burma 2

Into the Tiger’s Lair

By

Lahpai Zau Bawk had finally drifted to sleep when their footsteps startled him awake. Amidst the eerie shrill of cicadas and rustling leaves of the jungle, he somehow detected the crunch, crunch, crunch of footsteps on the winter grasses of the valley where he and his family were hiding. It was 3 a.m. Embers still smoldered from the previous day’s campfires. Children cried in their sleep. Confused roosters crowed sporadically. About 30 fellow villagers remained asleep. They’d been hiding in the jungle for two days, having fled their homes in Burma’s northern Kachin state to evade approaching firefights between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The villagers had not moved far. Zau Bawk’s wife delivered their newborn son only 18 days before. His mother was feeble and his son, 4, was not yet capable of long treks. The other families shared similar circumstances. They chose to settle in this remote valley filled with large boulders as cover, believing they could return to their village in a few days when the fighting subsided or migrated elsewhere.

Zau Bawk rose to investigate the sounds emanating from the mountainside. Crunch, crunch, crunch… He carried a walking stick to wade through the dense tropical evergreens that saturate the region’s jungle. A short hike away, he spotted a cluster of Burmese soldiers on the mountainside above. He could make out only four or five. He feared there were more.

“Stop! Don’t run!” one of them commanded. Zau Bawk had been discovered.

A prisoner exchange gone-wrong shattered a fragile 17-year ceasefire between the Burmese military and KIA, reigniting the capricious civil war that began with a military coup in 1962. This batch of fighting erupted in June 2011, some six months before Zau Bawk fled his home. As the war dragged onward, Burmese troops attacked and pillaged Kachin villages and fired on civilians indiscriminately. They tortured boys and conscripted them into the military as porters. They raped women and girls. They forced over 75,000 civilians to flee their homes. Both sides planted antipersonnel mines throughout the rugged, mountainous countryside, many of which civilians discovered during a rush of blood and thunder.

Zau Bawk stood motionless for a brief moment, facing the soldiers on the mountainside, then without warning the thunderous RAT! TAT! TAT! of machine gun fire rained down into the valley. His walking stick exploded where a bullet struck just below his hand. He dove to the ground and screamed to the other villagers, “Run!”

Like deer evading the furtive attack of a tiger, the villagers scattered in every direction to avoid the monsoon of gunfire, dodging in and out of boulders then up into the cloak of thick vegetation. Children did not scream. They dutifully trailed their parents and siblings. They had been blessed with the longest peace known to Kachins in half a century, but still they knew the stories. They learned of these men by the dancing light of campfires and at the dinner table after their fathers said grace. They didn’t know when, but they knew the Burmese soldiers would come for them one day, with their machetes and big shiny guns and their teeth as sharp as a jungle cat’s. The time had come, so silently they ran.

Zau Bawk could think only of his family and darted through the valley. He found them circled together, his mother lying on the earth, his four-year-old son standing next to her, his wife clutching their newborn.

“Come!” he begged of them. “Run!”

He hoisted his son with one arm and lifted his mother with the other, grasping her arm to hasten her pace. He turned to ensure his wife was close behind but at first saw only the pixilated blur of darkness.

Just then a spotlight flashed from above and illuminated the field where she stood exactly as he left her, the infant boy still pressed against her heartbeat. In her eyes Zau Bawk saw the haunting vision of terror he’ll forever fail to outrun, a nightmarish monster that perennially consumes him. The hysteria made her a prisoner in her own body, paralyzing the instinctual muscular mechanics involved in thrusting one foot in front of the other.

Zau Bawk considered turning back to save them. Doing so would risk his mother and son.

Can I rescue them all from this killing field? Can I live with myself if I don’t try?

He paused to gaze at her, seized by a premonition that it would be his last chance to see her alive, then a Burmese soldier emerged from the darkness behind her and charged straight toward her. Zau Bawk turned and continued running.

His niece scampered nearby along with her four-year-old daughter. A bullet struck her calf and she tumbled to the ground. The daughter scurried back to her. She cried out in fear, then nestled up to her mother’s side, and they waited together for whatever was to come.

Zau Bawk reached the cover of forest with his mother and son and they huddled together in darkness. He embraced his son as they listened to the cries of the boy’s mother and of the others left behind.

“Father, I will always hold on tight to you,” his son whispered to him. “I will never let go of you.”

