“I was lying on the floor,
This is what my mind’s eye said,
‘What an easy life you’ve had,
What a simple life you’ve led.’”
The room had the look about it of a hideout.
A large open space, void of furniture, save for a couple careless stools and a small TV in the corner. The walls were barren of decoration, random nails and hooks held lone hats and hand woven satchel-bags. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling’s center, pale moths clinked and fluttered against its glass, despite the bulb’s efforts, the dull light still kept the corners of the room in shadow. I slipped off my shoes, as is customary in South East Asia and walked through the open door. The bare concrete floor was cool against the soles of my feet. They entered from the left. The three men approached us.
I held out my hand and greeted each of the rebel soldiers.
The room was a hideout.
It had been a last minute invitation. I was about to turn in and go to sleep when my co-worker, Violet approached me. Would I like to join her in visiting her friends who were staying just out of town? Her “friends” were no ordinary chums and “just out of town” turned out to be a bumpy ride deep into the western Thai jungle. I clutched the side of the white rickety pick-up as we bounced and clattered down a dirt road. One U-turn and then another. Sporadic sharp turns and haphazard last minute changes in direction. Suddenly the truck skidded to a dusty halt and I could see through the back window of the truck that we appeared to be lost. Violet swinging her arm, pointing off to the right as the driver shook his head glancing this way and that into the jungle foliage. We swung around hard, I ducked as low-lying tree branches brushed past and we headed back in the direction we came.
We had driven for what seemed like hours. Twisting and turning through the nighttime Thai jungle. Finally, unceremoniously we came to a halt outside a drab and secluded concrete building. The circumstances in which it took us to reach the place made its aura of secrecy even stronger.
They were Kachin. An ethnic group of Burmese who lived up in the northern highlands of Burma or Myanmar as it is now called. Burma has had a tremulous history, military coups and tyrannical regimes have dominated the country’s leadership since its conception. The military regime has an appalling human rights record. Violently crushing protests, arresting journalists and activists, imprisoning countless people that spoke out against the military leadership. Civil war erupted and the country seemed to be plunged into never ending conflict. Until recently the Burmese military held an uneasy peace with the country’s various ethnic tribes. Signing separate treaties with each group so as to keep them divided and less likely to unite against the Burmese military. Fighting erupted again when the Burmese government sought to build a new hydro-dam in Kachin State. Evicting local Kachin from their homes, the local people knew revenue from the dam would go into the pockets of the Burmese leadership and the power the dam would produce would only go abroad. Rather than see their homes needlessly flooded and washed away the Kachin took up their guns once again.
I shook the hands of each man, introducing myself. The shortest man gripped my hand sternly, smiling from ear to ear he clapped me on the back.
“Call me, Ako.” he said, taking me by the arm, he gestured that I have a seat next to him on a set of concrete steps.
He was stocky and barrel chested. Shirtless, he was tan with sun darkened skin. He wore olive drab cargo pants and a canvas belt with an oversized metallic buckle.
“Sorry, we’re late.” I apologized, “I think we got a little lost.”
He laughed, “Yes, we’re very hidden here.”
“The Thais don’t know we’re here and the Burmese don’t know we’ve gone,” he batted a mosquito on his shoulder. “We come to get supplies, then we go back to Burma.” He said this last part matter-of-factly. Like sneaking over international borders was just part of his day-to-day.
He swung at another mosquito and then looked me up and down, sizing me up.
“Where are you from? Are you married?” He fired off these two questions in quick succession.
I laughed at how up front he was. “I’m from New Jersey and no, I’m not married yet.”
“New Jersey.” he said the name slowly, betraying the fact that he had never heard of it before.
“Are you married?” I asked, reversing the question back on him.
“No, no, no.” he said in a serious tone. “Maybe every day will be the day I die.” he added solemnly.
“I would not want my wife to live like that, not knowing.” he brushed at a moth that had fluttered into his hair.
“When there is peace in Burma, I will get married then.”
“How do you stay brave?” I asked, “Aren’t you afraid all the time.” I felt foolish the second I asked the question.
“I try not to be scared,” he answered, a tone of machismo behind his voice. “The government has machine guns and mortars and artillery, we have few of these things, fighting is very hard.”
One of his comrades walked by overhearing our conversation, “Ako, tell him about that time you lost your helmet.” he laughed.
Even with his tan complexion I could see Ako was blushing. He looked down at his feet, gingerly rubbing the back of his neck. I could tell the story held some embarrassment for him so I decided not to press to hear it. I couldn’t help trying to put it together in my own mind.
I envisioned Ako crouched in the mountainous jungles of Kachin State. Bullets whipping through leaves, snapping branches and splintering trees. Mortar shells whistling overhead and artillery booming in the distance. Crashing explosions and the mechanical chattering of machine guns. Ako, scrambling to find a lost helmet in the brush. I would have been terrified into shock.
I looked down at my soft hands and clean boots. Ako and I were practically the same age, maybe only a year or two apart, but sitting next to him I felt like a boy.
“Ah,” he said, suddenly standing up breaking our silence. “I have something for you.”
He walked across the room and dug into one of the hanging satchel bags. Returning to me, he handed me a cigar. It was small and slim, tobacco tightly wrapped in a dry banana leaf. I turned it over in my hands. Ako must have taken my close observation for hesitation or wonder.
“It’s okay,” he said, “They’re cheap, I have many of them.”
“Thank you, very much.” I said, securing it in my chest pocket.
“It was nice to meet you, Justin.” he said, lighting his own cigar.
He set the book of matches down beside me. I recognized the gesture but knew I could not smoke the cigar. Heading back to the children’s home where Violet and I worked and slept I did not want to return smelling like tobacco smoke.
Ako puffed clouds of smoke into the center of the room. The wispy plumes adding to the atmosphere of the place. I looked sidelong at him, next to me on the step.
“When there is peace in Burma.” I said, “I will smoke.” I gently tapped the cigar in my chest pocket.
I immediately felt stupid for saying it, but he seemed to like the sentiment.
Ako smiled and nodded, “So will I.”
“We all will.”