her neighbors when asked how long they’ll stay, she replied: “Maybe forever.”

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