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Posts tagged ‘Karen people’

To be brave like chicken droppings

My courage necklace is a rod and a carrot

I have been thinking about what courage is. I want to be a courageous woman, but so often I am not. I am brave, but I am chicken shit, like Alanis Morisette says in her song Hand in my pocket. Around my neck I carry a simple silver necklace that Steve got me for my last birthday. It says: Courage. I like wearing it as a reminder to not give up and to not let fear guide me. Then there are the days when the necklace seems more like a joke. Like: Courage? Ha!

I want to be courageous. I am also fascinated with people who have shown great courage. Then I don’t think of top-level athletes who live in constant climate control, who get a diet planned just for them, who earn millions for their skills, and who have teams dedicated to serving them and making them excel. I think more along the lines of the ones who have all the odds against them, but still don’t give up.

I have met and been inspired by many such people over the years. Most of them I have met in Burma, or in the refugee camps:

  • The many men and women who have fought for their right to live for more than sixty years without giving up. 
  • The handful of women I met in Kachin State, Northern Burma, who is fighting a whole army (the Burma Army) by helping and sustaining the civilians who are on the run. 
  • The people I met in Rangoon recently who had risked their lives and freedom to speak against the regime, and many of them ended up in prison for doing so.

That kind of guts takes courage. None of them would have done what they did without a very solid portion of selfless fearlessness.

I have met courage other places as well. In Mother Teresa and in Nelson Mandela, in my mom and in my friends who are foster parents for a mentally challenged teenager. I have seen it in the dad who takes his adult autistic daughter for a walk in the neighborhood every day, no matter what the weather. I have seen it in cancer patients who let us see their head with no hair. I have seen it in teenagers who dare to be different, and in adults that don’t conform to the establishment, unless the establishment is doing something right.

I feel like a wimp compared to these. I feel like my courage muscles are so small I look like a stick man (woman). I feel like the necklace I wear is indeed a joke. I call it courage when I jump into the cold ocean on a chill summer day. Or when I say no to ice cream when everybody else is having some.

One needs to start somewhere to help the courage muscles grow. (Photo by:

But I guess one can get a little courage at the time. If one starts by doing small courageous things, then one will work the muscles so that they get a little stronger. And little by little they will be worked up the size of—not exactly Aung San Suu Kyi or Martin Luther King Jr.—but maybe as big as our elementary school teacher whom we adored so much when we were small because she saw a star in each one of us, or as big as a neighbor who reaches out to refugees or single moms.

The biggest hindrance to my courage, I have realized, is my own fear. My fear of not making it, my fear of losing control, my fear of what others may think. Fear has held me back from reaching the potential I have to change the world a little. Fear keeps me from speaking up against injustice. Fear keeps me from taking the side of those who are weak. Fear keeps me from sharing my belongings. Fear keeps me from getting close to somebody who may hurt me.

So as I am contemplating courage, I will also try to say No to the fear that is lurking.

I read this cool quote today, and I thought it was a good inspirational quote in my quest for courage:

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all.  Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle.The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.    (Ayn Rand)







Picking Flowers on Dusty Roads

The other day a journalist wrote about me that I had “been pregnant with this book for a couple of years.” I thought it was a good way to describe the birth of my book. Finally, after all this time, my book is born and you are all invited to have a look at it. And not only that, you are invited to read it, and tell others about it and tell me about what you have learned from it.

You can buy it here and here

Tonight we had a small party in honor of my book launch. People called me author and talked about my author dress that I was wearing and wanted me to sign their copy of the book. They clapped and took photos. They shook my hand and said congratulation. It all felt like they were talking to and about another person. Author? Yeah, right. You don’t become an author before you write books. And then I realized: I have written a book.

You can look at these photos. And you can read an excerpt from the introduction here.

Major Lah Muu died fighting for freedom for his people, the Karen of Burma.  His wife is a widow.  When I first met her she lived in the only teak house in Mae Saliit Khee village on the Thai-Burma border. I remember looking at her face and wondering if I had ever seen a more beautiful woman before. She was not young, nor did she look like a photo model from a fashion magazine. She had a serene beauty, like I could have imagined belonging to an Asian Mother Earth.

She was the first Karen person I ever met, her house was the first Karen house I ever entered, and her costumes were the first Karen costumes I ever admired. They were colorful like the lotus flowers around her pond. It looked like she had been created to wear those costumes. She would walk around her property doing her daily chores with a straight back, head lifted high, and steps so soft that the grass hardly bent under her.

