‘The only way to survive is to escape’
Youth finds hope in SW Kansas after
escaping enslavement in Burma
In the United States, 16 is the age at which most youth are enjoying newfound freedom at the driver’s wheel; the responsibilities of adulthood are still a lifetime away, a world of experiences yet to be celebrated.
But for Del, now 22 and living in southwest Kansas, 16 was the age at which he escaped from slavery.
Having arrived in southwest Kansas nearly two years ago, the Burma (also known as Myanmar) native spent the previous five years living in a refugee camp in Thailand, which borders Burma. Fearing that his story may ignite revenge against his parents and six sisters still living in Burma, he asked that his real name not be used.
At 16, Del was snatched from his family by the Burmese military to serve as a “porter,” which, in Burmese terms, is just a breath away from a death sentence.
“If you work late at night, or if you are traveling at night, they will take you,” he said. “When you work as a porter, you have to do everything they tell you. You are like an animal. Everything they say, you have to do whether you like it or not.”
Del belongs to the “Karen” minority group, the largest of 20 minority groups throughout the country. Since democratic rule ended in 1962, members of these groups have been rebelling against the military junta, which Del said has oppressed the minority groups, often subjecting villagers – even those with no ties to rebel activities – to torture and death. The only way to flee is to escape to a refugee camp.
Meanwhile, the military makes a practice of kidnapping mostly male villagers, including children, to act as porters, carrying their packs across roads laden with land mines and to act as shields when coming across rebel fighters -- often times their own people.
“The other people, if they shoot, this is their own people,” Del said. “But some people are kind, you see; they don’t want to shoot their own people. Sometimes they have no choice and they have to shoot.”
Del said that because he was a very small 16-year-old, he wasn’t used in life-threatening situations.
“I worked in the military camps. They didn’t ask me to do serious things because I was little. I had to carry water from the well or river.”
Should porters become sick – common in a region with no health services and with a wealth of air- and insect-borne diseases – the military would simply stop feeding them. Many porters become ill, but instead of succumbing to their illness, they instead would die of starvation.
“The only way to survive is to escape,” Del said. “I was with two soldiers. I carried a pack, and a rebel was trying to shoot them. It was a good time for me to escape. I ran into the forest. I didn’t know where I was going.”
With the help of a Karen man, Del made it to a refugee camp just over the border of neighboring Thailand. There he found safety and schooling. He was able to contact a priest who got word back to his worried family that he was safe and sound. But sadly, he would never see his family again after being stolen away.
Today, he enjoys speaking with his sister by phone, but the rest of his family is too far from telephone services to communicate with him.
“I want to see my dad and mom,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.
“When I call my sister, she tells me my dad always asks if I could go back there. I say I will go back there some day, but she doesn’t know I can not go back.
“I just lie,” he said, weeping.
“If it is raining, I miss my village,” he explained, his voice cracking under the memory of his homeland. “In our country it rains a lot.”
But when asked his first impressions of the United States, Del’s demeanor quickly changed. He smiled and replied, “I can go to school by myself. As long as I work, if I am not lazy, I can have a good life here. Here I think it’s good.”
Del is working while attending college courses; his major is biology. His goal is to become a doctor.
“When I go back to school, I’m very happy. In our country, if you want to go to school, it’s very, very hard. Here I can go to school easily. I want to be a doctor. In our country, we don’t have much knowledge. If you got sick, you are like ‘cursed by the Gods.’ They don’t find out what is happening. We also need a lot of medications over there.”
Del was asked if, despite the struggles in his homeland, there is something that Americans could learn from the people of Burma:
“I think they should learn they have a better fortune that we do. They need to thank God for that.”