Soon their cries ceased all at once. Zau Bawk waited for another sign. Minutes passed. Hours. Nothing came. He held out for sunrise.

***

Reaching the town of Laiza, the KIA headquarters, requires a bit of creative planning since travel to the conflict zone is prohibited from Burma’s heartland. From Bangkok, my flight plan looks like something carved up by an amateur Etch A Sketch artist: I skip over Burma (officially known as Myanmar) to Kolkata, India; jump Burma again to Kunming, China; finish with an up-and-down flight to Mangshi, China, where I prepare for the last leg south through Yunnan Province to the illegal border crossing into Kachin state.

My smugglers put me in a truck at the Mangshi airport, where I duck to hide from Chinese security officers. China is not happy I’m here, or, more accurately, would be indignant if they learned why I’m here. China has long profited from an almost tributary-like relationship with resource-rich Burma. From Kachin lands they trade for jade, copper, gold, iron ore, coal, timber and teakwood. Simultaneously they scavenge for business deals in the Burmese heartland, taking advantage of the dearth of competition due to economic sanctions from much of the Western world. To Chinese officials this is a symbiotic relationship that need not be interrupted by a nosy reporter.

Or it could be that, as one Kachin pastor told me over a cup of coffee, “The Chinese think that every American travelling to this region is CIA.”

Only one year ago I was an idealistic high school government teacher lecturing about the Burmese pro-democracy movement. I celebrated with my students the surprising news emerging from what had appeared to be a hopeless miasma of oppression. The country Condoleezza Rice once dubbed an “outpost of tyranny” transformed into the darling of the Western world. They elected a quasi-civilian government and freed Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. New legislation legalized labor unions and peaceful demonstrations, and the government held press conferences with the same journalists they’d once persecuted. The United States and much of Europe responded by lifting long held economic sanctions. As if to punctuate Burma’s newfound respectability on the world stage, President Obama made it one of his first stops after reelection. I’m on a pilgrimage to investigate the truth of Burma’s progress, a journey that often feels like a quest for mankind’s potential for redemption.

As we sputter south towards the Kachin border the road climbs and snakes through hills and mountains whose grasses glow incandescent in the rainy season. Flatland farming turns to steppes. Landslides often reduce the road to one lane and small herds of ribby cattle create bovine obstacle courses.

I am nearly lulled to sleep when our driver, his English limited, receives a phone call and hands over the cell. “The Chinese military has set up a checkpoint ahead,” I am told when I press my ear to the receiver. “You may have to hide in the jungle for a while, or we may hide you in freight to sneak you across. It’s OK. You will be safe. Don’t worry.”

The driver accelerates up the mountain and veers off the main road onto a gravel path. We swerve through the jungle for dozens of miles, past reckless scooters, cascading waterfalls and increasingly dense ferns and oaks swaddled in vines. Upon re-emerging on the highway, we pull over before a sharp dogleg right. The driver smiles, raises his hand as a signal to stay put, and disappears around the bend while pretending to play on his phone. This is not the hiding spot I’d imagined.

He returns and around the corner we go, past the abandoned checkpoint inhabited by Chinese soldiers only a half-hour ago. “It’s OK,” he says. He has friends in China, the kind of intelligence networks one is inclined to nurture over decades of guerilla fighting. I have no way of knowing that this brush with Chinese authorities is mild compared to what lies ahead, when much of Yunnan Province will be swarming with attempts to capture me.

We soon descend the valley where the city of Laiza straddles the border of Kachin state and China. We cross the Je Yang River, marking our entrance into Burma, the only demarcation being the KIA soldier that waves and manually raises the wooden arm blocking the path. The tires skid as paved road turns to dust and children scamper barefoot across the street. China’s impeccable infrastructure has abruptly disintegrated, and with it the comforting pretense of stability and order. All that remains in this resource-rich land is the unavoidable confrontation with abject poverty. The road to our left leads to Je Yang camp, a tarp city of some 7,000 internally displaced peoples.

We take a right to the bustling military hub that is Laiza, where markets are filled with merchants hawking combat boots and forest green and purple longyis (sarongs), the traditional colors for Kachin men. Beer, usually reserved for special occasions in this mostly Christian state, is sold and sipped (or chugged) at all hours of the day. Maps fill former banquet rooms where generals live and strategize in the Laiza Hotel. Soldiers on scooters zoom all over streets with modified rifles dangling at their side. Reams of tape hold their ammo clips in place. Most KIA rifles were smuggled in from northwest Thailand when fighting erupted in Burma in the 1960s.

Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the pervasive mood here is remarkably calm, as if there is no fighting at all, as if the Kachin organism has reached equilibrium precisely because it is wartime. As if war is its most natural state.  The Kachins have long been renowned for their fighting prowess, something British and American soldiers discovered most famously when these hills played host to crucial fighting during World War II. US 101 Rangers – the precursor to the modern day CIA – parachuted in and fought alongside Kachin warriors to defeat what should have been a vastly superior Japanese force. Then, as now, military participation was mandatory not by decree, but by default. If you were an able-bodied Kachin male (and increasingly often, female), you fought. The kill ratio during the fighting was an estimated 50-1 in favor of the Kachins. The British officer Ian Fellows-Gordon dubbed them the “amiable assassins.”

According to one US officer, when a Kachin leader was asked how he was so certain of the kill count, he responded by dumping a bamboo tube of dry ears on the table. “Divide by two,” he said.

***

“Have you ever served in the U.S. Army?” Sergeant Naw Htoi asks. He’s manning the KIA checkpoint north of Laiza, a vital artery of traffic as soldiers fight on the front lines within miles, where civilians come and go with relative frequency. His spiral notebook is plopped onto a three-by-three wooden table beneath a bamboo roof. Soldiers in mismatched fatigues lounge on surrounding benches, resting up until their next patrol.

“No,” I say.

“You should join the army when you go home,” he says. He wears camo pants, sandals and a white tank top. A scorpion tattoo engulfs his forearm and his cheeks are the size of mangoes.

“You should train me here,” I suggest.

“U.S. Army training is better.”

“Well, train me here first and I can go back and compare for myself.”

“Good idea!” he hollers as he pounds the table and cackles.

He pretends to aim a rifle, peer through binoculars, blast a bazooka. A woman wearing a motorcycle helmet steps in his line of fire to sign his notebook and drop off a batch of asparagus for the soldiers. The Sergeant raises the veggies high to show off the support offered by people often too poor to feed themselves.

Sergeant Naw Htoi was born in Myitikina, the largest Kachin city, and spent much of his life studying and working in the Burmese cultural and economic capitols of Mandalay and Rangoon. He returned only after the fighting started. “I’m a city boy, but I’m here in the jungle to protect my people,” he says. He waves us on toward the front lines. “When you return, I want you to report to me everything you see.”

***

Jesus Christ is the first thing I see. The poster dangles to the left of the door on the ten-by-ten foot barracks where some 20 Kachin soldiers sleep each night. To the right of the door is an advertisement for Royal Club Whiskey picturing a brunette in a skimpy gold gown. Cheap Chinese beer bottles are piled below, which I’m told can be used for medicinal or entertainment purposes, and sometimes for both. In war the line is thin.

Soldiers mill around with darkened, exhausted eyes. They haven’t slept in two days. A small skirmish erupted last night when a night patrol accidentally bumped, almost literally, into Burmese troops. “We are trying our best to defend this area but we are very afraid,” says Sergeant Mahkaw Isaac. He points to the soldiers around him and they break out in laughter. He is “half joking and half serious” my translator tells me.

With his baby face and long black beard, Mahkaw Isaac looks like a young Fidel Castro. He anticipates more fighting by the end of the day, possibly within hours. They’ve trapped a large group of Burmese soldiers in a cave on the mountainside above, but they have yet to attack because they’re wary of ambush. “It’s kind of bait,” the translator explains. “You know, like bait to go fishing.”

400 Burmese troops will arrive soon to reinforce the 80 that have been living in the nearby jungle outpost since January. They know this because they have excellent intelligence, and also because Kachin and Burmese forces utilize the same channel on their two-way radios.

Several soldiers wave me over behind the barracks and crack up in laughter as they point out a bit of guerilla ingenuity: two corroded steel pipes propped up by a tri-pod of branches and covered partly with royal blue tarp – artillery, at least through the lens of binoculars 200 yards away. They erected their sculpture after the Burmese positioned a .50 caliber heavy machine gun to fire on their camp. The ploy worked. The next day Burmese soldiers hid their real weapon beneath a pile of rocks, while the dummy weapon still stands.