All the Karen people of Burma wear colorful and ornate costumes like those of Major Lah Muu’s widow. Each village and area has different colored shirts and patterns. They all look beautiful to me. For years I have been spending time with the Karen and almost without exception I receive a hand-woven bag or shirt as a parting gift when I leave them. I don’t know how many shoulder bags I have. The incredible thing about this is that not one looks the same. They are all unique.

When I first got to know Major Lah Muu’s widow, the Karen and their costumes, I noticed strings hanging from different places on their garments. To me they looked like somebody had been in a hurry and hadn’t taken the time to fasten the threads when the piece was ready. They were annoyingly messy. Then they told me the meaning of those threads, and I learned to love them.

They would hold the threads in their hands and say, “Try pulling one of them apart!” I did, and it was easy. Then they asked me to take a whole bundle of the threads and try pulling them apart. It was impossible.

“This is a symbol of our people,” they explained. “If we stand alone, it’s easy to break us, but together we make one strong bunch.”

Since then I have never been annoyed with the threads that get tangled with each other after a little bit of use. I just say, “It’s the Karen people learning to get along so they cannot be broken.”

This book is a bit like the threads on the Karen costumes. 

Here I am talking about my pregnancy with the book. I did not use those exact words though although I now think I should have.

My good friend, Egil, introduced the evening and said nice things about me. Way too nice actually.

I think I look a bit too intense here, but I am trying to explain to people why writing an international book in Norwegian would not work and that is why I chose English. Chinese would have cramped my style.

The World’s Burmese Daze

Photo by Kris Ryan. This photo was taken in a refugee camp in Burma where the political changes are not noticed.

For the first time in my life, my name has been in the Wall Street Journal. If only my grandmother had been alive to see that!

It was an article that I wrote that was pretty bad to begin with, then my friend Matt fixed it, then I added some more, then he fixed it some more, then the editor of the WSJ also edited it a bit. It was a team effort in the grandest sense of the word! The main thing, however, is not who wrote it, but that the plight of the Kachin and others in Burma can become better known. 

The Wall Street Journal wants people to pay to read their stuff. (Perhaps it has something to do with having to pay their staff) so it seems like most my friends are not able to download the full article for free. You can of course try here If you can’t open it, this is the article: 

Burma is closer than ever to winning its bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week after supportive comments by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Mr. Natalegawa says Asean members feel “positive” about the bid and many are impressed by the “trajectory of positive developments” in the authoritarian country.

Political liberalization is a positive sign, but Asean must weigh it carefully against credible reports of increasing human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas. Asean sends the wrong message by rewarding Burma while its army engages in widespread rape and murder.

A year ago this week Burma held its first elections in two decades, and recent political developments under President Thein Sein’s new semi-civilian government have been met with robust international praise. While there is an understandable optimism in lowland Burma, something entirely different has been happening in highland ethnic areas. There, civilians in the midst of an ongoing civil war face abuse from the brutal Burma Army , while humanitarian aid is insufficient.

On June 9, just three months after the new government formed, conflict resumed between the Burma Army and the non-state (ethnic) Kachin Independence Army in Northern Burma, ending 17 years of ceasefire. Prior to the conflict, a building tension in the area can be attributed to a controversial, State controlled, hydropower project being built in an area of mixed administration as well as the KIA’s unwillingness to surrender their arms and assimilate into a State controlled Border Guard Force (BGF).

Ethnic Kachin civilians numbering 30,000 are not only getting caught in the crossfire as they flee attacks by the Burmese forces, their rights are also being systematically violated.

The civilian toll from the conflict has been documented by Partners Relief and Development, which has staff operating clandestinely in Kachin State. Witnesses have explained how Burma Army soldiers arrived in their villages, opened fire on civilians, robbed and looted their properties and destroyed medicines. In one report, ethnic villagers from eight locations described how at least 80 local civilians were recently arrested without charges and—having not returned—are feared dead.

Credible reports from Partners document a strong sexual element in the violence. Numerous reports of rape and sexual assault by the Burma Army have emerged from Kachin State since June. Partners witnesses have seen soldiers hanging condoms in the trees surrounding Kachin villages, sending a clear message to local women that there is a sadistic sexual tone to their military domination.

