For P.A, C*, J, P, D, and friends
The campus’ hallway remained silent since the university’s closure earlier this year. Education was halted after the coup took over. As soon as different parts of the country slowly turned into battlefields, faculties and students got together and constituted a union, partially to create a self-didactic community, partially to support the democratization in any way they can.
A few days after my arrival at Yangon, and after countless times I thought my transit flight would be delayed indefinitely—then the distinct fragrance of betel was conquering the air in the airport—I learned that Mary and her boyfriend, members of the newly found student-teacher council, were detained by the State Administration Council during a protest early on.
There Mary stood alone in the library’s entrance. No more librarians to keep track of the borrowing-and-returning schedule, only Mary and a few others reading separately on their desks. She just got released yesterday. Her boyfriend was sentenced to three years of hard labor (or just a more restrained way of saying “charged with a life sentence”).
Before coming to Burma, Instagram was probably my most trusted source—an immediate herald regarding war’s acceleration in Burma given the mediocre media coverage internationally since February 2021. There was specifically a short video that records a scene of eleven people (with an accumulated number of thirty-two, off-screen), children and adults included, burned alive, or to be more accurate—their charred remnants on the open field smoking constantly from the remaining heat. In another photograph, nearly a dozen more were loaded on the back of a pickup truck. A dozen of crumbled black humanoid shapes. It was Christmas Eve of 2021.
This was one of the only “shocking” reports of war in Burma that made it into popular international newspapers. Other details (with excessive displays of violence and cruelty) can only be found the same way, if you dig down rabbit holes on the Internet. Approximately around that time, the news regarding Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint being sentenced to prison by the junta government skyrocketed for a short period on the headlines of The New York Times, the BBC, and The Washington Post before sliding back into the void of the virtual space, quietly, unnoticeable. For the majority of time, nothing else.
A private Instagram account was subjected to bypass Metaverse’s censorship system right off the bat. These images of dead bodies would appear without disturbing content warnings, straight into one’s naked eyes, which would potentially become a test of one’s daringness (and vulnerability) by looking at photographs of missing limbs, inside-out bodies, or burnt corpses, on a daily basis.
Only a few hours later, I already found myself cramming up in an old jeep wheeled by a People Defense Force’s (PDF) soldier. I came here to participate as a volunteer for the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). The trip to Loikaw was a bumpy one. Along the way, we passed by a group of four orange-uniformed men untangling a body, allegedly of a civilian, from a tree stump.
Due to motion blurs, I couldn’t make out his face, but other features were clear: open wounds were seen all over his arms and legs. What looked like gunshots on his torso could be fathomed through spots of blood seeping through the thin fabric of his shirt. As the jeep moved forward, I only caught them lowering him down in a black body bag. As soon as they zipped up the dead man, the scene completely vanished from my vision.
I looked back at driver’s seat and saw the soldier’s arm rising high in the air. His index, middle, and ring fingers straightened out and intimately formed a shape that looked like, I thought, a fire. He stayed that way for a good while before setting his palms back onto the wheel, its pieces of old leather peeling off and sticking out from extended contacts with human’s sweat and friction.
Loikaw was the first region in Burma to become an official warzone. The IDPs have been trying their best to evacuate villagers and civilians from combat fields to the further remote areas. Here they made camps out of plastic sheets and salvaged other household facilities with whatever they managed to carry with them during the short-noticed midnight evacuations: old metal pots and utensils for cooking; rugged and dust-stained mattresses and a few pieces of clothing.
The soil here was not initially intended for farming, thus, a good amount of labor was required to make it fertile enough for few basic crops. Efforts were made by both the PDF’s soldiers and the exile people. It’s hard to imagine how much they achieved within such a short amount of time: before you know it, the camp almost looked like a fully operating village.
As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by Tao, an IDPs executive member. He began walking us through different parts of the camps, meeting up with other IDPs people and PDF soldiers-on-duty, overseeing the individual camping units where children snuggled among other children, taking advantage of each other’s body heat to stay warm. The mothers were keeping a watchful eye over them, as if in a second, they would somehow evaporate into thin air (and I mean that in a literal sense, here, only a few miles from the warzone). Finally, we stopped at the last portion of the camp—a mobile medical station.
As we entered the cottage, the first thing that caught my attention was a man lying on the floor, eyes closed. I traced my eyes across his naked chest and saw a series of seven stitches running down in a vertical straight line in the center. His breathings were so faint life seemed to have completely escaped his body.
In the corner of the medical cottage, I spotted a figure: a small, slim, short-haired person, dressed in a black jacket and a pair of black jeans, squatting on the ground, her hands agilely moving from bottle to bottle of antiseptic alcohol (you could tell by the nose-piercing fume of the substance in the cottage’s semi-opened space). A battery-run lamp was illuminating half of her body, exaggerating her rapid motions more than it should in daylight.
Hey Josh, the executive member called out to her.
He faced towards us, followed. This is our IDPs leader in the Loikaw region!
The girl turned over and our eyes caught in an instant. Suddenly, all fragments of memories, as if they had been vacuum-pressed until this very moment, burst open vividly in my head: the first time we met in an online class during last year’s holiday recess; the first time I had heard about her background and what she was doing in Burma as an IDPs leader, through our daily texting on Telegram; the first time she had decided to openly talk about her jobs here, in the camps: cleaning blood off paining civilians, pulling bullets out from badly injured fighters; the night when her home province turned into the nation’s first warzone; and the day after, she decided to register as a PDF soldier, burdened by the loss of people in her village after an open fire the night before. The fact that a woman approximately my age had gone through more than anything that a human life can bear pained me to the core—to the point that our periods synced over the past few months out of daily conversations, and after lots, lots of crying.
Hey, Vi, glad to see you here, Josh replied. Her tender words immediately snapped me out of it.
A Vietnamese girl, who has just freshly graduated from college and been wondering between everything and nothing for as long as she’s been alive, eventually decided to leave her country and be stationed in a distant place where no one or anything is safe from firearms and explosions.
I smiled back at Josh, as a response.
The sun was rising from the east side of the mountain range, graduating slowly through a veil of early morning haze—a site to behold regardless of where it took place. I was sitting beside Josh. We did not exchange a word. It was much easier on Telegram a few days ago. She reached into her left pocket for a cigarette package, pulled out a loosie and lit it up. I was hoping for the spark stone’s clicks to break the silence, but it didn’t. I could hear the red-hot tip of the cigarette crackling as Josh made a long, deep drag. She passed cigarette over. I took it and did the same myself.
A country drowns in silence, no matter how loud its people had tried to become. We watched as parts of the sky turned from dim yellow to a diluted hue of blue.
Morning. Another day arrived. My second day in Burma.
Our plan for today is to stroll back to Yayyo and search for survivors since another offensive broke out last night. Pillars of smoke begin to appear as we advance closer to the scene. From afar, we can see what used to be houses are now bombed-down structures of houses. I’m not tempted to imagine what is lying below the debris. I turn to Josh instead and take hold of her hands.
Soon these hands will stain with blood, dust, gun powder, perhaps a few scratches from digging through bits of collapsed cement to look for something, not even sure what we’ll be able to find. The soldiers with their guns at ready positions make their way before us. Into the midst of lurking unknowns, we follow.
(*) At the time of publication, C has now joined the PDFs, fought a number of battles, and has been calling in from the frontline every so often.
Tam Nguyen is a poet and art writer, born and raised in the south end of Vietnam. His works have appeared and are forthcoming on Heavy Feather Review, Softblow, DiaCRITICS, MAYDAY, Queer Southeast Asia, and Dryland, among others. Find him via Instagram @builddahome.