“How many of you, in the last three years, have experienced that one of your friends or family has been beaten, raped or killed by the army?” I asked. Seventy-five percent of them raised their hands.
I was in a small village a day’s hike into the jungle, teaching a short course on basic Human Rights, Freedom of Religion or Belief and how to document abuses of these. The people I was teaching were all from the local ethnic group which was in conflict with the national authorities. They had been selected by their leaders to receive training from an organization called the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) led by my friend David. Many villages in that area were destroyed and more were added to the list weekly. This caused a huge number of people to be displaced. Many were forced to flee (called Internally Displaced People or IDPs) into the jungle with nothing more than what they could hastily carry on their backs. And countless children were separated from their parents. FBR provided training to local people who would wander into the jungle to help find these people and meet their needs.
I live in a part of the world where egregious and systematic violations of Human Rights very seldom occur and where the government, by and large, is perceived as something good for most people, a respecter, protector and promoter of Human Rights. The people I was teaching did not have the same perception of their own government. The military that should have existed to protect them was engaged to keep them under control, to forcibly move them, if necessary, from areas with natural resources the military junta wanted for itself. It was a military that forced the local people to perform hard manual labor with little or no compensation, that demanded that local villages provide them with sustenance and that used rape and violence as a tool to maintain control. There was a palpable culture of fear amongst the local people.
Yet in the few days that I spent with these people I didn’t see any signs of bitterness. There was no talk of revenge or getting even. Rather there was a feeling of calm joy and a sense of purpose. The people I was teaching about Human Rights were also being taught, among other things, by a doctor to help provide medical care, they were provided with training in how to dismantle a landmine (and there are plenty of them in the jungle) and they were educated in how to aid those who had been severely traumatized. Special consideration was given to ways in which to meet the needs of children. Upon completion of their training these brave volunteers were divided into teams, provided with equipment and then sent out into the jungle for missions to find and help IDPs fleeing army forces.
I was and am still deeply moved when I think about the times I was allowed to participate in the lives of these lovely people. And while I hope that I was able to teach them a few things that could be useful for them in their work, I have also learned a lot from them; about love, forgiveness and courage.
Here is the motto of the FBR which is recited by all the members before every meal as a sort of prayer and blessing:
Love each other.
Unite and work for freedom, justice and peace.
Forgive and don’t hate each other.
Pray with faith, act with courage, never surrender.
Words of wisdom that apply not only in a war torn jungle, but in my world as well. What about yours?