Giving your life to save others
It was January and I was driving down the road in Chiang Mai, very likely listening to the Eels. My phone rang and it was Baw Boe. He sounded upset. “I don’t know who else to call, Thara Muu. But the Burma Army is attacking many villages in Karen State. Many, many people are fleeing. Two days ago the shot and killed a man, the father of five children. Then yesterday they killed another man. He has six children. Very bad, Thara Muu. We need to do something.”
Last month I sat with the widows of the two men who were shot. They had walked for days. I wrote about Naw Muu Wah yesterday. This is Naw Sey Ler Wah’s story.
“When I was 5 my parents died from a disease,” says Naw Sey Ler Wah. “They died only months after my mother and I had a very bad experience. The Burma Army came and captured us. For two days we were forced to walk with them and they treated us very badly. I remember them spitting on us. ‘Give us your daughter and we will let you go,’ they said to my mother. But she would not give me to them.”
“Did they rape your mother?”
“I was too little to know if that is what they did.”
“After two days they let us go, but when we came back to the village, all the villagers were gone. They had escaped. It was soon after that that my mother and father both died and I went to live with my relatives, my aunt and uncle.”
“Then, when I was 10, another terrible thing happened. The Burma Army attacked our village. My uncle was the headman at that time. We ran as fast as we could to escape, but I felt like it was not fast enough. My uncle and my two cousins did not run fast enough. They got killed. (I will not write the details about how they got killed since it is too violent). My aunt lost two children and her husband that day. I continued to live with her after this happened.”
On January 19th 2010 Naw Sey Ler Wah’s husband was shot and killed by the Burma Army too.
“I cannot remember a year in my whole life when we have not been forced to flee from our homes at least ten times a year. One year, in 2007, we fled 11 times in just three months. Last year our village was in hiding already. We were expecting an attack, so we had fled into the jungle. My husband was the radio operator who was responsible to alert other villages if we were attacked.
The Karen resistance was patrolling our area at this time, but somehow the Burma Army had found a way through. One of the children in our village saw the soldiers approaching and told us. We all ran to a new hiding place then. My husband told the rest of the village to run, he would catch up. He wanted to send a message to the other villages first. That was the reason they found him and killed him. They also stole our radios.
My husband died because he wanted to save the lives of others.”
She is so quiet as she talks. I am sitting close to her and watch her slender face, her beautifully woven costume, the small mole on her lip. “Did you make your shirt yourself?” “Yes,” she smiles, kind of surprised that I think it is so special.
“What did the soldiers do after they killed your husband?”
“They went to our village and destroyed it. Everything they found they stole or destroyed. They cut holes in our cooking pots with their machetes; they shot holes in our rice barns with their guns. They killed our dogs and pigs. They ate some of the meat and left the rest to rot. One of the ladies in the village had left a bag of rice and they mixed dirt and sand into the bag so that the rice is uneatable now. They took one of my sarongs (wrap-around skirt that the Karen use) and sliced it on the wood. Why they do this, I don’t understand. But anything they find they will take. If they don’t need it, they destroy it. Everything in our house, including our house was destroyed.”
We drink some sweet instant coffee and she tells me she has five young children at home. They are staying with the neighbors while she is away. I feel a pinch of bad conscience because I know she left them for days just to come and spend time with me.
“My neighbors in my village helped me build a new house because that was one thing I was not able to do myself. But all the rest I must do alone now. The other villagers have enough with their own lives; I cannot depend on help from them. This time of the year is hard because I need to clear the land for planting the rice. It is very hard work and I don’t think I will be able to grow enough rice for my whole family this year.”
“Since my husband died we have not had meat or fish even once. He used to go hunting and fishing, but that is also something I am not able to do. Sometimes my children will go and find frogs to eat, but not so often. We only eat rice and salt.”
“Can’t you have a pig or chickens?” I wonder.
“No, Thara Muu, we cannot because I have nothing to feed them. Whatever we have to eat we must eat ourselves. Also, what use is it if the Burma Army attacks us again? The animals will just become food for the soldiers.”
My friends, Kris and Ashley, brought gifts. We give a stuffed animal for her to take back to each of her children. Naw Sey Ler Wah smiles and strokes a stuffed bunny gently, as if it was real. We give her and Naw Muu Wah some money, some clothes and whatever else we can think of that they may need, and be able to carry back. But it all seems so hopelessly little when what they need is to get their husbands back, a decent meal and the assurance that they won’t have to run away from the soldiers and watch their homes burn to the ground again. Hopelessly little.