Have you eaten yet? (Aw mee wee lee ar? A traditional and common Karen greeting)
JamYang hunched forward, arms on knees. He was aware of the crawling flies, the piss and the sweat, the dryness in his mouth, the throbbing in his head, the bare grey concrete of floor and walls, the single naked light bulb and the small high-up single paned window; but his mind was blank.
He knew, though, that he had to sit up, mustn’t look defeated.
Slowly he inched himself upwards, felt the greasy slide of sweat. He got upright, shoulders slouched, head dipped.
He couldn’t make sense of it, of why he was here – or how long. A few days? A week? And why hadn’t they tortured him? They hadn’t even taken his ring or his Kayan bracelet. He tried to puzzle it out but it was too exhausting.
He groaned inwardly, tried to raise a hand to push the flies from his arm. He didn’t have the energy, didn’t have the energy to do anything except stare ahead and keep himself from sliding off the stool.
And then he heard them – boots on concrete approaching the room; sound of metal scraping – locks and bolts being undone – and then they were closer. Right outside his door, yanking it open. An SDPC (State Peace and Development Council -Government) official looking up before him, yelling at him in English.
‘Where is she? Tell us where she is and we let you go.’
JamYang shivered in spite of the heat. He tried to understand the words –but his English wasn’t good. Why weren’t they speaking Karen or Burmese? What were they were asking him? What girl? Who are they…?
The baton struck him hard on the shoulder, pain sudden and immediate as a lightning bolt. He crumpled forward, biting his tongue so he wouldn’t cry out. Needing to think beyond the pain.
‘Is she in Thailand?’ the guard barked. ‘Has coward crossed the border yet? We’ve other ways to find her; you may as well tell us, Jam Yang. Yes, we know your name. We know all about you.’
JamYang’s brain was playing its internal cinema again: the village burning, the army shooting the villagers as they ran, Zoya being dragged away by the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army -anti Government Forces). Across the border to safety? Yes, he thought so. He hid for days, a bullet in his arm, without food and water, clinging to life, hoping some of the others were still alive too…
The guard prodded him in the bollocks with the end of the baton. He turned the corners of his mouth into a forced smile. ‘Ha! Kalar (derogatory Burmese word for “black-skinned” people or “undesirable aliens”) You won’t be needing these much, eh? All your women gone to camps in Thailand’ He prodded JamYang’s bollocks again and laughed.
JamYang was shaking now, sweating even more. How was that possible, he wondered, unable to fix his mind on the guard, the baton? Pain. In his groin. In his head. Pain in his whole body, far worse than the bullet wound had been. And then. Nothing.
He woke, prostrate on the cold concrete floor, instantly aware of the pain in his groin, one testicle swollen to the size of a winter melon. He grimaced as he moved his leg. He hadn’t told them anything. Yet. Could he hold out, or would he die here without anyone knowing where he was? He couldn’t think about that. He had to hold on. If they knew where Zoya was they wouldn’t be questioning him. He had to believe that.
The window was jungle-dark, no light from stars or moon. The electric light hurt his eyes, making his head throb as he looked towards the glaring bulb. He strained to hear. No boots. No metal on metal. He pushed himself painfully up and propped his sticky back against the cold grey concrete wall and shuddered. What was that noise in his head? JamYang tipped his head from side to side, then realised the noise was coming from outside. Rain. Coursing down in torrents on the tin roof, rushing down the building in strident waterfalls. He wanted to embrace the rain, to quench himself with it, to worship the river spirit of his ancestors.
‘What strange thoughts, JamYang, when you have no land to worship your gods on, when you are almost certain to die in a concrete hut in the jungle! And now you talk to yourself!’
JamYang jerked his gaze to the uneven floor as something caught his eye: a large jewel beetle was tapping its way across, its casing glinting like rubies and emeralds in the harsh electric gleam. As he pondered where the bejewelled creature had come from a deafening blast rocked the building. A shimmer of fine grey dust coated his clammy body as the ceiling cracked, and two of the walls crumbled into the room. Dazed and afraid, JamYang was unable to react, unable to move.
It might have been minutes later, or hours. JamYang took in the rubble that had been his prison. The noise of the wind was deafening, shaking what trees remained, lashing rain in torrents across the jungle clearing. There was no sign of his captors. His head was pounding and the pain in his bollocks stopped him from thinking straight. A cyclone. It had to be. He dragged his way across what remained of the room and tried to heave himself up on the rubble. Too weak, he collapsed into the heap, scudding his forearms and shins on the rough stone and cement.
‘Huh! At least you will die a warrior and a man.’
He hadn’t heard the approach in the din, but he saw the glint of metal behind the trees. So, he would die at their hands after all. He closed his eyes and waited for the gunfire.
‘Aw mee wee lee ar? Aw mee wee lee ar?’
Loud insistent voices hammered in his head and someone was shaking him violently. He opened one eye cautiously, placed a hand across his groin.
‘Aw mee wee lee ar, JamYang?’
They knew his name. He opened both eyes as wide as his swollen lids would allow.
‘Aung Cho? Am I dead or dreaming?’
She took his hand and held it with a gentle pressure.
‘No, we are both alive. And your brothers too’. She gestured behind her. Skinny men in fatigues, some in tattered longyi (traditional dress) gathered round.
‘The cyclone stopped us getting here sooner. We thought… we thought you might already be dead. The guards have gone. We found two of them dead in the jungle. Listen JamYang there’s a treaty. We have to try and make peace now. Come, let us go home. Let us eat.’
The others joined her now, gently lifting JamYang onto a bamboo stretcher.
‘Zoya?’ The single word stopped them in their tracks. The stretcher bearers turned their eyes to Aung Cho. She looked at the ground and then at JamYang, shaking her head slowly. ‘We’ve had no word’.
JamYang motioned to the men to lower him. He tried to stand but fell back. ‘Don’t just stand there, help me up’.
Four pairs of arms scrabbled towards him, raising him by his arms. He stood and breathed in, trying not to close his eyes, trying not to think.
‘We can eat when I get back’. JamYang took a canteen of water from one of the tribesmen and nodded his thanks. He limped slowly through the rubble and mess of building and jungle, Aung Cho calling his name behind him.
Story first published in ‘An Entertaining Anthology‘ November 2016
Photo Zhang Huan,12 Square Meters, 1994.