‘We Were Bulletproof’: As Child Soldiers Grow Up, Legacy of War Lingers

Twin leaders of Myanmar’s God’s Army have been as soon as thought to have magical powers. Now adults, they’re contending with the trauma of exile, alcohol and loss.


อ่านบทความนี้ในภาษาไทย | ဤဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ပါ။

NAT THAN KWIN, Myanmar — Johnny Htoo lay on a concrete flooring. His eyes stared at nothing specifically.

Back when he was a boy, when he and his twin, Luther, commanded God’s Army, Johnny was famend for seeing what others couldn’t see.

His troopers, males hardened from one of many world’s most enduring civil wars, believed that Johnny and Luther Htoo might magically protect them from bullets — little one talismans for an oppressed folks, the ethnic Karen of Myanmar.

Johnny’s cousin hushed the others within the shack on Thailand’s border with Myanmar. They waited for his phrases. Johnny, now 32, closed his eyes and eased into sleep.

“Drunk,” whispered Hser Ler El, one in all Johnny’s buddies and followers. “Always drunk.”

Hundreds of miles away, within the forests of japanese Myanmar, the sunshine from an affordable cellphone shone on Luther Htoo’s naked chest, the place a tattoo of the flag of the Karen folks coated his coronary heart. Below it was a pucker of scarred pores and skin.

Luther pointed to his eye socket, his knee, his thigh. There have been not less than 10 bullet wounds on his physique, he stated.

He lapsed into silence. His eyes have been glazed.

“Drunk,” his girlfriend’s mom, Naw Htay Myint, stated, extra an commentary than an indictment. “He’s always drunk.”

Just earlier than the flip of the century, Luther and Johnny Htoo, then not even 10 years outdated, took command of a Karen militia tons of robust that aimed to guard the ethnic group from incursions by the Myanmar Army. The boys have been barely taller than their rifles. But their followers, descendants of Baptists transformed by American missionaries, worshiped the twins. Each, they stated, might use prayer to conjure up a battalion of invisible troopers despatched by God.

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Credit…Apichart Weerawong/Associated Press

The Htoo boys — one with flowing hair and the poignant contemplation of a Raphael, the opposite with a fierce willpower that belied his younger years — generated worldwide consideration when their campaign resulted in a storm of bullets. At least 100 of God’s Army’s fighters, some kids, have been killed in years of battle. Many extra misplaced limbs, livelihoods and their grip on actuality.

Two a long time later, the Htoo twins’ mystique endures. The boys, now males, are the final connection to a misplaced dwelling for his or her followers, who’ve dispersed the world over, from refugee camps in Thailand to exile communities in locations like New Zealand and North Carolina.

The displaced troopers are from one of many many ethnic teams that make up a world diaspora of refugees that’s now the biggest in historical past. At least 100 million folks around the globe have needed to flee their properties over the previous decade. In Myanmar alone, a couple of million ethnic minorities, principally Rohingya Muslims, have been uprooted by battle since 2016. As Myanmar’s borderlands stay at struggle, United Nations investigators have accused the nation’s military of appearing with genocidal intent in opposition to its personal folks.

After years in exile, Johnny and Luther’s fighters — and even Johnny and Luther themselves — have watched their bodily scars heal. Some of their kids at the moment are Americans, Swedes and New Zealanders, pledging allegiance to different flags.

Credit…Minzayar Oo for The New York Times
Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

But emotional wounds are more durable to shut, particularly when refugee life means a continuing wrestle with menial jobs and nonetheless unfamiliar cultures. Post-traumatic stress stays undiagnosed. The coronavirus stalks their workplaces.

As they escape to farther and colder climates, the previous ranks of God’s Army have discovered that their current continues to be weighted by the previous. Even for the youthful era, those that have by no means set foot in Myanmar, their lives are tied to a village lengthy gone or a military since overwhelmed.

Luther and Johnny’s mom, sisters and different relations have been resettled in Auckland, New Zealand, 12 folks now crammed right into a five-room home. More than a decade after arriving within the nation, the twins’ mom, Pe Khen, can’t get used to the highways or the lack to simply stroll to a pal’s home on a dust path. Everyone is remoted, Ms. Pe Khen stated, even when a dozen relations dwell collectively.

“I want to go home,” she stated. Then she reconsidered. “I don’t want to go home.”

She sighed. Neither was fallacious. But neither was proper.

Everyone within the village close to God’s Mountain, deep in Karen nation, knew that Johnny and Luther Htoo, born in 1988, have been particular.

