Grenades. Parental loss. Conscription. Young brothers tell a harrowing tale of conflict - and escape.
By Anna Sussman | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
MAE SOT, THAILAND -- In a jungle encampment, 9-year-old Saw and his 12-year-old brother, Paw, were trained to kill. They learned to plant land mines, reload rifles, and carefully fill homemade grenades. The brothers were forced to fight alongside as many as 70,000 other children in Burma, the Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar, which is thought to have one of the largest number of child soldiers in the world.
Last September, Saw and Paw managed to escape through the jungle to a temporary orphanage on the Thai side of the border. They live with hundreds of other children, orphans of the 50-plus years of civil war between the Burmese military government and an ethnic tribe of 5 million people called the Karen.
In the noisy orphanage, surrounded by rambling slums, children elbow around low wooden tables for lunch. Saw and Paw scoop handfuls of rice and cabbage into their mouths. Rarely smiling, they keep their heads low and move carefully among the throngs of kids scrambling to wash plates under a running tap.
The orphanage sits on the outskirts of the Thai border city Mae Sot. It is meant to house 80 children, but almost 300 live here, and more arrive at its rusted roadside gate each day.
Origins of the guerrilla war
The civil war in eastern Burma began in 1948 as a Karen war of independence. In 1988, after a violent pro-democracy uprising, thousands of students from across Burma joined the renowned Karen fighters in the hopes of taking down the Burmese regime. Now the Karen say they are fighting for "freedom and democracy," not just for their people, but for the whole of Burma.
But the struggle has devolved into a war of self-preservation for the Karen, fought guerrilla-style in the thick jungles. Every month reports trickle out of Burmese troops descending on tribal Karen villages. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Burmese soldiers burn down schools and churches, publicly rape women, and force men into wooden stocks or shoot them on sight. For years, children from the region have been fleeing east toward the relative safety of Thailand.
'They caught us'
On the uneven wooden steps of the orphanage, Saw and Paw tell their story in Karen, interpreted by Kwa Lwinn, a teacher who fled from the Burmese army 10 years ago, when he was 14.
"We lived with our family - mother, father, and baby sister - in our village," Saw says. He is less guarded then his older brother and does most of the talking. "The soldiers came and started to attack. They burned our school, our rice barn, our church, and our house. Our baby sister died when they threw a mortar into our house." The homemade grenades of the Burmese army can destroy a bamboo hut like a sledge hammer on a teacup, leaving bits of bamboo embedded in the arms and legs of many orphans here. "The army shot at girls and women; we tried to run away, but they caught us."
As the boys talk, other children begin to crowd around, nodding and fidgeting.
Saw, Paw, and four other captured boys were led in chains to a Burmese army base camp. As they filed through the jungle in silence, they say two boys had to walk in front - as if they were human minesweepers. "At night we would sleep on the rocks.... There was always a soldier with a gun pointed at us," Saw says.
Burmese soldiers made them sing propaganda songs, taught them to use rifles, and forced them to assist on daily raids of Karen villages.
Cease-fires and sanctions
The civil war in eastern Burma is one of the longest running in the world. In colonial times, British rulers favored the Karen minority. Some British officers are said to have promised the Karen an independent state in exchange for their help in fighting the Japanese in World War II, historians say.
But in 1948, the British handed over power to the Burmans - longtime enemies of the Karen. Now, local humanitarian relief organizations say that every year between 3,000 and 10,000 Karen are killed in the fighting. The Karen do fight back, but their ragtag army of 7,000 is grossly underequipped compared with Burma's army, 350,000 strong.
Last year, the Karen National Union made a verbal cease-fire agreement with Burma's army. But human rights groups based in Mae Sot report that there have been more than 200 attacks on Karen villages in the past year.
Burma's army has battled other rebel groups as well, eventually reaching official cease-fire agreements with many of them. The government insists that the country must be united to prosper.
But the United States and many European nations have imposed strict sanctions on the Burmese regime and downgraded diplomatic relations. In December the British House of Lords confirmed that two humanitarian teams found evidence of genocide against the Karen.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky describes the war as the "gratuitous use of military force against ethnic minorities." In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator McConnell said "the evidence is overwhelming that the junta exploits children as young as 11 years old in pursuit of greater coercive military power."
The jungle's underground railroad
"We wanted to run away, but other children who were caught running were killed," Saw continues. Early one morning, with no explanation, the soldiers released Saw and Paw on the roadside. They didn't know how to find their family, who had gone into hiding in the jungle - as have about 700,000 other Karen. But via an improvised network of Karen women, akin to an underground railroad, the boys were escorted to the Thai border and given directions to the orphanage.
"We get children all the time. Morning, afternoon, evening - they come by foot, by boat. Word of this orphanage is beginning to travel in the Karen area," says headmistress Paw-Ray. The orphanage is called Ksaw Thoo Lei (pronounced Shaw-Too-Lay), the Karen name for the land they believe is rightfully theirs inside Burma. It means "land without evil."
Fifteen-year-old Mae's story is typical: "My mother stepped on a land mine. She died," she says. "The Burmese army burned down our fields. Our father was too poor to care for the children."
Mae trekked for four days to Thailand last spring, the dry season when most of the children arrive here. Along the way, she met other children - some orphaned, some injured by land mines. At the border, they hid for two days and built a boat to cross the river. "We want to be someone whose life has meaning," Mae says.
In the kindergarten room, 3- and 4-year-olds recite Karen poetry. Later, the toddlers wash their clothes at a spigot behind their bamboo dorm.
After lunch, an adolescent girl missing an eye sweeps out the kitchen. Younger children pile sacks of rice against a wall. Teenagers on crutches play soccer on a rutted, dusty field. These children say they fled their villages with only the clothes they wore and a day's worth of rice, often carrying siblings on their backs.
Karen troops trek through the eastern mountains equipped with grenades and rusted rifles, tracking down Burmese soldiers. The odds are long, but the Karen fighters are more familiar with harsh jungle landscape, more adept at primitive living, and fiercely protective of their homeland. Karen patriotism is celebrated in song and lore, studied in Karen schools, and reiterated each time a mother or teacher is killed by the Burmese army.
Human rights groups say that Burma's army has been the worst offender in terms of forcing children to become soldiers. But they have faulted some opposition groups for this as well. Some estimates put the number of child soldiers in opposition groups at about 7,000, compared with an estimate of 70,000 in the national army, according to a report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
The armed wing of the Karen National Union has set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment, but it has been known to accept younger volunteers. In 2002, Human Rights Watch estimated that this group had up to 500 child soldiers.
For now, the children at the orphanage are safe, but their future is uncertain. They are not allowed to take jobs in Thailand. "They will live their life as non- citizens, essentially nonpersons," says Elizabeth Kirton, head of the United Nations office in Mae Sot.
Many children who cross the border are trafficked into prostitution or are forced to turn wages over to "agents" who place them in shadowy jobs.
"I crossed into Thailand at 16," says 21-year-old Lylia. "An agent promised to get me a job but sold me to a restaurant in southern Thailand." Lylia says she has been deported to Burma six times and has endured rape and torture by Burmese soldiers across the border. Her children are hiding in Thailand, and she's avoided going to see them because she's afraid they'll be caught.
Dreaming of victory
In the evening at Ksaw Thoo Lei, the children gather their clothes from the clothesline and fold them under their blankets. Mr. Kwa plays a guitar and young boys scramble to their places on the floor. As brothers Saw and Paw bed down, Kwa asks them what they will dream about. "I dream of being a soldier for the Karen army," Paw says. "I want to be a general for the Karen," echoes Saw.