Sexual Violence. Suffering. Torture. Death. All these words took human form in Rose. She was not the perpetrator. She was the victim.
The Burma Army had taken much of her most sacred possessions by force. First they took her home, then her country, then her purity, and finally, her husband. Instead of curling into a fetal position of grief and bitterness, she started helping orphans.
The point is, Rose had every reason to hate the soldiers who took so much from her. That is why I was shocked when I went to her shack in 2003 and found a former Burma Army soldier eating lunch with the 60 + orphans and children that lived with Rose.
“Rose, who is he?” I asked while pointing at the skinny guy eating noodles with the children. Inviting me in, she said, “Oh him, he defected from the Burma army and now he’s the night watchman for my home.”
Rose told me how he had come to Ma La Refugee camp earlier in the week, how he asked for asylum, begged for forgiveness. Nobody would listen to him. They wouldn’t give him shelter. They left him in front of the hospital to starve. One day a man passed by and had pity on him and suggested walking up the hill. “There’s a lady there who helps everyone.” He said to this young defector.
Limping to Rose Mu’s shack, he called out to her and begged for mercy. She extended words that transformed him. “I forgive you.” She said.
Having lived through hell on earth where her captors are the officers of this mans army, why did she end up taking him in when 30,000 other refugees (the refugee camp population at the time) refused the same?
Her answer was clear and she replied without hesitation: “Because if you don’t forgive them, you become them.” And she added, “This is what Jesus asks us to do.”
The soldier before her represented the destruction of life as she knew it. He was the symbol of everything wrong in that room, perhaps the very man who killed some of the mothers and fathers of those orphans eating lunch as I talked with Rose that afternoon.
I looked over at the young Burmese soldier and felt inspired. He came begging for mercy and was granted it by the least likely person I knew of. He brought his wife and daughter to the refugee camp to live with Rose. They became Christ-followers too because they wanted more of the love they had met in Rose, and Rose credited Jesus as the source of her strength. He and his family lived with Rose until she died a year later.
If you want to meet God, hang out with a lady like Rose.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45
My ego centric version of faith was quickly revealed shallow by a stateless widow with two small children in Sho Klo Refugee camp.
“Hello-o! How are you today?”
Her voice was the sound of brightly colored flowers, laughter and joy; the sound of someone who cares, loves, and reaches out to people; whose soul is thriving.
“Oh do come in to my house,” she said with a slightly British accent, “Come in and share lunch with me. Do you like curry? Ha-ha-ha! Come in, come in!”
There were well-watered flowers planted in old coffee tins on the porch of her bamboo home. The dirt in front of her porch was well worn and swept clean.
“Yes, we love curry!” said Oddny with a smile, and then reached out to Rose Mu with the traditional Karen handshake. Right palm gripping hers while the left palm grasps your own elbow in a sign of humility and honor.
Pictures of Swiss chalets and Dutch tulips hung on her walls.
“Where did you get those?” I asked.
Laughing, with her right hand covering her mouth, and her pinky finger aiming down, she answered, “magazines. My children and me cut them out of old magazines and hung them on our walls. So beautiful aren’t they?”
Handing me a battered tin cup of lukewarm leaf tea, I marveled at this woman. She was vivacious, about 40 years old, always on the verge of laughter. She obviously had a boundless supply of energy.
While we sipped our tea, I noticed a white leather album leaning on the only bamboo shelf in her shack. “What is that?” I asked curiously. Laughing quietly now, she gently dusted it with her course palms and set it tenderly on the low table we were sitting beside.
“This is my wedding album.”
We turned the pages with a sense of wonder. Black and white pictures of Rose in her wedding gown, Rose and her husband getting into a long black colonial era car, and finally, a photo of the home they were meant to settle into, have babies, and raise a family. It was like a fairytale storybook from another prosperous world, another time.
“My husband is dead.” Was all she said when we closed the album. It was awkward to know what to say, so after expressing our condolences, we just kept asking questions to get a full portrait of this remarkable character.
We learned that Rose was a teacher. She had gone to the University of Rangoon. She was from a wealthy family and born in a privileged social class. Her husband was veterinarian on his way to becoming a doctor. They were well off. Their genuine leather album, command of English, and mannerisms made that clear.