I embark with a patrol unit of ten soldiers, five in front and five at the rear, to get a look at the Burmese outpost. We start up the mountainside and rifles cock in rapid succession. Click! Click! Click! Click! Click! The lead soldier hums a tune, like something I used to do as a kid when walking home alone after dark.

We follow a winding path of swampy trenches as cicadas and frogs shriek all around. Half a mile up we pause to rest beside the burial mounds of four Burmese soldiers. The shredded fatigues of the dead are scattered randomly across the dirt. The air is so dense amongst the trees that breathing becomes a conscious act. We hustle to the top of the hill where a cluster of ten small huts lines the ridge. Soldiers are sprawled out on cots resting from last night’s engagement.

A radio blares love songs in both Kachin and Burmese. The Burmese tunes are for the ABSDF (All Burma Students Democratic Front) soldiers that aide the KIA in battle. Following a brutal military crackdown of peaceful demonstrations through the streets of Rangoon in 1988, in which civilians were mowed down in droves with machine guns, thousands of student leaders sought refuge in the countryside and banded together to form the ABSDF. Over 20 years later they still migrate the country to fight alongside ethnic groups.

Mahkaw Isaac points across the valley to the adjacent peak 300 yards away. “Find the tree with the large yellow flowers,” he says, and from it springs the fortress of enemies. He offers his binoculars but I can make out the details without – solid bamboo, built by hand with only the jungle’s resources, about 20 feet across and two stories tall.

We are standing at the foot of more graves, only these are marked as KIA soldiers and a larger stash of personal items is piled next to them: knapsacks, jeans, fatigues. One officer walks over and lifts an ammo belt from the pile as if to consider its usefulness for the first time. At our backs is a bamboo barrier spiked like so much medieval weaponry, erected to slow an onslaught of soldiers if they decide to charge. Closer examination is encouraged.

“Are there any mines near there?”

No, it’s safe, they all respond in unison. Not to worry. No mines here. We walk around here all the time, they say.

***

A short time later we’re back at the checkpoint with the chubby cheeked Sergeant Naw Htoi when an excited voice comes over the radio. A flawed bomb self-destructed at the camp we recently visited. No one was injured, this time.

A forest green SUV pulls up with a trio of ABSDF officers who’ve just arrived from northwest Thailand to check on their troops. Kyaw Kyaw, chairman of the northern ABSDF who stands no more than 5-foot-two, steps out and offers a fierce salute to Sergeant Naw Htoi. Two others follow. One is a cannonball of a man, the only soldier I’ve seen that needs suspenders to hoist his trousers. The other is uncommonly tall, over 6 feet, and he quietly slinks into the seat next to me.

Naw Htoi stares at the tall one to my left. “You look very familiar,” he says. “Do I know you?”

The secretary informs him that we’re in the presence of Maung Maung Khin, one of the original ABSDF soldiers who also played the sinister Burmese major in Sylvester Stallone’s 2008 Rambo installment. Cacophonous laughter ensues. In the film, he orders the slaughter of hundreds of Karen civilians, the ethnic group living on the border of Thailand and Burma. In real life, Maung Maung witnessed these mass murders long before Hollywood came along and recruited him to act it out from the other side.

Sergeant Naw Htoi and the other soldiers tease him with the Burmese military slogan: “If the military is strong then the nation will be strong.” True to his character in film, Maung Maung remains stone-faced and takes a drag from his cigarette.

“That movie is very good,” Sergeant Naw Htoi says. “The way that Rambo attacks the enemy is amazing.”

The cannonball asks Naw Htoi about the recent fighting. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tonight,” Naw Htoi tells him. “The Burmese soldiers have been very quiet.”

“Maybe we should attack them!” the cannonball jokes. “They might be using tricks but we don’t want to wait!”

Naw Htoi warns him of the coming reinforcements. “If they attack us I will run!” he says, pausing like a veteran comedian. “I just don’t want to have to climb that hill!”

More laughter, with the exception of Rambo and Chairman Kyaw Kyaw. Rambo sticks to his deadpan stare. The chairman fetches a pair of black-rimmed, sequined hipster glasses to check a text message, then snuffs out his cigarette with his bare thumb.

Before leaving, I ask Sergeant Naw Htoi about the future, about the prospects in Kachinland for his two children living back in Myitikina. Does he hope for peace? It’s a question that vexes nearly everyone here.

