Due to the extremely sensitive nature of this story I have changed all of the names of people and places, to protect the innocent. When the war is over, I would be happy to release the real names. I hope that day comes soon.
Soldiers and innocent civilians are killed directly in a war, but the human cost of the war in Burma extends to the millions of tribal people whose lives were completely destroyed when they fled across the border. How many became prostitutes? How many became day laborers, struggling to earn $5 for 14 hours of backbreaking work? How many were sold into slavery? How many became drug addicts? How many became alcoholics? How many were sucked into crime? How many just disappeared, another undocumented death that makes those who know breath a sigh of relief. How many were arrested? How many died in front of hospitals that refused to treat them?
I witnessed tragedy firsthand this week. This one will be reported, because foreigners were present to do the documentation, but worse scenes are played out daily, with no one there to tell the tale.
On a narrow mountain pass, near the Burmese border, a Lisu tribesman lay dying in a puddle of his own vomit and blood. Soldiers in starched fatigues step over him, careful not to dirty their American-made jump boots, as they ask about the two foreigners and what we were doing in the border region. My friend is loosing blood quickly. A Shan soldier, Lieng, is about to be captured. My head is pounding and I can barely stand. I want nothing more than to just lie down and sleep for a thousand hours, but I seem to be the only one who knows anything about battlefield first aid.
Two Shan soldiers had been taking another journalist and me into the war zone. When we reached an army check point, the Shan explained to us that, to avoid arousing suspicion, the two foreigners would have to go through on a single motorcycle. The Shan would follow a half hour later, on one motorcycle. After that, the two Shan would continue to act as our drivers. The problem was, neither of us journalists knew how to ride a motorcycle off-road. Literally thirty seconds after we got on the bike, we were hit, head-on, by a Lisu man who had been drinking.
I check the Lisu man’s airway, and make sure he isn’t choking on his own vomit. I crawl over to my friend, Unten, a photo journalist and artist from the United States who has come to do a sculpture project about the Shan people and how they suffer under the Burmese SPDC military forces. His hand is shattered and he is already worried he will never be able to work again. I am more worried about the blood pouring from his wound. He says he feels faint. I feel faint. I ask a soldier if he has a pressure bandage, but he only has an M-16. He can kill, but he has no idea how to save a life. What’s more, he doesn’t know that it is normal for American soldier to be trained to do both.
I wasn’t sure which system made less sense, theirs or ours.
A group of desperately poor Lisu, probably the man’s family, gather around the periphery of the action. Their colorful tribal dress is covered in mud, reminding me that they haven’t just put on a costume. This is how they dress when they work the rice paddies. But today, they aren’t working the rice paddies. Instead, they have come to watch in silence as their relative slips closer and closer to death.
They do nothing. They say nothing. They are undocumented tribal people, refugees from the war in Burma, living at the whim and generosity of a country who hates them.
The soldiers continue to question Lieng, our Shan soldier. He is my friend, and I have worked with him during all of my trips into Shanland. I forgot that he was undocumented and subject to arrest. I forgot about the Lisu man. In fact, I forgot everything, except that I needed to try and stop the bleeding on Unten’s arm.
Unable to find anything better, I grabbed a mass of newspaper and wrapped the injury. It wasn’t even a pressure dressing. I was too out of it for that. I felt like I was drunk or more accurately, like I do when I have been given a standing eight count in boxing. I felt fuzzy and slow. I knew that I knew things, but my brain refused to work. I forced that sluggish organ to think, but all I could manage to do was wrap the wound with filthy newspapers. The other Shan soldier hands me a bungee cord, which I use to hold the newspaper in place. I tell Unten to elevate the wound, holding his arm across his chest.
“I’m fine. I can keep going up the mountain.” Unten tells me.
No way! He needs to get to a hospital.
Within minutes, he tells me he is starting to feel like passing out. I envy him. The two Shan soldiers are in civilian clothes. The Army has only singled out Lieng because they thought he knew us and would know what we were doing there. Now, they are checking him for documents, and of course, he has none. The other Shan soldier has escaped detection. He needs to go, quickly, before someone realizes he is not Lisu. I could set Unten onto the back of the motorcycle, and have the Shan soldier drive him to the hospital, nearly 40 km away. But there is a high probability he will pass out, and wind up splattered all over the road. If he stays where he is, resting at the side of the road, he will continue loosing blood and could slip into shock. At the moment there were only two soldiers in uniform, investigating. They were probably illiterate farm boys, or lads on their national service. Soon, their superiors would come. And they would be men with experience on the border war. They would be instantly suspicious, and hard to fool.
The Shan soldier implores once again, telling me has to go, instantly. We put Unten on the bike with him and they speed, down the trail, toward town. I pray that I won’t see Unten slip off and die because of the choice I made.
Minutes later, a pickup truck arrives, overloaded with tribal people heading to the city to see if they can find day labor for $1.50 per day. In the tribal area, their cash income tends to be less than $15 per month. They make room for me, and I tell the driver to take me to the hospital. At no point did anyone consider putting taking the Lisu man with us. I am as guilty as the rest. The tribal people are invisible to the average person.
