Wednesday, March 2, 2011

100 Days in Thailand :: Day 40 - The Salawin River, M-16s, & Bomb Shelters

Today was the day the situation in Burma became real to me.

It all started innocently enough - we were just going out to spend another fun day with Rapee & Pastor Banya. They had suggested we go to the Salawin River for the day - something Rusty had been wanting to do anyway! We were excited to spend time with them again, and I was excited to get my first glimpse of Burma.

Right across the Salawin River is Burma.....

They asked if we wanted to do the "boat ride" down the river and we excitedly said YES! We'd wanted to do it earlier in our trip, but some artillery fire across the river had made it unsafe. We were glad it was a possibility today because I didn't want to miss out on this experience!

So... we climbed in and went down the river....

 The ride was so peaceful, and the landscape was beautiful....

....with mountains, jungle, beaches, and rock cliffs.....

I enjoyed the ride while Rusty took video and pictures.....

But Rapee, who doesn't like to "go fast" was more than a little scared!
Her quote of the day was, "you think this SAFE?!"
(you never would've guessed it was her idea!)

Of course we all almost had a heart attack watching Rusty video off the front of the boat like this!
There were whirlpools in the water everywhere, and he wasn't exactly holding on (or wearing a life-jacket!) 
I was doubly afraid I'd lose him AND our expensive camera too!

But soon, the ride was over (at least the first half) and it was time to park on the beach for lunch.

We hiked up the beach/hill and headed under an awning with a picnic table to eat. Inside were the most adorable kids, taking a break from school with one of their teachers. We shared our M&M's and chips with them, as Rapee and Banya made conversation (they speak Karen, and we were in a Karen village).

Then, out of nowhere, a soldier came up carrying an M-16.

Let me tell you - there is NOTHING that will change the mood like a stranger walking into your space with an automatic weapon. A stranger that doesn't speak your language and is from a different culture. A stranger that could be bad or good - and you have no way of knowing.

All you know, is he is holding a weapon that can kill you in one second.

For a moment, I felt like all the air had been sucked from my lungs. I'd heard about the Salawin River. I knew there was "combat" that happened across its banks. Burma on one side and Thailand on the other... it was bound to happen. But what had we gotten ourselves into?!

After maybe 2 minutes (that felt like an eternity) of my whole body being tense, I began to relax. Rapee & Banya spoke this young man's language, and they didn't seem concerned. The kids around us seemed perfectly comfortable around him (and his gun).... and as I looked into his eyes, I saw kindness.

As it turns out, this young man is a protector. He is armed because he is protecting his people (The Karen people) from the evil across the river. We talked to him a little bit through Banya & Rapee and I felt an admiration and respect for him that reminded me of how I feel about our American troops. He was one of the good guys.... laying his life down for the innocents in this village. 

Here he is watching the children as they bring supplies up from a boat docked on the beach. I wish I could show you his kind eyes and his smiling face, but for his safety I will refrain from posting any pics that could identity him.

Soon, lunch was over. We were invited to go see a nearby village, if we were willing to walk a few hundred yards. It was sweltering outside, but we were surrounded by adorable children. How could we say no to a little more time with them?

So we set off through this field of wildflowers... surrounded by the jungle. 

Pastor Banya & Rusty lead the way.....

And behind me, the girls followed in a line like little ducklings, giggling all the way....

It was a picturesque scene....

until we heard the mortar explode.

If you think the M-16 made me nervous, then imagine what was going through my mind when we heard the mortar from right across the river. Here we were, in an open field, fully exposed. I didn't know whether to run or to hit the ground. 
We froze.

Inside, I panicked.

I'd heard that noise before, when I volunteered as an embedded reporter for the IOBC at Fort Benning in college. I was asleep in my tent when the FOB went "under attack". Believe me - everything the army does in a field training exercise is as REAL as it can be. And that night, even though I kept telling myself "it's not real, it's not real" - I went into shock from the experience.

Unfortunately for me, this time ... it WAS real. 
And the setting we were in reminded me way too much of the photos and videos of the Vietnam War.

What is happening?

Are we okay?

Are we safe?

Are the little girls behind me safe?

A hundred questions ran through my mind, and another eternity went by as I heard Pastor Banya say in English (his 3rd language) the word BOMB. Rusty turned back to look at me - his body completely tense. We both said aloud, "that was a mortar, and it was close". Then, with a wave of Pastor's hand and a shrug of his shoulders, we continued on the trail.

Apparently, hearing mortars explode is just part of daily life for the people in this village.

Within moments, we were there.

We were given a little "tour" of the village.... the school, the water filters, the bomb shelter.

Yes, you read that right. I said - the BOMB SHELTER. It's little more than a pit dug from the earth and supported by logs.... but it's all these people have for safety. At the least it will (hopefully) protect them from shrapnel...  because I don't see anyone surviving a direct hit in this place.

Rapee told us she thought it would hold 50 to 100 people - depending on their size and how tightly they were pressed inside. Then she informed us that the villagers likely use it several times a week. Why? Because the Burmese military fires on this village - simply because the people inside are Karen.

Several times a week these people hide from bombs and bullets. Several times a week these children experience the trauma and fear of warfare. Several times a week they are plunged into the darkness of a bomb shelter.

Beautiful, precious children whose only care in the world should be swingsets & laughter.

It's not fair. It's not okay. This should not be the reality for ANY child!
But here in Thailand it is happening. Several times a week.

And today, my heart is broken because of it.


  1. Your blogs always touch my heart. Take care over there!!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Ericka! Really brings to life what it's like there. Heartbreaking. (Mandi @ Razoo)