Earlier in the week, another KIA officer told me that China provoked this war to ensure the completion of a transnational oil and gas pipeline that would deliver new wealth to large swaths of China’s landlocked southwest. “Whenever they [Burmese government] get contracts with the Chinese, all departments benefit from corruption,” Lt. Col. Labang Grawng told me. “The administrative system in this country is set up only to benefit the people in power.”

Khon Ja L, an NGO activist working in Rangoon, agreed. “This conflict is not only about ethnicity. This is a war of resources,” she said. “Everything is about Chinese investment.”

The winds may be shifting, however. As Western businesses flood the newly opened Burmese market with blank checks, officials may be less likely to ravage the country to secure Chinese deals. Still, it’s clear that Burmese leaders are keen on shoring up their riches one way or the other, whether by seducing Western investment with democratic legislation or by launching a military assault to guarantee Chinese contracts. But might there be hope?

Naw Htoi, the class clown manning the checkpoint, ponders the question and turns somber for the first time. “The people here have been fighting since before I was born,” he says. “Even after I die, the next generation will carry on.”

***

One afternoon I trek to a KIA outpost in a deluge that turns the path to mud so thick it feels like nearly solidified cement. I’m led by a soldier and his dog, a German Shepherd trained to sniff out the blood of Burmese soldiers. We’re lugging essentials for the night we plan to spend at the barracks, all purchased at the local Laiza market: hot pink and baby blue mosquito nets, lumpy cream-colored pillows, bottles of spring water and oversized buckets of pork-flavored dried noodles.

The torrential rain limits visibility, the kind of weather described by a soldier I’d met earlier in the week at the Laiza military hospital. It was raining then, too, steadily pelting the blue-tin roof of the bleak concrete structure. Lahtaw Zau Hpan, 35, sat up in bed and motioned with his arm in a sling to describe the day a bullet lodged in his forearm.

It was his turn to take sentry in the jungle as other troops rested in a nearby bunker. Unable to see through the downpour, he estimated that 15 Burmese soldiers were only ten meters away when he heard them talking. He shot first, and the Burmese soldiers returned fire blindly before retreating. One of the bullets entered above Zau Hpan’s right elbow and stopped short of his wrist. He continued fighting for the next hour, until he could no longer lift his weapon.

Laughter erupted behind us where 10 other casualties gathered around a 12-inch Panasonic to catch an episode of Mr. Bean, its physical British humor enough to overcome any language occlusions. Beyond them, Maru La Doi grimaced and clenched the legs of a gurney as a surgeon used tweezers to hunt for tiny bits of shrapnel buried in his hamstrings and calves. The doctor told him he was lucky to keep his limbs after stepping on a landmine. I foolishly asked what it felt like when the explosives peppered the backs of his legs.

“It hurt,” he said.

I pushed for further detail. How did it compare to other types of pain? Like sticking your leg in a beehive? Scorpions?

“It just hurt,” he said, and it struck me that poetry is difficult to conjure when you’re ass-deep in shrapnel.

As we strike out toward the outpost I trail closely behind our leader, struggling to replicate his prints in the mud before they disappear in a rain-filled puddle. The dog stealthily paces across the trail. My tunnel vision leaves me oblivious for miles until the dog suddenly erupts and attacks to my right, vanishing into the great wall of vegetation as if inhaled by a nebulous green monster. I glance ahead and behind for support from my companions, but no one is in sight. Certain that I’ve stumbled into an ambush, I consider diving over the steep mountainside and grasping for trees to slow my tumble – an idea born from watching too many bad action movies – when the lead soldier appears, rifle cocked, and charges into the bush. Seconds later he emerges and continues onward as if nothing happened.

Some five miles later we arrive at the outpost, a smattering of huts perched three feet above ground like beach houses wary of tropical storms. A dozen amiable assassins wearing black rain boots linger outside in anticipation of our arrival, looking more like boy scouts waiting for the school bus than the last line of defense for the military headquarters in Laiza.

The soldiers’ cultural obligation to care for guests trumps many of their duties otherwise – scouting surrounding areas, gathering intelligence, offering reinforcements for the battle raging in the valley below. They boil a kettle of chicken broth over luminous coals, handling the scorching pot with their bare hands, and serve dinner with herbal tea. They offer folk remedies for my upset stomach, roots and herbs ground into a fine saffron-colored powder that tastes surprisingly sweet.

