Hurrying along the trail, they cast nervous glances behind them. They have to keep moving, a single file of people forced to flee because of an imminent Burma Army attack. They take what they can on their backs; mothers carry babies, others rice, a blanket, a cooking pot, a mosquito net, some tools. Even young children walk with a small bundle on their backs. It is all they were able to grab before they fled.
Many villagers in Burma have run dozens of times over the years. They often have to cross rivers, climb steep hills and walk all night to get out of harm’s way. Since the military regime in Burma seized power in 1962, life has just got harder and harder for the ethnic groups which make up about 40 percent of Burma’s population. The aim of the Burma Army is to dominate, assimilate and exploit these ethnic groups, and the dictators of the State Peace and Development Council spend about half of their budget on the 400,000-strong army in order to maintain their iron-clad grip on power. Their usual pattern of attack is to build new roads into ethnic areas, use forced labour to build camps, bring in more supplies and soldiers and then expand further. This campaign of ethnic cleansing has left at least 500,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) inside Burma.
Free Burma Rangers
Free Burma Rangers exists to bring hope, help and love to such refugees: hope that the world has not forgotten them; help that stands with them despite the immense difficulties of reaching them through hilly jungles and Burma Army controlled roads, rivers and minefields. Free Burma Rangers’ motto sums up their mission: “Love each other; unite for freedom, justice and peace; forgive and don’t hate each other; pray with faith, act with courage; never surrender.”
A Free Burma Rangers team recently came across more than 150 people walking in a long line through some rice fields in Toungoo District, Karen State, Eastern Burma. Babies were crying, men and women were struggling to keep moving and it looked as if they were despairing. But a member of the team reported that as they spent time with the people that night, a different picture began to emerge. “Families huddled around small fires, eating rice supplied by the local village and resistance army. They invited us to join them and soon children were laughing and adults were smiling. We treated patients, talked and prayed with them. The next morning, as they prepared to move on, we joined them for prayer and our team sang the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ with them. When we finished, Nancy, a 60-year-old Karen school teacher, said to us: ‘Thank you, but please wait, we want to sing for you and give you something.’ All the people stood up as she led them in a Karen hymn, ‘God is full of power’. We were all moved and departed with smiles and handshakes – we to continue our mission, and they to a safer place.”
In the jungle hide sites they keep the trails small and difficult to travel on so if the Burma Army does see them, their suspicions will not be aroused. Once they arrive at a site, the fortunate ones will find the rice supplies they hid for just such a time. Others have nothing to shelter them from the pouring rain and have to find what food the jungle provides. They face multiple problems, not least the threat to their health due to decreased nutrition, greater exposure and the close sharing of inadequate water sources. The most common diseases those living as IDPs suffer are acute respiratory infections, malaria, anaemia and skin diseases.
They normally farm rice, as well as raising pigs and chickens, but this is impossible when they have to be always on the move. The children’s education suffers as setting up a school and finding teachers is a massive challenge. It is often impossible for them to return to their homes once the army has gone because of the landmines laid around the villages.
Hsa K’Tray Saw is just one of hundreds of people who suffered from this indiscriminate weapon of war. He and his family returned home from their hiding places three months after the Burma Army attacked them on 16 August, 2007. While his mother searched for vegetables to gather, he sat down on a log and tapped his machete on the ground. The blade struck a hidden landmine, which exploded, injuring him and his eight-year-old sister. He was wounded in his face and upper body and blinded in both eyes. Despite the best efforts to restore his sight, nothing could be done and he is now enrolled in a school for the blind in Mae La, the largest refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border.
Around 48 full-time FBR teams are currently in operation around the country. They are drawn from the communities they serve and are from the Arakan, Lahu, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Pa’O, Shan and Karenni people groups. FBR teaches the refugees how to navigate safely around the areas they operate in, how to cross rivers with ropes, and how to disarm landmines. They also learn about international human rights, and are taught how to interview other refugees and record their stories on video. Some are selected to be trained in medicine and learn how to treat the most common diseases and deal with landmine injuries and bullet wounds. Some 50,000 people are reached every year by FBR teams. Since FBR began, 350,000 people have received medical treatment and 700,000 have been helped in other ways.
Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in our world and therefore of special interest to God, whose concern is consistently for the marginalised. Rev. Dr Saw Simon, Principal of the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School & College, Mae La Refugee Camp, wrote a poem which seeks to challenge how refugees see themselves:
I am not ashamed to be a refugee, for I know my Lord, my Master, my Saviour was a refugee long, long before me.
I am not afraid to be a refugee, for though I am displaced, I am not misplaced.
I will never feel lonely, for God gives me many friends around the world.
I will never feel helpless, for God gives me many hands for help.
I will never stop doing good things in spite of all the difficulties and hardships, for I know that this is the real purpose of life God has entrusted to each one of us.
I will never feel regret being a refugee, for though life is full of limitations, restrictions and tragedies, it is enriched with meanings and values.
I will never feel hopeless, for my Saviour promised me an eternal home.
I am glad to be a refugee, for I am always reminded that my eternal home is in heaven and not on this earth.
But I know that for the time being, Satan is trying to enslave me, for though I live in my Father’s, my brothers’ and sisters’ world, I am not free to travel.
However, I am strongly convinced that a day will come – and it will be soon – when I will be able to travel freely to visit my brothers and sisters around the world and say “thank you” for what they have done.
I will then see the beauty of my Father’s world. Amen.
It is to work with the people of Burma in fostering this kind of hope that Free Burma Rangers exists. For more information, visit www.freeburmarangers.org ♦
James Forrest is an Interserve Partner from the UK. He previously worked for a religious freedom advocacy charity in the UK and also taught at a school for refugee children.
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