The army has also failed its legal obligation to ensure the health of wounded citizens and prisoners of war. On Oct. 8, a bomb exploded near the home of 15-year-old Lahpai Kai Ra, an ethnic Kachin girl from Shwigu District in Kachin State. She suffered an injury to her leg, but Burma Army soldiers still forced her to walk to a local church along with her grandmother and five other women, where about 50 Burmese soldiers were waiting for them. In total, 33 civilian women and children were held captive under armed guard for three days. Fearing for their lives, they escaped to the jungle. Due to infections stemming from improper treatment, Lahpai Kai Ra’s leg will most likely have to be amputated.

While the Burma Army continues to neglect its duty to protect civilians, it has ramped up its use of popular torture techniques, sparing no one. In one village, soldiers put a plastic bag over a 15-year old boy’s head and waterboarded him in an attempt to find out if his father was affiliated with the KIA.

Instead of responding to these abuses, Burmese authorities are not allowing humanitarian aid to reach the 20,000 internally displaced Kachin who fled their villages to take refuge in remote jungle camps. Despite a shortage of food, water, medicine and proper sanitation in these camps, the United Nations and other relief agencies are not authorized to provide aid. Agencies instead have to resort to clandestine operations.

There is no lack of information about the situation in Kachin. Well-publicized reports from Human Rights Watch and others have steadily emerged since June. In his September report to the U.N. General Assembly, Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, referred to the plight of the displaced Kachin populations as “perilous.”

Yet the international community remains fixated on high-level political changes in the capital. Repeated calls by the U.N. special rapporteur for a U.N.-mandated Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma has fallen on deaf ears. Only 16 U.N. member-nations have expressed support for the proposal.

If Asean wants to support the people of Burma, it should acknowledge that any positive political changes in lowland Burma coexist with a rapid increase in severe abuses in Burma’s ethnic areas. Meaningful political and legal reforms in the country deserve support, but they cannot come at the expense of parallel practical efforts to end abuses and hold perpetrators accountable, including a formal commission of inquiry.  Before that happens, the chair of Asean is a reward Burma does not deserve.

Mrs. Gumaer is the International Advocacy Officer and a founder at Partners Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization. Partners works with communities impacted by war in Burma and has staff in the conflict zones in Kachin State.

Here and now

This will be my shortest blog yet. But it says something that challenged me enough today. I hope it will challenge you too:

“Do not look back. And do not dream about the future, either. It will neither give you back the past, nor satisfy your other daydreams. Your duty, your reward — your destiny — are here and now.”

– Dag Hammarskjold, Markings

A little girl Steve met on a trip to Karen state.

A cold with a hangover

Notice Marley's smile. He is happy his mummy is back.

Here are some things I have learned today:

Jetlag is a real condition. It feels like a combination of a hangover and a cold. Pretty miserable.

I have too many clothes. I have spent the day unpacking my suitcase, and, lo and behold, my closet was already full. With my new outfits that I inherited from a friend in the US and accidentally bought at REI, there is a slight shortage of space. The solution: Move the summer clothes to a different venue and I have space for more.

Norway is colder than Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota in October. Makes me miss Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota.

When I go and buy groceries for the week in Norway I spend 170 dollars. That is a lot more than I would spend in other countries. (Mind you, I did not buy fillet mignon, wine or imported cheese, just TP, flour, veggies, bananas, microwave popcorn and that kind of stuff.)

Even though the floors were spotless and clean yesterday, they got dirty today.

Kids haven’t necessarily learned how to pick up after themselves even though mom has been gone for three weeks.

Kristin got new shorts, t-shirt, socks and soccer ball from America. She did not care that it was only 5 degrees Celsius (40 F) outside.

Burma hasn’t changed much even though I was gone for three weeks.

I came back too late to pick the cranberries in the forest.

One needs a scarf when going outside in October.

I take crappy photos.

Our dog Marley loves me so much he dances to make sure I know. It is the truth.

Jetlag is real (like I already said).

A Norwegian in Minnesota

I am in Minnesota now. Minnesota is a place to go if you want to feel treasured as a Norwegian. They like us Vikings a lot here!

We went to the Norwegian church called Mindekirken and joined about 100 men and women who had some kind of connection to Norway. We sang the prayer before lunch in Norwegian, and the lunch was…you may have guessed it: Waffles with jam and sour cream, open faced sandwiches with brown cheese or meat and a strong cup of coffee. Just like in Norway.