One of the soldiers, Naw Ja, is watching Korean flicks on his laptop in his hut later that night when he pats his bed and offers a bit of his limited English. “Sit down, please,” he says.

Cigarette smoke wafts from the ash-filled, rusty sardine can on his desk. His combat helmet hangs from the ceiling, a lone light bulb flickers as it dangles above the desk by its cord. He pauses the film playing on his laptop and pulls out a picture of a beautiful Kachin girl snuggling a snow-white teddy bear, her silken hair dark as the jungle night. “My love,” he says.

He plans to marry her next year. Hopes to marry her next year, because first the war must end. Naw Ja joined the KIA ten years ago, when he was 16, though he could still pass for a teenager. He wears his hair spiked and his solid green fatigues a few sizes too big.

He turns back to his laptop and the video he opens is actual footage of displaced Kachins fleeing Burmese troops – panicked parents carrying young children swaddled in blankets as KIA soldiers shepherd them to safety. Similar videos are broadcast in shops and restaurants all over Laiza, a pervasive form of propaganda that draws the same riveted response as the midday Korean soaps. Scenes of the displaced are mixed with dramatized fighting action, while superimposed lyrics for patriotic Kachin songs scroll across the bottom of the screen.

As I lie down to sleep the rains continue, seeping through the tarp-covered bamboo roof of my hut and steadily saturating my sleeping bag. The storm’s violence seems to permeate my subconscious. I think of the young boys I met earlier in the week at the Je Yang displacement camp who carried umbrella sticks and detailed rifles carved from wood scraps. They scurried across an open field, kicking up dust as their sandals scraped the ground, securing high ground amidst a cluster of boulders. From there they fired their weapons over a rice field. Boom! Boom! Boom! they screamed as they shook their portions of wood like convulsing automatic rifles. Suddenly a surprise attack sprang from behind them – boys with far inferior weapons – and a chase ensued across the rice field, through towering grasses, past a pigpen, and finally upriver through a stream. The victorious boys returned to their original post, raised their weapons high and shouted in exultation. Yea! Yea! Yea! Woo! Yea!

Will their fathers ever achieve the same victory? Will they one day become victorious? Their children?

On another night our translator introduced us to a Kachin-style karaoke bar – a tilting shack behind a restaurant that waitresses unlocked for our exclusive use. In a small room filled with red floral wallpaper and cherry faux-leather couches, a KIA officer belted out Burmese pop songs with genuine zeal. Mostly, however, we watched KIA footage. A disco ball pulsated white light against the walls as real soldiers fired real guns on screen. After one battle scene the camera zoomed onto a dead Burmese soldier lying facedown in a stream. Dried blood, eggplant in color, filled the bullet wound in the back of his head, his body stiff with rigor mortis.

This continued for hours, the battles and blood and civilians in flight – all real footage – until the translator left to use the restroom. As if needing to exit the environment to truly comprehend it, he carefully examined the room when he returned. “It’s really weird, isn’t it?” he said. “The disco ball and all the violence…”

The film plays on a continuous loop in my mind’s eye as I lie in my hut. The deluge is relentless. I struggle to sleep to an eerie lullaby that fills me with dread: rain pattering against the leaky tarp, Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” warbling out of a soldier’s boom box, mortar fire screeching and roaring throughout the valley. When I was young I would often wake at night from nightmares so haunting I feared closing my eyes again. It feels something like that now, only I have yet to pass into the land of dreams. The chimera I fear is a war that never ends.

***

As dawn’s light began to peek over the mountainside where Zau Bawk huddled with his son and mother, he remained uncertain of the fate of his wife and newborn son. His body still pulsed with adrenaline from fleeing the Burmese troops. Throughout the night there had been no signs of life, no cries for help. His son still gripped him but did not ask questions. Sunrise illuminated little through the thickness of jungle.

Around 9 a.m. he heard the cries of a young girl in the valley. It was unclear at first and Zau Bawk hesitated to abandon his cover, but he recognized the pleading voice as the young daughter of his niece, who had returned to her wounded mother’s side as the soldiers pounced on the villagers. Zau Bawk found her alone, sobbing, pointing in the direction Burmese soldiers had marched with her mother in tow. The troops had bandaged the gunshot wound on her mother’s calf and loaded her down with supplies. Working as a porter for the Burmese Army is often a slow death. Soldiers use civilians until they are no longer capable, then leave them to starve in the jungle or implant the fatal bullet themselves. The girl’s mother was never heard from again.

