I watched rather helplessly as the blood and puss dripped from the boy’s neck, swirling together into a perfect mixture of gruesome bodily fluids in the pan below. The doctor watched carefully, overseeing the medic gently push on what was left of the cyst, bulging out just above the child’s shoulder. At one point, the kid started to seize, apparently a reaction to the anesthetic. Not ideal when you’re draining a puss-filled growth by means of a precise scalpel to the neck. They got it under control and continued on.
I was deep in the jungles of Burma, a few days hike into the conflict area that has seen so much suffering over the last seventy years. I was a guest among the Karen people (pronounced “kuh-ren”), who live in small villages scattered throughout an immense jungle.
In World War II, the Burmese government sided with the Japanese, and the smaller states surrounding the central power sided with the British, including the Karen. The war ended, but the central government was still in charge. Civil war has since raged on, largely overlooked by the international community. Being the longest civil war in history, it’s little more than business as usual for the rest of the world.
I grew up overseas–my parents are missionary aid workers and we lived in several parts of Pakistan for nine years, Thailand for five. During that time, we often traveled to nearby countries and I was lucky to experience a large variety of people and cultures in my childhood. As an adult I have lived in rural Arkansas, Fort Benning, liberal San Francisco and whatever words you would use to describe Tampa, Florida.
I have never met anyone like the Karen.
I was working at a field hospital, nestled in an ancient jungle that has seen more consecutive war than most places on Earth. My task was to make three short, confidential documentaries meant to garner support from private donors in the United States. On top of that, I helped where I could around the hospital and neighboring facilities.
My fourth and final deployment with 3rd Ranger Battalion was a little rough, but going there was about the most cathartic experience I could have asked for. To meet people who have endured unimaginable suffering with genuine smiles on their faces.
This series of articles isn’t a story about the humble western soldier who came in his pity to tell you about a little girl with flies in her eyes. It’s just about some truly impressive people that I met in the Burmese jungle.
I would later see that kid in the arms of his father. The dad wore a giddy smile and the kid was clearly relieved to have the giant growth off his neck. I watched them walk off into the jungle to an uncertain fate in worn flip flops and ratty t-shirts. They seemed happier than most of the people I’ve met since.
To be continued in Part 2