The walls were decorated with Norwegian art and photos. The rooms in the church were named after places in Norway. The people I talked to were into genealogy and history. Many of them knew Norway better than me. Marilyn, a sharp lady of about 70 gave me some geography questions about my country that I could not answer. She told me the answer, and now I will ask my friends the same questions next time we play trivial pursuit. They announced Lutefisk dinners and other events.

I was there,in Minnesota, with people whose ancestors came from Norway, sharing about the people of Burma and about living in Thailand.

From the Scandinavian corner, we went to the Burma corner. We went to the office of KOM, an NGO run by Karen and Americans who are helping the Karen who have resettled in Minnesota. We talked about issues concerning the Karen in the US and the Karen in Burma, and agreed that we can work together to make the lives easier for the Karen in both countries.

In ending the day I am reflecting on how lucky I am to get to meet so many interesting and committed people. And I am amazed at all the men and women I have met who are giving their lives to serve and to help. I am understanding that the world is run by volunteers and committed people who believe that they can make a difference.

Free, full lives for the children in Burma?

Tonight I went to the Friends’ church of Fairbanks annual fundraiser for Partners. It was a great event.

This is the story I shared:

Emily Paw was three. She wore a bracelet and two ankle bracelets. Her hair had small curls. I took a dress out from my bag and handed it to her. It had belonged to Kristin. Now Emily Paw put it on quickly, stood up and smiled. She twirled around for some seconds enjoying the attention she got. In her mind she was nothing less than a princess. While the adults kept talking she kept dancing, stopping only to pick up one more candy that was in a bag on the low table.

Her dad had died a month ago. He had been young, only 24. His little girl and his beautiful wife of 23 were his biggest treasures. When the Burma Army surrounded their village, made an army camp close by and started enforcing unlivable rules on the villagers, life became miserable. Their little village that had been a paradise before the soldiers arrived now felt more like a prison.

No leaving the village after dark, they said. No leaving the village to go to the rice fields, they continued. Land mines were placed on the trails so that the villagers who broke the rules would suffer severely. We need people to work on our camp, they demanded. We need some of you to carry our equipment. We need some of you to be mine sweepers. We need some of you to clear land for us. The villagers were now not just prisoners, they became the army’s slaves as well.

Emily Paw’s family was hungry all the time. They were not allowed to leave the village, so how were they supposed to find food? One night her dad snuck outside, hoping it would not be noticed. He went to hunt for an animal. They needed some meat to eat.

When he had shot an animal he snuck back on the trail. He smiled as he thought of his little girl’s joy when she was given a warm, nice meal to eat.

He never made it home. The soldiers had noticed that he was gone, they went to find him and met him on the trail. Without mercy they tortured him, killed him and left him on the trail where the villagers found him the next day. His dead body was meant as a warning.

Emily Paw’s mom was telling me the story. She spoke quietly and without much emotion. But Emily heard the name of her dad mentioned as she danced by in her new dress. “Daddy?” she asked. “Where is Daddy. I really miss him?”

Our vision in Partners is Free, full lives for the children of Burma. Some people wonder if that is all. Don’t you want to do more than just help the children? They wonder. There are so many other needs. 

But how can the children in Burma experience free, full lives?

They must be able to live in a country not controlled by a brutal army who commit the most heinous crimes with impunity. That is why we want to focus more on advocacy in Partners. We are the advocates for the children who have lost their parents, their homes, their right to go to school , their right to get medicine when they are sick, their right to play in the forest without stepping on land mines, the right to worship the God they believe in without discrimination, the right to dream, the right to plan, the right to preserve their own culture and heritage.

They must be able to eat when they are hungry. That is why Partners focuses on bringing rice and other food supplies to the people in hiding. It is also why we focus more and more on development. We train the people in the villages in agriculture and aqua culture so that they can be self-sustained, and increase their crops. We show them how to grow new vegetables, fruits and herbs in order to enrich their diet. Everything we do can be reproduced without our help.

They must be able to get treatment when they are sick. That is why Partners spends so much of our money and resources on buying medicines that get sent to Burma with relief teams. This is why we spend so much time, energy and resources training medics that can go to the villages and to the displaced populations to treat the sick. This is why we train village leaders in basic community health. This is why we teach women how to help deliver babies. This is why we bring people with severe sicknesses to Thailand for professional care.