Zau Bawk discovered his wife’s body in a grassy smear of cranberry-colored blood; the recent childbirth rendered her useless to the soldiers. Death by blade is a very personal denouement, more so than use of guns or explosives, both of which were at her murderer’s disposal. The steel point entered just below her right armpit, crashing through a fortress of ribs and continuing on through her right lung, then her heart, possibly severing the aorta and vena cava, then the left lung. The weapon was plunged with such force that it crashed through the opposing panel of ribs, exited her flesh just below her left armpit and punctured her left bicep.

There exist a few plausible explanations for the singular fashion in which the weapon travelled through her body. All involve desperation. She may have struggled for survival and turned awkwardly during a scuffle. She may have submitted to falling at their feet and pleading. But there is also the possibility that one stabbed her just as she reached out for her infant son that another had snatched from her arms. This would explain the condition of his wife’s lifeless body, but what about his son? What had they done with his baby boy?

By this time a small party of villagers had joined Zau Bawk, and one shouted that the baby was here, hidden amidst a circle of large rocks. For the first 18 days of the boy’s life his mother held him; on the nineteenth day he was tossed aside, a useless rag. His skin was thoroughly blue and his chest unmoving. The villagers could muster little hope for his survival, but Zau Bawk rubbed him with blankets to stimulate warmth and circulation. He knew he must find help soon. He headed for China.

 ***

Just before noon on a warm August day, I await a caravan of coach buses carrying weary passengers to Lana Jup Za, a Kachin border town replete with the dilapidated ruins of a Chinese playground. Abandoned Chinese casino hotels dominate the skyline at three stories tall. The passengers, however, are not here to party. Elderly women unaccustomed to the buses’ motion wipe vomit from their mouths as they step off the buses and onto Kachin lands for the first time in many months. Hundreds arrive at first, thousands eventually, mostly women and children.

They come from China, where they lived in makeshift refugee camps after fleeing across the border in fear. They found misery there, a lack of food, medicine, education, the basic essentials to construct a dignified livelihood; but they also found some comfort. They found comfort in knowing they were safe from Burmese soldiers, and found strength in maintaining some level of personal autonomy. They could at least care for themselves, which is often impossible in displacement camps, where access to resources is meager at best.

But government workers in Yunnan Province grew tired of their presence, and after months of efforts forced them back across the border. Chinese officials still deny compelling their return, an egregious violation of international law, despite accusations from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. Scores of Kachin refugees attest that they were bullied even upon first arriving in China, when officials visited daily to destroy any shelter they constructed.

The newly arrived refugees carry their few possessions in worn rice sacks. Most absconded from their villages so quickly they carried little but their children. As they file into their new homes – barren concrete rooms in the abandoned hotels – gentle cries and unsuppressed wails ricochet throughout the halls. One woman sobs as she describes why there is no one to help her move in – she’s all that’s left of her family.

Many come from areas so remote they stop to shake my hand when passing, the first white person they’ve ever seen. Inside one room a man nearly nine decades in age, who fought alongside Americans during World War II, squats in his sandals and inspects the room as if meditating. He’s lived his entire life in huts with dirt floors, and although these conditions are nearly extravagant compared to other camps, he’s dubious of his surroundings. “It feels strange here,” he says. “We’ve never lived in a house like this. We never imagined we would be forced to live this life, moving from place to place.”

Despite their limited belongings, the new arrivals labor until sunset to arrange their new homes. In the midst of the antlike hum of activity, Seng Li, a director of the KIO relief committee in charge of displaced peoples, approaches me. Seng Li previously barred journalists from travelling to this town due to risks involved in the Chinese border crossing, but he endorsed my travel because he desired a witness. “Our people have been IDPs [internally displaced peoples] for 52 years,” he says, “so days like today are very emotional for us.”

The following days bring little relief to refugees as they adapt to their new homes, and my attempts at impassivity are trounced. My anger swells into a rage: towards Chinese officials for inflicting such hardship, towards the Burmese government for the pain caused by decades of oppression and violence, towards a world in which such generous and kind people could suffer so greatly. I steal away routinely to compose myself before returning to hear more stories. Then Seng Li delivers sobering news.