Our talk eventually led back into how her husband died, that he was helping the prodemocracy movement and ended up on the wrong side of the then called, State Law and Organization Restoration Council (SLORC). She believed he had been murdered. Further more, because of her husbands contact with the underground freedom movement, the regime arrested Rose and put her in Insien prison, known throughout the whole country as a sort of hell on earth, especially for women.
Her story and the stark contrast, in fact, apparent contradiction, of her demeanor and joyful presence was nothing short of a miracle. I couldn’t help wondering how she could live through such pain and loss then come out of the experience with anything but bitterness. Her story made me question Gods Goodness. So how on earth does it not make her question the same?
Earlier in the day at St. James Church I assured a group of 400 refugees that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives; that if they would only trust and obey Him, they would be healthy, provided for, protected, and enjoying the abundant life on earth, eternal life in heaven.
Walking down the path after church to meet Rose, I was already off balance. I was feeling vaguely sick about what I had just said and somehow sure that my words were not what Jesus would have said to a group of refugees. But this was the gospel message wasn’t it? This was the good news, right?
Now meeting Rose, my sense of uncertainty grew. She obeyed God and helped her fellow survivors. She was a picture of faithfulness. She prayed regularly, went to church, led the women’s association, taught children’s Sunday school classes and so much more. There was no doubt in my mind that she loved God and that love was demonstrated in her actions. If anyone were truly in touch with God, it was Rose.
What did it get her? A dead husband. Violated. Stateless and homeless, dependent on foreign aid, and living among 9000 other people with stories as brutal as hers.
The sun was starting to set. Oddny and I wanted to stay with Rose, but we had to leave. I had so many questions running through my mind. If I were Rose I am quite sure I would be bitter, angry, broken. So what is the source of her strength?
Why is this woman so happy?
“Bye Rose. We enjoyed our day and look forward to meeting again. Your story was very moving and your joy is an inspiration. We will come back next month.”
“That will make me very happy,” she said as we stood and moved for the porch. “I’ll make you another special curry!”
As we walked back out through the sprawling trails to the camp entrance, I had one clear thought. I was a hypocrite.
I met hungry children and instead of getting to know them and helping them satisfy the grind of hunger and malnutrition, I told them Jesus loved them and left. They are still hungry, still homeless, and terribly vulnerable. They are also no closer to love, having heard an American know-it-all explain an egocentric version of Christ’s gospel.
Humbled by the church experience we met Rose. According to my message that morning, she should be driving a BMW, living on acreage in the country, and eating steak with name brand silverware. It was easy to see that my message was fouled, but how exactly?
“Oddny, this changes everything,” I said quietly as we jumped into the back of one of the many red trucks that troll the border road and serve as taxis.
“This changes everything.”
Our first ‘team’ on our first ‘outreach’: Oddny and Christy in rubber boots swore to the merits of their foot gear for rainy season movement. Ironically Oddny’s galloshes were Viking brand.
To save 50 cents, Jeff made he and his wife to be ponchos from stiff clear plastic. Jeff never did admit that he was the one who kept breaking wind in the hotel room.
The girls stayed dry but quit the boot habit after our trip. The ponchos didn’t really work but made great conversation. And yes, it was you smelling the room up, Jeff!
I felt that the Royal Thai Army guard should have stopped me, asked for my ID, and drilled me with questions, assuming I was an infiltrator. But he didn’t. His M-16 was leaning against the bamboo hut right next to the hammock he was lounging in. As I walked by, he barely noticed me.
His duty was guarding the entrance to Sho Klo Refugee camp. In front of the entrance was a small field. It had a market atmosphere with bales of cooking charcoal, bundles of leaf roofing materials, and cases of cooking oil being delivered to porters and stored in large bamboo buildings built to keep rats out. They were the only buildings I noticed with tin roofs to keep the NGO supplied wares safe from the rain.
As I walked down the trail through rows of light brown shacks I wondered at how clean everything seemed. Each hut owner took special care to sweep the loose dirt and refuse from food preparation into holes to be buried or burned. The resulting earth around each hut was clean and packed hard by bare feet.