Since I began the “In Shanland” video project, documenting the war in Shan State, people have been writing me from all over the world asking about the Burma videos and stories. The rebels need as much press as they can get, so I have been open to taking other journalists across the border, to help raise international awareness of a nearly forgotten conflict. Familiarity with the situation has led me to be a bit lax on matters of security, and I sometimes forget that war zones are dangerous places.
My most recent attempt to cross over and report on the war ended in tragedy, reminding me how desperate the situation really is. Once again, the message came home to me because I was touched personally, as one of my friends was severely wounded, and another was captured.
At the hospital, it was determined that Unten had shattered his hand, and would need surgery to implant pins, which would hold the fragments together until they mended. The Lisu man finally arrived in the hospital and was still vomiting, while doctors tried to force a tube down his throat to keep his airway open.
The Shan soldier who delivered Unten slipped away in the crowd when the police arrived.
“Who was driving the motorcycle?” The policeman asked.
When I told him Unten had been driving, he lost interest in me. He didn’t take a statement from me or record my name or information. The first question he posed Unten was, “Were you going to Shan State Army headquarters, in Loi Tailang?”
“No, we were going to look at the waterfalls.” Said Unten, repeating the story we had rehearsed.
The interview lasted less than ten minutes. Unten had given his passport to the doctor, so was unable to give the number to the police officer.
“I must go investigate the accident scene.” Announced the policeman, with gravity. He got back in his car and drove to Burma. This was the last we saw of him.
The Lisu man was loaded into an ambulance at 4:00 PM when it was announced that he was in critical condition and needed to be taken to the big hospital in the city, nearly 200 km away. Unten and I would be riding in the same ambulance, as Unten would need emergency surgery on his hand. He was in extreme pain, but the doctors couldn’t give him any drugs because of his upcoming operation. We wouldn’t arrive at the next hospital until ten o’clock that night. Like a real trooper, Unten endured excruciating pain in silence, frequently asking after the health of the Lisu man.
The Lisu continued fighting for his life as the inept hospital staff prepped him for his long journey to town. At 5:30 the doors of the ambulance finally closed, and we were about to begin our trip. The ambulance rolled about ten feet when suddenly the Lisu family in the back decided that they needed to get out. The milled about the parking lot, babbling in their language for another thirty minutes before getting back in and allowing us to take the man to a better hospital. It was 6:00 PM, two hours since he had been loaded into the ambulance, three hours since the accident.
En route, we had to stop several times, so the nurse could stabilize the patient. She repeatedly vacuumed out his throat, sucking up large quantities of pink blood, which collected in a glass beaker.
“Do you think they have any idea what they are doing?” asked Unten.
“I don’t see why they would.” I answered.
A few minutes outside the city, the nurse apologized to me.
“I am so sorry. We will have to take the critical man to the state hospital first. After that the ambulance will take your friend to the big, private hospital. Sorry for the delay.”
She was genuinely sorry that the foreigners had been inconvenienced by the death of a tribal person. This single event illustrated the callousness which added to the misery of people escaping the war in Burma.
The Lisu man was left at a state run hospital, where he may or may not receive treatment. Foreign aid workers have told horror stories of trying to bring tribal people to the hospital and being turned away. Unten was taken to a large, private hospital, where he immediately went under the knife. I jumped out of the ambulance and disappeared into the city. I was Unten’s only link to the rebels. If he should be questioned by the police, he could honestly say that he knew nothing.
The next morning, I sat at breakfast with my friends, telling them what had happened. I had a black eye and was pretty certain I was suffering from a mild concussion, probably from where the back of Unten’s head smashed into my face. The Lieutenant called to say that the Colonel had intervened in favor of the Shan soldier, Lieng, and that he had been released from custody. If he had been captured on the Burmese side of the border he would have been tortured and killed. In fact, if the accident had happened on the Burmese side of the border, we would all have been tortured and killed.
I couldn’t go near the hospital for fear of implicating Unten. When I called, he said that he had his surgery and was told that he would need two months to recuperate. He was still worried that he might not be able to continue his career as an artist. His main concern, however, was that he wanted to find out how the Lisu man was doing. Unten wanted to pay the man’s hospital bill and give some money to his family. So far, it seems impossible to find the man. We don’t know his name. He has no ID card. And the hospital staff may not even have filed a report. I once took a tribal boy to a hospital to bring food to his father, but the boy didn’t know his father’s name, and the hospital didn’t bother to record his admission. The father was there for several weeks till we found him.
If there was no war in Burma, the Lisu man and his family wouldn’t have been driven off their land. They would still be farming rice in Burma, happy and safe. If it wasn’t illegal to help the tribal people in Burma or report on their war, Unten and I would never have taken a stupid chance, driving a motorcycle on a precarious mountain road. If there were no war in Burma, Lieng, would never have risked being arrested by crossing the border to take us in so we could report.
We don’t know if the Lisu man lived or died. But at the very least, his family will suffer great economic hardship as a result of this accident. After a long recovery, Unten will be Ok. I am always OK. But the tribal people of Burma will continue to suffer.
This was the first tragedy I witnessed first hand. Until now, I was just a tourist in a war.