“The Chinese know you are here,” he sits down to tell me. “They called us last night and demanded to know why you are here.” The man my translator calls “the big guy,” known for his laid back manner, shuffles uncomfortably in his seat. “I do not know what will happen. I cannot guarantee your safety.” He pauses to reconsider. “But do not worry. I will take responsibility for you.”

We decide to depart late at night after Chinese checkpoints are abandoned, but the plan is foiled when they remain posted much later than normal. The next day we endeavor three more times with no luck. Checkpoints are extra tight, it seems, and KIO officials confirm that security in Yunnan Province is swarming specifically to catch me. Another morning departure is cancelled, but Seng Li resolves that we will leave on this day regardless of security constraints. While waiting, I am granted one final interview.

In crises such as the Kachin conflict, it is common for victims to latch onto a specific story that seems to encapsulate the totality of tragedy suffered by all. Passed from person to person, family to family, village to village and city to city, the story of an individual becomes that of the communal, harboring the hopes and horrors of an entire people.

The man in front of me wears donated clothing – black wind pants and a white T-shirt that says, “Your lips look so lonely… Would they like to meet mine?” Like others in this camp, he was forced from China after seeking refuge there. He hesitates to begin, shifting in his chair and apologizing for sweating. After a deep breath, he commences telling his story slowly, the story that has been repeated thousands of times in various manifestations by people he will never meet, across the country and, maybe someday, around the world.

“When we were in the jungle, I heard someone walking…” Zau Bawk begins, and he proceeds to tell the story of the night he ran from Burmese soldiers and warned others to do the same, of the last time he saw his wife alive, of the cries he helplessly suffered through while huddled in the jungle at night, of his infant son that somehow survived against all odds.

Zau Bawk rushed the baby to the Chinese border, where an NGO run by local women took him in and cared for him around the clock. Almost one year old, the baby is now healthy, as is Zau Bawk’s elder son, who is old enough to attend the camp’s primary school. Zau Bawk remains haunted by that night. He smells of rice whiskey consumed this morning, an attempt to elude those apparitions, yet he holds firm to a few sacred dreams: education for his children, peace for his people, a proper burial for his wife. When the war ends, he plans to return to her perfunctory grave and bid adieu with the honor she deserves.

As I offer meager thanks for Zau Bawk’s courage, I am informed of our impending departure. I climb into a bedraggled SUV and soon we pass a century back in time. Our driver takes us through jungle back roads that are otherwise impassable during the rainy season, through tiny villages of thatched roof huts in which Kachins have lived much the same for generations. Children stop mid-conversation at the sight of our vehicle and pursue us down the road. We pause in a village famous for its pineapples and fill the back of the car for the price of a few pennies. Hours later, and minutes from the Chinese border, we are welcomed for a traditional Kachin dinner at the home of the driver’s sister. We sip glasses of green tea while the driver pulls out a three-foot bong and engulfs two packs of cigarettes. Unsure of our purpose here, my translator finally whispers that we’re waiting out the security checkpoint at a distance close enough to dash across when an opening emerges.

When dinner is served, our host breaks out fancy stemware to serve her finest selection, Budweiser. We dine for hours on soups, rice, beef curries and boiled eggs levitating in gelatin. In the midst of it all, the driver receives a phone call and everyone raises their glasses at once.

“The checkpoint is clear!” my translator tells me. “You must drink your entire glass for good luck!”

Glasses are refilled after swigging. “For safety!” Bottoms up again.

“For the future of Kachin state!” we toast on the final round. “For independence!”

We rush to the car, dizzy from bubbly barley, and speed off. As we approach the border, a Kachin soldier on motorcycle passes us and leads the way. He keeps 100 yards ahead, distance enough to signal for our turnaround if something goes awry. We continue like this for what felt like hours but was probably 30 minutes. We navigate dusty back roads that remind me of many I’ve driven back home in Texas, only here the tall, lean sprouts shooting from the soil are sugarcane rather than corn. My fear dissipates, and I’m overcome by a repose that soon morphs into sorrow. I realize that my Kachin friends have surrounded and carried me to the one thing they seek most but still eludes them. Freedom.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


J.K. Nickell writes for TIME, the Christian Science Monitor and Dallas Morning News. Born in Dallas, he currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa with his wife, where he is studying human rights law. More from this author →