On the back porch of each hut an aluminum pot sat upside down drying beside a couple tin spoons and plastic give away cups with Nestle or Coke logos on them. They had been scoured with sand and rinsed in the river, now prepared for the next batch of rice or ginger root soup.
Many of the dwellings had flowers growing from old cookie tins or depleted mortar shells.
The bamboo used to construct each row of orderly huts lent architectural appeal that I liked. All those clean lines gave the exfoliated hills a blue print like sense of order and design.
With fragrant smells of cooking, chili peppers frying, oil boiling, and exposed dirt in the air, I continued through the camp, staring and trying to process all the things I was seeing.
“He stepped on a landmine,” my host said.
She noticed me looking up at an elderly man on his porch, leaning forward to see whom these strange visitors were. One leg whole, the other a prosthetic plastic and wood contraption. His face was scarred with small marks and one of his eyes was missing. His one eye regarded me. Looking back at him I saw a vacant sign. For rent it said. Nobody home.
“Land mine?” I replied.
“Yes, many people here step on the landmine. The ones who made it here are lucky.”
Our guide, Elvira was the daughter of Molly Moo. She didn’t know how old she was or when she was born. Molly Moo and her husband had 49 grandchildren and something like 18 of their own kids. Elvira was one of their many daughters born towards the end of their child-bearing age. My wife and I guessed she was 18.
Elvira told me about the things people in the camp endured, while pointing out specific examples of the abuse she listed.
“She was tortured,” pointing with puckered lips at a woman washing clothes by a steel pump well. “The things they did to her we don’t talk about.”
“That boy by the big tree. His parents were killed, he is a, what do you call that?”
“An orphan” I said.
“Yes, an orphan.”
Elvira talked about so many things I had never seriously considered before. War. Rape. Torture. Whole villages being burned down on purpose; ancestral rice fields and meeting places booby-trapped with land mines. Elvira talked solemnly about children disappearing, being forced into the army, or worse.
“Why? Why do they do this?”
“They hate us. They hate our Karen people” was all she said.
After winding our way over some steep hills and through clusters of quickly built dwellings, we arrived at St. James church. The priest met me in front of his long bamboo and eucalyptus beam church, with a broad smile and handshake.
It was Sunday. I was the special speaker. I was seated in front of about 400 church members on a hand made teak chair while everyone else sat cross-legged on the split bamboo floor. From my elevated position I sat with wide-eyed wonder.
Through the cracks in the floor men would drip gobs of beetle nut spit, dark red and viscous, down to the ground. Mothers would hold their babies to pee and any small sized scrap of refuse found its way to these genius portals of nature.
Nursing mothers were feeding their children while the priest led mass. Some would finish nursing and absent-mindedly leave their breast hanging openly. Kids would come and go; mostly to their mothers who sat together on the left side of the room.
It was an Anglican church, with High-Church tradition. They followed the Church of England calendar and closely regarded the liturgy. The priest was a tall and kind man named Swe Mye. He wore a white robe. He was from Tongoo.
When he introduced me as the special guest speaker I stood and walked to the pulpit as if in a dream. I remember this moment with intense clarity because it felt so awkward and strange.
I delivered a very American sermon, reassuring the congregation that God loved them and had a plan for their life, that if they seek him and learn obedience, he would bless them because that is His nature. I was on autopilot. I reproduced what I had learned –what I thought was the gospel.
I walked out of the church and ruffled the tightly cut hair of some little boys playing in the dirt, then shook hands with the parishioners as they streamed out of St James church into the maintained dirt trails spiraling through the hills full of huts.
As we started down the hill with Rev. Swe Mye, I reflected to myself that this picture was all wrong, that my sermon was wrong; that what I called the gospel couldn’t function in this refugee camp.
What is that feeling? What did I miss?
Feeling ambivalent I continued down the trail to the last row of huts built alongside the small River running through the camp. In the fourth post structure on the left was the shelter of Rose Mu.
A widow in Sho Klo Refugee camp was about to become my most important teacher.