Field Report: The Price of Freedom
7 June 2022
A Personal Reflection from FBR Team Member
Jue Aung sat off by himself when I came into the room. There were five other men who all gave polite smiles when I greeted them, but not Jue Aung. He tried his best to avoid making eye contact with me and he wouldn’t smile. He looked sad. He allowed sadness to cover his face in the particular way that an eighteen-year-old seems to know how to do better than anyone else. Jue Aung is missing half of his left leg; it was blown off by a landmine on 10 February 2022. He, and the five other Karenni men here who suffered similar injuries, now sit and wait for their stumps to heal well enough to have prosthetics fitted. We visited them where they are waiting and healing: Jue Aung, Francis, Michael, Day Reh Htoo, Aung Thaung and Aung Thu – six young men whose lives have been forever changed by their fight for freedom.
I was there the morning of 10 February, with Jue Aung, Michael and Francis, in Demoso, Karenni State. It is a morning that I will never forget, like Jue Aung, Francis, and Michael will never forget.
Francis, who used to be a fireman before the coup, now is a soldier in the Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF) Battalion 1. That morning they were going to attack the Burma Army camp and were in very heavy fighting and being mortared. It was around 9:30 a.m. when Francis stepped on a Burma Army landmine. Nowadays it seems sometimes there are more mines than people in Demoso. The FBR team there evacuated him under fire and FBR medics treated him and saved his life that morning. He lost his right leg just below the knee and a great deal of muscle around his hamstring. He is 26 years old.
Not long after Francis stepped on a landmine, Michael, a 23-year-old soldier assaulting from a different part of Demoso, came under heavy mortar fire. One mortar landed beside Michael and the shrapnel sliced his left leg off and mangled his right leg. His left leg is now gone from the mid-thigh down.
18-year-old Jue Aung was a high school student before the coup but as the military took over, he wanted to do something to stand against the dictators and fight for freedom in his land. He joined the KNDF and chose to be a medic; he got a few weeks of medic training before going to the front line. That morning he ran in to help Michael as the bullets were flying and Michael was at risk of bleeding out. As he made his way through the hail of bullets, he, too, stepped on a hidden Burma Army mine, becoming a casualty himself. As he lay on his back, looking up at the sky, blood coming out from his leg, he said his mind felt numb. With his bloody hand, he reached up and clung to the rosary that was around his neck.
Aung Thaung, the oldest of this group of amputees, is 30 years old. He lost his left foot on 20 November 2021. The Burma Army came and ambushed his KNDF camp, forcing them to temporarily flee. When they regrouped, they pushed the Burma Army back but Aung Thaung soon found out that the Burma Army had laid mines all around their camp. He stepped on one and lost his foot.
Day Reh Htoo used to be a farmer. This 21-year-old who lived outside of Loikaw used to help his father plant and harvest rice. When his family was forced to flee, and his rice field became the trenches and bunkers of the front line, he too joined the resistance, trying to fight back so he could get his land back. “I just want a simple life,” he told me. On 21 February 2022, he was assaulting a Burma Army camp only a few minutes’ drive from his home; there he stepped on a landmine and lost his right leg just below the knee.
Finally, there is Aung Thu, who has a wonderful toothy smile that he has no business sharing as often as he does, considering his left leg is missing from below his knee. He was holding the front line outside of Loikaw when a Burma Army mortar landed near him. He had been sitting with his friend when the Burma Army started mortaring them. They both dove for cover when the rounds impacted, but both were hit. His friend was killed by the shrapnel, and Aung Thu lost his leg. As he reflects on the day, I can see him watching the memory in his mind as he gazes off into the distance. “I only wish I could have saved my friend,” he says.
The story of these six is sadly a common one in Karenni State. These young people have given their limbs and lives out of desperation for freedom, and thousands more continue to take the same risks every day. Francis said to me, “I was doing my duty that morning. I didn’t want to lose my leg, but I knew it was a possibility because the risks are so high. I accept what happened to me and when I heal, I will go back to my battalion and keep fighting the Burma Army.”
These six men are heroes. Their lives will never be the same again. But their hope for freedom was not lost when their legs were. They want to go back and keep helping their people. They want to get rid of the Burma Army and the dictators. They want freedom, and have paid a heavy price for it.
Thank you and God bless you,
Free Burma Rangers