This is a story I have been meaning to write for a while. It’s a story that has stayed with me since the day I heard it and it will not go away. I heard it a month ago.
This is the story:
“If he hadn’t ran back the second time to get rice he may not have gotten killed,” says Naw Muu Wah. “The problem was that he took the sewing machine first.”
I cannot get the sewing machine out of my head. The woman sitting on the floor in front of me is poor. She has no shoes. She has walked for four days to talk to me. She comes from one of the most oppressed areas in the world. How come she had a sewing machine?
“It was a gift from my husband,” she says quietly and I try to imagine it: Saw Mya Htoo harvesting rice, hunting, growing vegetables and thinking of other ways to save some money. Many nights he takes a bag of coins out and counts them. Then finally, after months, maybe years, he adds it all up and it’s enough. Proudly he walks to the market and points to the sewing machine he has looked at so many times before: “This one,” he says. He pays for it and carries it home and gives it to his wife who right then feels like the richest woman in the village.
“Where is the sewing machine now?” I ask. “It’s still where he put it when he hid it.” “Aren’t you going to get it?” “I can’t.” Of course she cannot. Bringing the sewing machine back from under the bushes and branches in the jungle will be like ripping up a wound that is still painful. There is no point in putting salt on it to make the pain worse.
It happened January a year ago. The day was cold and crisp as January days often are. Saw Mya Htoo was out hunting in the jungle. Naw Muu Wah was busy in the house. With six children to care for she rarely had a quiet moment.
Saw Mya Htoo’s eyes were always on the lookout, for animals, for plants to eat—and for the enemy. On this day he spotted the enemy first. From the hill where he was standing he saw them coming walking, brown uniforms, guns on their backs. Quickly Saw Mya Htoo took his own gun and shot it in the air. He had to alert the village somehow, and he was too far away to run there and warn them. The agreement was that if they heard a shot, they would turn on the village radios and he could them tell them that they were in danger. He was the person responsible for the radio and always carried it with him. The other person responsible was the village teacher. They did not leave the radios on all the time in order to save batteries. The shot did not have the desired effect. The old gun jammed and the shot just sounded like a little puff in the air. Desperately he thought of what to do now. He tried once more, but it wasn’t much better.
Then he looked over in the other direction and noticed the village over there, one that was a lot closer, had picked up on his attempt. They must have heard his gun shot. Quickly the villagers fired off one of the village mortars, and this time the sound was impossible to ignore. Within seconds he got a call from the teacher who asked what was happening. “Hurry! Get the people out of the village. The enemy is coming!” was all Saw Mya Htoo needed to say before he hung up and started running. On his way back to the village he met his neighbors, all of them running with whatever they were able to carry. They looked serious and afraid. Every time they had to run they felt afraid. Even though they had to run many times a year. But one never gets used to being chased by men with guns.
He met his wife and kids too. “Hurry! Run the fastest you can,” he told them. He made it into their house, grabbed the sewing machine and ran back into the jungle. With the sewing machine tucked away he decided he may have enough time to run back once more to get some more rice. He knew from experience that whatever was left in their house would be destroyed or stolen. He also knew that they would need much food while in hiding in the jungle.
Surprised he noticed his oldest daughter running next to him. She wanted to help. He didn’t have time to tell her to go back and kept running. They got a bag of rice and he told her to run the fastest she cold. He would catch up.
But he never did. As he came around the corner of his house the soldiers entered the village. Without hesitating they shot him dead. Then they lit the village on fire.
In the jungle sat Naw Muu Wah with her six kids, the youngest only one year old. They were terrified and shaking. The oldest daughter had caught up with them and she told them the news they did not want to hear: “I think they shot daddy.” They had shot after her too. Never had she ran so fast. Never had she been so sure she was going to die. Still she wasn’t sure how the bullets did not hit her. She never looked back, just ran and ran until she ran into her family.
“You know what I feel like?” Naw Muu Wah asks me. “I feel like I am a bird that is not allowed to fly.”
“Do you ever consider taking the children and moving to a refugee camp?” “Never.” “I will not give them that victory. There were times that I thought of it while my husband was alive. Now that he is dead I want even more than before to stay on my homeland.”
She has the classic beauty that so many Karen women have. I like to just look at her as she is reflecting on her life.
“All my life they have been chasing us. They have done a lot to my family. They killed my husband, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my brother in law and my father.”
“Do you know why the Burma Army come and attack you,” I ask. The answer is so sad:
“We don’t have any idea. We don’t know what they want from us. The Burma Army never speak to us or tell us anything.”
We sit in silence. We both are mothers. We both love our husbands. We both have dreams and fears. We both have a sense of humor and like beauty. We both want a day off to do whatever we want. We both sit in the same room. But our lives are as different as lives can be. I think it is unfair.