They must be able to go to school. This is why we support thousands of teachers that teach in small, local village schools in Karen State, Karenni State and Shan State. Children should be able to go to school in their own community instead of being sent away to go to school in refugee camps or towns far away. Children will be tomorrow’s leaders. By building and supporting schools we build a nation.

They must be able to feel safe, loved and cared for even when they have been orphaned or sent away by parents who, for whatever reason, is not able to care for them. This is why we support orphanages and children homes.

They must be able to play and have fun. This is why we spend money on sport equipment, art supplies and music instruments. For a little while they can experience the carless you of childhood, and develop their skills and talents in sport, music or art.

Their soul must be cared for. This is why we have developed child trauma care, and train leaders in how to minister to children who have been traumatized.This is also why we want to do soul and trauma care for the adults. How can they help the children when their own wounds are open?

They need to know that  they are loved and not forgotten, by God, by us and by the world. This is why we always remind them of that.

Free, full lives for the children of Burma. Is it a vision too narrow? No, I don’t think so. But can it happen? I think it can. It may just take a while.

What does Jesus taste like?

One of the many things I am learning (the hard way) is that Jesus so often speak in the places I didn’t expect it, and then he is remarkably silent in the places I thought he would say something. Today Jesus moved me to tears. By speaking through a Karen young woman and a couple I have just met.

Naw Doh stood in front of the Karen congregation in Arvada, Colorado and spoke into a mike. “Nobody has loved us like you have,” she said and looked at Kirsten and Paul who were sitting on two chairs in front of her. “Other people say they love us, but you are the ones who have sowed us love. You are the ones we can call, and wherever you are you will pick up the phone and talk to us. You will always come and help us with so many things.”

These people can love so it shows

Solemnly and beautifully the Karen elders, dressed in their finest costumes, stood up and walked over to Kirsten and Paul. They kneeled down in front of them and put a handmade garland around their necks. A symbol of honor and love. Then they gave them an envelope, a love offering from a group of people who love them. “We would like to go back to our country and help our people, but we cannot,” they said. “Therefore we want to give you this gift, to help you with the work you are going to do.”

I had to wipe my eyes. In front of me were two brave people, Kirsten and Paul, who in a few days will get on an airplane and move to Thailand to join Partners. Soon they will be living with the Shan people, sharing their lives with them, and helping them in many ways. I am pretty certain that Paul and Kirsten will do fine. The people in the room were the evidence of that. They have already been loving people in action here in their own hometown. They have helped deliver babies and fill in forms, they have had dozens over for dinner, and helped find jobs in a place where jobs are scarce.

“Other people have said they have loved us, but nobody has showed us love like you have.”

How easy it is to throw out a “love you,” and leave it at that. How easy to say things, but how hard to do them. Jesus’ love, I was reminded today, is the kind of love that you can see, smell, taste and touch. You can eat it, you can sleep on it, you can speak to it, you can hug it, you can call it, you can visit it. Jesus’ love is not a noun. It is a verb.

Not only did the Karen give a love offering to Kirsten and Paul, they gave one to Partners too. This is a gift from people who barely make ends meet, but who also know how to show love.

The tears of heaven and heaven on earth

It’s the kind of rainy day that was made for inside activities. Part of me feels cheated. Hey, I have not had my portion of sun yet this season! We are heading towards Norway winter, and, let me tell you: it is dark and cold. I need all the sun I can get.

Then I thought about the rain as the tears of heaven. And as I think of that, I think it rains too little.

I think of the dying children on the horn of Africa—their mothers holding them, wishing only for one thing: Enough food for their babies to eat. At the same time as we, here on the mountain, throw away enough food to feed many villages every day. At the same time as we in the West encourage farmers not to produce food on their land because we have enough, and it is cheaper for them not to produce, than to produce and then have to turn it into garbage.

The mothers in Africa would like some of that food.

Politics are complicated. And economics even more so, but, holy cow, can it be that hard? If people like me raised our voices in unison and said: This is bullshit! There is enough food in the world for all of us to be fed. If only we distributed it a little differently and some of us stopped overeating. 

Could we change the world then?

Cherku Paw the way she looked when she first arrived at the hospital

A coupe of years ago I received some photos in my inbox. It stayed with me for days. For weeks. It was of Cherku Paw, a young girl in Burma, who, when she was six, was standing in front of the fire in their village, trying to warm herself. The cold season is cold. The people seldom have warm clothes. Little Cherku Paw got a bit too close to the fire. A spark fell on her polyester shirt and she caught on fire. She caught on fire.

