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In widows' village, loss unites two faiths

ROTAN BATU, Thailand -- This gated community looks like a typical suburban subdivision, filled with identical two-story homes, potted plants and yellow plastic garbage bins. Children ride bicycles. Women ask their neighbors for a can opener.

ROTAN BATU, Thailand -- This gated community looks like a typical suburban subdivision, filled with identical two-story homes, potted plants and yellow plastic garbage bins. Children ride bicycles. Women ask their neighbors for a can opener.

But there is one major difference -- there are no men here. This is a village built on death, a rare place in southern Thailand known as the "widows' village," where Muslim and Buddhist families live side by side peacefully, united in their grief.

"When I see new families moving in here, I feel so depressed," said Asseyah Binda-oh, 46, a Muslim woman whose husband, a police officer, was shot dead in a tea shop in March 2004. "I know they're going through the same thing my family is."

This village in Narathiwat province was born out of the Islamic insurgency in southern Thailand, which has killed almost 1,700 people since 2004. Thailand's Queen Sirikit, who is known for her charity work, donated money to build the haven for Buddhist and Muslim widows that same year. The intention was to heal the bitterness, bring Buddhists and Muslims together and teach them how to be self-sufficient.

In this village, 95 women, widowed by gunshots and bomb blasts, raise their children in peace. Military families live in eight other homes, and the soldiers help guard against intruders. About 50 other soldiers protect the village, watching the one entry gate and living in camps along the village's edge.

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"We have to take care of them," said Boonchuay Noumfueng, 49, a soldier who guards the village. "When their children are sick, when they have to go to the hospital, we have to take them. When they have problems, we have to solve them."

The women say they are strong enough to care for themselves and brag that they never cry in front of their kids. They say they are mothers and fathers to their children. They say they are happy to be finally safe from the violence outside.

Most of their dead husbands were government workers, teachers and police officers.

The violence arrived in 2004, when a low-level Islamic separatist movement gained strength and the government pushed back. Experts say heavy-handed tactics and human-rights abuses by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government fueled the insurgency. The southern tip of Thailand is the only Muslim-majority area in the predominantly Buddhist country.

A military coup deposed Thaksin on Sept. 19, and the new prime minister has since apologized to Muslims in the south. But the widows say that violence has become worse.

"I say that because I'm in the middle of it," said village leader Aoyjai Srisuwan, 46, a Buddhist whose husband, a police officer on a bomb squad, was killed in an explosion in January 2004. "Muslims are shot. Muslim women are shot. Buddhists are shot. I don't know who these people are. I don't know what they want."

This village is almost like a commune. Everything is free -- rent, a half-acre of land, ducks, rice cookers. The property will stay in the widows' families for generations to come. The women can work in the newly built ceramics factory, sell duck eggs, or grow bananas or tomatoes in the fields. They cook communal meals to celebrate a national holiday, or to avoid thinking about their losses.

"Sometimes I need warmth and love from a man," Srisuwan said. "I miss that. But when I'm here, I have to be strong. We have to be together. Sometimes when I'm lonely, I call people over to my house, and we cook and eat and talk. We don't talk at all about the stories of the past. We talk of the future."

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