There was the story of the time when Luther went to wash in a stream and shape-shifted into an outdated man who may need been an apostle. There was the second when Johnny supposedly walked on water, his lengthy hair flowing like they imagined Jesus’ did. By the time the twins have been a decade outdated, the villagers stated, the boys had assembled armies of invisible males who might ambush Myanmar troopers with barely a rustle of bamboo to present away their positions.

The villagers had longed for a messiah, and so they obtained two.

“When I was pregnant, I dreamed that my sons were famous soldiers who wanted to be reborn,” Ms. Pe Khen stated. “After Johnny and Luther were born, life got better. We could hunt more animals in the forest, and we were safe because they protected us.”

The Htoo twins got here from a household that farmed the land and common home made bullets for searching. Myanmar Army offensives pressured them into the forests alongside the porous border between Myanmar and Thailand after they have been in kindergarten, and the boys have been anticipated to hitch the Karen National Liberation Army, the biggest Karen militia, as their father had.

Karen rebels have been preventing the state virtually for the reason that second that the nation also referred to as Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. The new nation was a patchwork federation of the bulk Bamar and dozens of minority teams. But the Karen, some 5 million folks, chafed in opposition to the fledgling authorities’s chauvinism. Some took up arms, as did different ethnic insurgents.

Credit…Thierry Falise/LightRocket, through Getty Images
Credit…Thierry Falise/Lightrocket, through Getty Images

When a xenophobic basic overthrew the civilian authorities in 1962, he justified army rule as essential to preserve the union from collapse.

In the late 1990s, the Karen, pronounced “kuh-REN,” have been on the defensive. Karen insurgents, who had as soon as managed a ministate inside Myanmar, misplaced most of their territory. Hundreds of 1000’s of Karen — not simply Christian like Johnny and Luther however Buddhist and animist, too — fled to refugee camps in Thailand or toiled within the migrant seafood and building industries.

Many of the remainder retreated into the malarial bush, solely to desert their shacks when Myanmar troopers launched offensives. The United States has stated such incursions by the Myanmar army, rife with sexual violence and village burnings, represent ethnic cleaning.

When Luther and Johnny have been toddling round, Myanmar troopers had begun clearing the forest to make manner for a pure fuel pipeline that may convey riches to the nation’s army dictatorship. The Karen who lived on the land obtained virtually nothing.

As Myanmar soldiers surged over the densely forested hills, the Karen National Liberation Army misplaced tons of of troopers. Johnny and Luther stayed to struggle. They have been crack photographs, in a position to lug and regular their weapons in opposition to their small frames. They by no means stepped on land mines. And, villagers stated, they emerged and not using a scratch, whilst bullets flew like monsoon rain.

“It’s like a super power in a movie,” Johnny stated. “You know that you are being shot at but the bullets don’t hit.”

God’s Army was born. The militia’s ranks have been augmented by struggle orphans, who had nowhere else to go, a Swiss Family Robinson crossed with Lord of the Flies. Adult troopers prayed in a circle after which lifted the twins on their shoulders throughout battle, like little one amulets. South Korean Christians despatched donations.

The guidelines of God’s Army hewed to a strict Karen interpretation of Christianity. No eggs, no pork, no alcohol, no mendacity and no swearing. Verses from the Bible have been used as battle directives.

Credit…Thierry Falise/Lightrocket, through Getty Images
Credit…Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

It didn’t appear to matter that the twins cursed and chain-smoked cheroots, that they have been simply boys. Johnny could possibly be petulant. Luther was impish. Both have been too small for his or her military fatigues.

Their followers saved the religion, whilst God’s Army’s grownup commanders partnered with a radical scholar group that laid siege to the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok.

“We did not drink alcohol, and we prayed every day to ask permission from God to make us safe,” stated Eh Na Wah, a former God’s Army main. “We were bulletproof.”

But they weren’t.

Mr. Eh Na Wah was shot in a firefight in 1998, when God’s Army tried to fend off a brigade of Myanmar troopers. Three God’s Army males have been killed in that battle. Mr. Eh Na Wah’s leg was amputated above the knee.

In 2000, members of the extremist scholar group and God’s Army stormed a hospital in Ratchaburi, a Thai city not removed from the border with Myanmar, and took tons of of sufferers as hostages. They have been determined for medical provides for his or her wounded troopers.

The Thai Army responded decisively. All the hostage takers have been killed. Luther and Johnny weren’t a part of the raid, however God’s Army misplaced a few of its greatest fighters. Within a yr, the twins had surrendered to the Thai Army and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand.

God’s Army was completed. The boys weren’t even 13 years outdated.

Of his early maturity, Luther principally remembers the chilly.