The pictures I got was of her two years after the accident. For that long she had suffered pain, humiliation and terrible discomfort. For that long her parents had hoped there would be a doctor or a hospital somewhere who would help their little girl. For that long Cherku Paw had not been able to stand up right, close her mouth and run around with the other kids in her village.

Her father had heard of a hospital that could help his girl. For three days he carried her in his arms through the jungle. When she got to the hospital, run by one of the people I admire the most in the world, Dr. Mitch, the doctors were moved the way Jesus would have been moved. Money was raised for Cherku Paw and she was sent to an even better hospital in Chiang Mai.

Months later I received another email. This time there was a photo of a cute little girls, smiling shyly to the camera. I heard that when she thought she was alone in her room at the hospital, the nurses would see her dance on the floor. Joy filled her as she moved her legs, looked at her face in the mirror, touched the parts of her body that before only had been the source of incredible pain. Soon after I got the photo she went back to her village together with her daddy who had been with her the whole time at the hospital. She could walk with her head raised high and a smile on her face. Soon she could join her friends playing games.

Cherku Paw and her dad some moths later at the hospital.

I heard from her again today. She has just been back to Chiang Mai for check ups and we were asked to help pay for the doctors’ fees. I am so glad that I will be able to help. I am so proud that I can.

It’s still raining. Heaven has many tears still because there are so many children like Cherku Paw left to help. In the news they talk about financial crisis around—a world crisis they call it—and I understand the fear. I too fear it. I don’t want to end up on the street. For all these years we have spent resources that don’t belong to us in the first place. For generations we have enjoyed freedom that has been paid for by others’ bondage. Is it time that we realize that and change our ways? I think it is. But I also fear that even through this crisis, it is the ones with the least who will suffer the most, as usual. Not the people like me, who have my security in a nation that only gives from our abundance.

So, it still rains. For the children in Africa. For the children in Burma. For the children on the streets in the big cities around the world. Rob Bell writes about hell in his book, Love Wins. Hell is here on earth, he says. And for too many people, that is true.

But for little Cherky Paw, hell was turned into heaven because generous men and women gave their time, resources and dedication to help her.

Today, let’s try to bring heaven a little closer. Let’s try to bring the sun back in the lives of those who need it the most.

Heaven seen in little children in a refugee camp (photo by Kris Ryan, my friend)

Something to think about at a place where many died for our freedom

Kristin and friends walking in the parade.

Today is May 17th. A big day in Norway. It’s our Constitution day, and it is celebrated from early morning to late night. It’s a day to be proud of our country.

I had the honor of giving a speech at the small community of Ekne today. In this community was an infamous concentration camp during the war, thousands were held there, many were executed. I had my speech at the monument in the forest near the camp. It is a somber feeling to stand there and try to say something that wake people’s hearts up.

This is what I shared: (Feel free to skip the first few paragraphs if you are not Norwegian. And remember, it the speech was done for the Wegians, so a bit of patriotism is OK)

This is a day when we can allow ourselves to be proud of our country more than any other day of the year. We celebrate that we are Norwegian. We celebrate that we are free. We celebrate that we are rich. We celebrate that it is spring. We celebrate that summer is almost here.

There is a lot we can celebrate. We have a lot to be proud of. There are many reasons to gather together on a day like this.

We may even allow ourselves to become national romantic. The birch tree that casts it’s green light over the black field where the farmer is ploughing and sowing. Children dressed in light clothes running down the road picking flowers for mom. The sound of seagulls, the smell of cow’s manure. It’s as if one can hear Grieg play in the background and there is a motive to paint behind every curve.

For more than 20 years I spent 17th of May in other countries. But even there the day had to be celebrated, and one will never feel more Norwegian than when in a foreign country. With my green national costume I did get some attention on the streets of Tokyo, and we did while walking in a parade during the hot season in Thailand as well. Without a hint of embarrassment I told the Japanese and the Thais that we were celebrating being Norwegian.

Celebrating May 17th in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2002

It feels good to belong and to be proud of one’s country. It is OK to see our flag in the wind with a blue sky and a birch tree as a backdrop and say: There cannot be a more beautiful flag in the whole world.

We love Norway. We love being Norwegian. We are thankful to all who have helped build our country into what it is today.

