MANERPLAW, Myanmar — Seven disheveled, emaciated men squat wearily on their heels. Their eyes, sunken in drawn faces, stare at the ground. Intent upon forgetting their ordeals, they offer as few subdued words as possible to the man who is questioning them.
Yes, they know exactly how long they served the soldiers of Myanmar's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). One month and 13 days.
Yes, they were abducted from their village in the Shan state, far to the north, against their will. One, while he was harvesting rice. Another, aroused from sleep at night in his home. Their ages range from 21 to 45 years old. One left behind six children.
All were tied up and trucked off to join about 600 others snatched from their villages to labor as human packhorses for a 200-strong Myanmar army unit. They were told they would only be away for five days. Instead, they labored from sunup to sundown for 44 days. One hauled shells for a rocket launcher. Another lugged heavy bags of rice.
They saw several men walking in front of the column of soldiers. They were human minesweepers. Three or four stepped on land mines, which blew their legs or arms into shreds. They were abandoned by the side of the path to die.
The porters were given one handful of boiled rice twice a day. No water. They dipped their shirts into streams they passed and wrung them out in their mouths.
The soldiers beat them, kicked them. They saw three fellow porters shot to death because they tried to escape. They saw others collapse from the cramps of dysentery or the fevers of malaria.
The sick, too, were left to die in the jungle. While these men were with the soldiers, they saw 100 of their own die. They saw 200 escape. Each time there was an escape, they were beaten, whether they were involved or not.
But they, too, eventually escaped. They were discovered wandering in the jungled mountains of northeast Myanmar and rescued by members of the Karen (Ka-REN) rebel army, one of the ethnic groups fighting Myanmar's military government. They were brought to Manerplaw to recover.
Once they have regained their strength, they will go home, a jungle trek that will take 20 days. If they ever hear the Myanmar army approaching again, they say they will flee.
The questioner, U Kyaw Win, a 59-year-old Burmese-American Orange Coast College counselor and activist, is on the latest of six fact-finding missions to his native country. He points to one of the men. "Recognize that jacket?" he asks a friend. "That's mine. Now it will go with him back to the Shan state." He shakes his head, in sadness, in frustration. He wants to see an end to the fighting that has racked his homeland for 45 years, ever since Britain granted independence to the country, then known as Burma. But all he can do today is give a man a jacket.
The Myanmar army calls the seven men porters. Strangely enough, so do the minority ethnic groups battling with the country's military regime. It is a euphemism so extreme it is laughable. "They were slaves," says Win.
Since the 1960s, the army of Myanmar has pressed people from villages throughout the country into forced labor without pay and without enough food to sustain them. "The porter grabbing began in 1964 in Kachin state" but has escalated recently, says Brang Seng, a former high school principal who is chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization.
During the last four years, as SLORC has stepped up its campaign to subdue the country's 12 million ethnic minority members, tens of thousands of villagers have been abducted.
Last year, the Karen rescued 29 men and women who escaped from the Myanmar army's control. Because the Myanmar army has no pack animals, and since few roads penetrate the rugged terrain of northeast Myanmar, the porters are used to carry army supplies and ammunition over endless waves of jungled mountains.
According to the stories the porters tell, the pattern seems invariably the same. The government soldiers move into a village and confiscate rice as tax. They arrest and spirit away those they believe to be rebel sympathizers. They take items from shops and refuse to pay. They rape the women. And finally they conscript villagers as porters and assign them to units moving to the front lines. Men, women and some children have been taken.
The treatment of the porters varies. Several said they had seen soldiers bury the extremely sick, those who had lost consciousness, in leaves, then set fire to the leaves. The soldiers waited until the victims awoke screaming, then left the victims behind to suffer an agonizingly painful death. Some units released their porters after a few days or weeks, when they became too weak to work. Other porters were never heard from again.
Women porters undergo the worst treatment. They report being raped by one or more soldiers nearly every night and still being forced to carry supplies or ammunition every day.