In 2009, he left the refugee camp in Thailand for Sweden. He didn’t know a lot in regards to the nation. The folks have been tall, he heard, and pale-headed. He, like his brother, barely reached 5 toes, maybe the results of continual malnutrition.

Someone informed him the seafood was good in Sweden. But the fish, big and meaty, was not just like the small river fish he used to catch, the sweetest flesh between tight bones.

Luther lasted a decade in Gotene, a small city with three different Karen households and one Chinese restaurant. He tried. He thought it could possibly be dwelling. He discovered about Swedish kings and socialism. He married one other Karen refugee, and so they had a toddler. He labored in a neighborhood heart, caring for older folks. He divorced.

Credit…Minzayar Oo for The New York Times
Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

The stress of dislocation has performed out throughout the diaspora. The largest Karen inhabitants within the West is within the United States, the place tens of 1000’s of refugees have congregated.

Life within the United States is materially higher than within the Thai refugee camps or of their homeland, the place most Karen have been subsistence farmers. Yet greater than one-third of Burmese Americans, of whom nearly all of arrivals this century are Karen refugees, dwell under the poverty line, in keeping with the Pew Research Center.

In 2009, Saw Ma Cher, a Baptist pastor who as soon as fought for God’s Army, moved together with his spouse, 5 kids and 13 grandchildren to New Bern, N.C., a river city the place almost 1,00zero Karen have been resettled.

The Karen revitalized New Bern’s Baptist ministries. They introduced new vitality to public faculties.

But neighbors stared when Karen households tried to dry fish exterior. There was a lot to be taught: ATMs, automotive insurance coverage, boneless hen breasts.

One research discovered that the speed of ulcers amongst Karen refugees within the United States was considerably increased than regular, not simply from the stress of struggle, but additionally from the hardship of constructing a brand new dwelling.

In 2015, a Karen teenager who had arrived in New Bern lower than two years earlier walked subsequent door to the place one other refugee household from Myanmar lived and killed three kids with a machete. He is now in a psychological establishment.

Most Karen refugees within the United States find yourself in low-wage jobs, like meat packing. It doesn’t take any English to lop off 2,00zero turkey tails in an hour.

When the coronavirus started infecting staff in factories round New Bern, about 70 Karen fell in poor health. One has died.

“The coronavirus is worse than fighting in the forest because you cannot see the virus,” Mr. Saw Ma Cher, 72, stated.

Sel Lay Moo, whose relations attend the 400-person Karen Baptist Church of New Bern, which Mr. Saw Ma Cher helped discovered, worries each time her father returns from work at a poultry processing plant.

Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times
Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

She arrived in New Bern a decade in the past, at age 9. At faculty, she didn’t know the best way to ask for the lavatory in English, so she needed to maintain it in for hours.

It took her mom 24 occasions to move her driver’s take a look at. Her older sister discovered work at a nail salon, and her older brother is within the Marine Corps.

But Ms. Sel Lay Moo was younger sufficient that English later got here simply. She excelled at college.

Ms. Sel Lay Moo hears the tales each day of the grinding battle again in Myanmar: her uncle’s dying by the hands of the military, a pair of twins who led their folks to glory till all of it shattered.

“Yes, Ma’am,” she stated. “As a kid at a time like that when everything is scary and everyone is fearing the Burmese Army, it’s not surprising to have kids who are so young to lead other people into fighting.”

Her life has taken a distinct path. This yr, Ms. Sel Lay Moo gained a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the primary member of her household to go to varsity.

One day, in his dwelling in Gotene, Sweden, a woolen hat on his head, Luther went on Facebook and plugged in a typical Karen girl’s identify: Naw. He scrolled by the Naws, on the lookout for one which happy him.

For Naw Lay Kapaw Wah, dwelling in a Karen village the place Myanmar troopers had despatched inhabitants fleeing into the forest, the Facebook pal request appeared like a prank. Surely somebody was impersonating Luther Htoo, one of many boy twins who had commanded God’s Army.

It was the actual Luther. He was lonely. After a pair years of on-line relationship, she requested him to come back dwelling to Myanmar. He did two years in the past, Swedish passport in hand. The couple now lives totally on the sting of a forest, sleeping in a hammock or in a shack above the chickens.

“I love Asia,” he stated. “Sweden is very cold.”

When the monsoons don’t fray the cell sign, and when there’s sufficient cash to high up their telephones, they discuss with Luther’s household in New Zealand. (His father died in 2017.)

Credit…Minzayar Oo for The New York Times
Credit…Cornell Tukiri for The New York Times

The twins’ mom, Ms. Pe Khen, video-chats with Johnny, too. She is apprehensive, like everybody else, about his consuming.

