NO DU TU - A Child of War Torn Burma
The story begins with a trip into the border regions of Burma along the Thai border to present the fourth phase of a field medial program created by a former Green Beret who is also a Physicians Assistant (PA). The program would be delivered free and at great risk to the Karen tribe medics who run field clinics and provide combat medicine deep inside of the Karen region of the jungle.
My name had come up in these circles because of my extensive humanitarian mission experience and the fact I am a military veteran with a willingness to go and do. The journey into this denied country is an epic adventure in itself, but the real story for me is related to the children of Burma which is now called Myanmar.
It didn't take long once we got into the Burma side of the river to find it full of little people running around, playing soccer, wading in the rivers and expressing wonderment at the couple of large Americans that casted large shadows on the landscape. They we curious and timid at first, but would not stop staring at us... me. There was a visible absence of old and middle aged men. Mostly there were women and children to about the age of 7 or 8. The older kids were all on outposts sporting weapons that were taller than they were. Many in this village had prosthetic limbs which represented the sad signs of one of the most mined countries in the world.
The mission was three weeks long and culminated with our travel through eastern Thailand and then up river to a crossing where the Karen tribe is held up in a fairly large community of huts and outposts. the landscape is something out of a Vietnam movie and the people are similar to the Nung or even Nepalese in their looks and physical prowess. They are strong and fit and for the most part open and generous. they have been at war for over 60 years since the end of World War II. They have a 5,000 man Army mad up of young and old, and face four other waring opium tribes as well as a 500,000 strong Burmese Government Army that does not pull any punches in this brutal war against their ethnically different Karen enemy.
As my mate on this mission would teach for the next 7 days I would sit outside the hooch and take photos of the children, play with them and keep a general eye on things around the village. Occasionally the not to distant sound of war would ring through the jungle, yet the children would play on as usual or migrate from their bamboo dwellings to the school houses in an orderly fashion while wearing their tribal dress clothing. I have learned over the years that children are a great indication of danger as parents or even the kids themselves will respond to threats much quicker than a foreigner in strange terrain who is unaware of the local risks in their entirety.
Little NO DU TU didn't seem to have a desire for school or he was to young. He came the first day and just smiled at me with that infection grin that is ever so present in these pictures. He would beam, but never spoke a single word the entire time I was in country. He just smiled and played all day long with sticks or a ball, but mostly in the raging little river right in front of our hut.
Other children would gather around and it felt as if I was becoming the pid piper of the Karen children in this little place. Feral dogs would run around camp at day and night in small packs, hunting anything other than the dozens of chickens running wild. The children never played with or pet the dogs, they seemed to have a purpose that was beyond enjoying them as a pet. I found this strange as I love dogs. Occasionally a dog fight would break out as the alpha dog would be challenged creating a stir in the still humid air. There was the flow of lightly armed (according to our standards) tribesmen that would venture up the trail about 15 minutes to a jungle cross road and stand watch. The people would cultivate the land and farm it, we would be rewarded twice a day with rice, a boiled egg or two and some greens. the children seemed to be well feed, but there we some very poor older folks that we clearly starving to death. That is a whole story for another day...
I began to think about what could be done with this situation? What can we or I do more than standing post to save these kids from the brutal results of the oppressing enemy. The enemy would gather the children and use them for mine detectors and scouts. They would force them into sex camps for the Burmese soldiers to use until they died. There are many heart breaking and life altering stories from this intense journey that would curl your hair with fear and worry. These are best saved for the camp fire, or a pointed story, lesson and learning at a future day. The sum of my experience is that these resilient people invest in their children, protect them and treat them with great love and respect. The children in turn for the most part grow up to become soldiers in a war where they use Vietnam vintage U.S. Army M-16 rifles that have been converted to single shot bolt rifles to conserve ammunition.
Prior to our arrival across the border we met with the General of the Karen Army. We ate Thai food and spoke of the people, problems, future and politics between his people and the Burmese Army. During this visit I mostly listened. After a while a asked the General what can be done to help them beyond what we were giving in the form of training. He looked at me with a strained face and said: "Ammunition", "weapons, modern weapons". I listened, nodded and made it clear to him that I did not have the resources for this kind of help. It was heart wrenching to see and hear the realities placed upon this people for so many generations. What can be done?
My opinion is this. We can lift the Karen people or for that matter ANY people when we are with them. We can make a child smile and provide as we can food, clean water and shelter. Where able security so they can learn in safe environments the things that will multiply their nations prosperity and peace. I can't arm the Karen Army, but I CAN arm one child or maybe a few more with love, time and focus. Perhaps one day NO DU TU will become a great leader of the Karen people. Perhaps one day he will be the one that brings true peace to his tribe? I don't know what will become of him and candidly yes I do think of him often and wonder what has or will become of this little boy from Burma. His smile infected me with a hope for all even under the worst possible circumstances. I believe it is our moral obligation as FREE PEOPLE to make a difference where ever we are and with whom ever we see. Through small and simple things shall great things come to pass! You don't need to go to Burma to make a difference. Look around your family and friends and co-workers. The answer is in your own back yard!
When I was preparing to leave the Burma side of the border it was the first day that I could not find NO DU TU. He was no where to be found. I looked and ran through the village as the time was drawing closer. Our window for departure was very specific and we had to almost run to the dragon boat. As I walked with my rucksack on and carrying my small hand bag, tears ran down my face under my polarized blue lensed glasses. I could not find my little friend and embrace him one last time. I could not tell him I LOVED HIM!
As we made our way to the river under the guidance and security of a few tribesmen I looked back one more time to no avail.
My departure was a reality, but it was also a metaphor for my experience over the past few weeks. Everything in the jungle is perishable except for the relationships we carve out of the landscape. We MUST reach out and down and upwards to find the lasting joy under adverse conditions. I believe to this day that little NO DU TU knows I love him. He knows I really truly cared for him and would do anything the preserve his life, his way and his safety. I am blessed for having the chance to meet him and witness his glowing smile and joy, his simple pleasures of playing in the jungle.
May God bless all freedom loving people and may he free the oppressed wherever they are is my constant prayer and mission.