But here we are on one of Norway’s history’s saddest places. “You cannot hear the birds sing here,” I have been told. I don’t know if this is true, but if the birds have stopped singing here in Falstadskog, then their silence is a witness to a time we cannot forget, a time of sorrow, fear, suffering, pain, despair and hatred so intense that words cannot describe it. We cannot forget, must not forget, the Falstadskog’s silent witness about man’s cruelty.

How could this happen, we wonder. How could a man and a machine like Hitler and his military machine get the power and influence they did get? Where were the ones who could have stopped him? Why did they not do anything? How could the Nazi’s ice-cold ideology get any kind of following here in Norway? We knew better. Then we give ourselves a pat on the shoulder and say: It could not happen again today.

A month ago I sat with Naw Muu Wah in a small village in Burma. She is a Karen woman who had walked for four days to meet me. On her back she had carried her youngest child, a two-year old daughter. Together with her was another woman. Nay Say Ler Wah. She had walked for five days to meet me.

The women had come to tell their stories. “Let the world know,” was their encouragement. The same kind of encouragement I had gotten many times before. Naw Muu Wah’s husband had seen the soldiers come and warned the village. But when he had hid their sewing machine and ran back to get food for the family to eat while they were running, he met the soldiers. “They shot him right there, in front of our house.”

“Do you know why they do this,” I asked. The answer was tragic and startling. “My whole life they have persecuted us. They have done a lot of evil to my family. They have killed my husband, my brother, my cousin, my brother in law and my father. I don’t know why they do this to us. We don’t know what they want from us. The Burma Army never tell us anything and never explain anything.”

“Do you know what I feel like? Like I am a bird that is not allowed to fly.”

The other woman. Naw Sey Ler Wah, had a similar story. Her husband was shot while her village fled. He was going to warn the surrounding villages, and was delayed. That became his death. “We have not eaten anything bur rice and salt for a year now,” she said. She has five children to care for. “My husband used to hunt so we would get fish and meat occasionally, but we don’t anymore.”

The stories from Burma are as tragic as the stories from WWII. The victims just as innocent.

How could it have happened, people may be asking 70 years from now. How could innocent people be killed this way and the world not do anything?

It’s easy to think about world history’s tragic stories and tell ourselves that we would have never taken part in such cruelty, such injustice, such dishonesty.  It is easy to put the blame on others for what has gone wrong. Then we can take a comfortable seat in the recliner and think that at least the world is no worse with us in it. We are innocent, we are honest, we are well off and we appreciate our privileges. We create no waves, neither good nor bad ones. Slowly, but surely we cover ourselves with a blanket of what I think is our time’s biggest dangers: Indifference.

Elie Wiesel, Nobel’s Peace Prize laureate and a Jew from Romania who spent time in Nazi concentration camps said this: I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference.

Have we come to a place in our prosperous lives that we think we deserve our peace and our freedom? That it in a way belongs to us, without any commitments? If this is our attitude, we have stepped shamefully wrong.

Our well-known poet, Arnulf Overland admonishes us in his most famous poem:

(This is not so articulate in English as in Norwegian. I don’t have the gift of poetry translation)

You cannot sleep! You cannot sleep!

You must not sit so comfortably in your home and say:

How sad, poor them.

You cannot endure well the injustice that does not affect yourself.

We are here today, in the world’s best country and we are the recipients of privileges most of the world only dream of. What do we do with what we have received? What do we do with what the ones who died in Falstadskog and other concentration camps gave their lives for? Do we take it for granted? Do we think that it is our reward and we need not share with anybody?

We have received our lives as a gift, our freedom and our riches. Of course most of us have worked honest hours to earn the money to pay for our benefits, our houses, our vacations. But so has a woman in Calcutta or a man on the streets of Romania.

This is my challenge to the people on Ekne, a community that in many ways comes across as a small paradise, with spectacular nature, a store, a school, a choir, a community where children and youth can feel safe, with organizations and activities to choose from:

Don’t grow dull and indifferent. Don’s sleep! Invite an immigrant home for dinner and hear his story. Engage and learn. Meet refugees from Burma and take them for a hike. Write to our government who so boldly has announced that the situation in Burma now is satisfactory. Get involved!

This is a day to rejoice, to dress up, to celebrate that we are Norwegian. It is a day for hotdogs, ice cream and games. It is a day for music, Norwegian flags, blisters, scabs and stained clothes. But it is also a day to remember. Remember the ones who gave us this freedom, and the ones who are still fighting for theirs.


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