“He misses his family,” she stated. “He gets very emotional. I need to take care of him.”

She reached her hand towards the telephone display screen, as if she have been caressing his hair.

Unlike Luther, Johnny has no passport to go to New Zealand. Besides, his mom stated, he’s nonetheless wanted by the Karen.

“I worry that the Burmese Army will shoot him,” she stated. “But they need to fight for our people, for our freedom.”

Johnny and Luther’s youthful sister, Naw Paw Law Tah, is 17. After she finishes highschool, she needs to review vogue or design, possibly. Her indecision is that of any teenager unbound by struggle.

She as soon as wrote an essay for college on the Karen. She wrote about how the Karen name their homeland Kawthoolei, how the Myanmar Army raped and killed, how kids have been became human land-mine detectors.

She tried to explain the cool hills, thick with groves of bamboo, although she has by no means seen them as a result of she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

She wrote about her twin huge brothers, their piety and their powers. “I think it’s cool that they could be invisible,” she stated. Her paper earned an “excellent” in assessments. It was her proudest second at school.

But the homeland of her essay doesn’t exist. Today, the Karen armed teams have fractured into kaleidoscopic shards of acronyms: the Okay.N.L.A., the D.Okay.B.A., the B.G.F., amongst others. Some struggle the Myanmar Army. Some struggle one another.

Across the nation, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities proceed to endure. Damage is inflicted by either side: a nationwide military conditioned to focus on minorities and numerous ethnic militias that see armed wrestle as a cultural obligation.

Some cease-fires exist in paper kind solely. A peace course of has gone nowhere. A nationwide election scheduled for November has laid naked ethnic divisions which have festered for the reason that founding of the nation greater than seven a long time in the past.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is now the nation’s civilian chief. She was as soon as revered by Myanmar’s ethnic teams for the legacy of her father, the independence hero Gen. Aung San, who fashioned a nation by pledging equality for all of Burma’s peoples. Now, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to adequately condemn the army’s abuses implies that she, too, has misplaced the belief of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and of a world neighborhood that after conferred upon her a set of human rights awards.

Johnny and Luther dream of a brand new God’s Army.

On Johnny’s arm is a tattoo, its Karen script tough like that of a kid who grew up within the rainforest, measuring his top in opposition to an M16 rifle.

“From my mother I was born in blood, and I will die in blood, too.”

Luther talks of a cache of weapons he and his followers can entry. He thinks he can turn into invisible once more, if the incantations are proper. Yet he has to plead for cash from his mom to maintain his cellphone lively. His girlfriend concedes that they as soon as prayed collectively on a full moon night time, and Luther remained seen.

“For peace, we want to fight again,” Luther stated. “We want to do this, not only for Karen people, but all people in Burma.”

Padoh Saw Hser Bwe, a joint basic secretary of the Karen National Union, the biggest Karen political pressure, remembers the magical powers that Johnny and Luther used to wield, their standing “just one step lower than God.”

That’s all gone, he stated.

“They have lost their magic power, and they are now in a foolish state,” he stated. “Maybe those guys were something before. But not now.”

Others nonetheless imagine.

“Luther and Johnny will fight for us again,” stated Mr. Eh Na Wah, the God’s Army recruit who now lives in Auckland together with his 9 kids. “As long as they believe in God, as long as they stay away from alcohol, they can lead us.”

Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times
Credit…Minzayar Oo for The New York Times

But the Htoo twins are sometimes drunk. Both are unemployed.

Johnny’s cousin soothes him and holds his fingers, which shake with tremors. He sleeps when others are awake, curled up like a citation mark lacking its companion.

“I miss the jungle,” stated Johnny, who now lives within the village in Thailand, after spending years within the refugee camp. “I miss where I grew up.”

The household of Luther’s girlfriend has informed the village retailer to not promote him extra liquor. He generally vomits blood after his binges. He is again dwelling in Myanmar however nonetheless feels as misplaced as any exile.

“I’m still living,” Luther stated, an accomplishment in itself. “Alcohol can stop my sorrow.”

One night, in a jungle clearing in entrance of their shack, Luther and his girlfriend’s household gathered round a cellphone to look at a video of a gospel choir. The night time bugs hurtled on the display screen, attracted by the sunshine.

Luther moved his lips with the lyrics on the display screen.

“God’s boundless mercy,” he sang. “We will live another day. We will fight the good fight another day.”

Saw Nang contributed reporting from Nat Than Kwin, and Muktita Suhartono from Suan Phueng, Thailand.

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