‘We were bulletproof’: As child soldiers grow up, legacy of war lingers

NAT THAN KWIN, Myanmar — Johnny Htoo lay on a concrete floor. His eyes stared at nothing in particular.

Back when he was a boy, when he and his twin, Luther, commanded God’s Army, Johnny was renowned for seeing what others could not see.

His soldiers, men hardened from one of the world’s most enduring civil wars, believed that Johnny and Luther Htoo could magically shield them from bullets — child talismans for an oppressed people, the ethnic Karen of Myanmar.

Johnny’s cousin hushed the others in the shack on Thailand’s border with Myanmar. They waited for his words. Johnny, now 32, closed his eyes and eased into sleep.

“Drunk,” whispered Hser Ler El, one of Johnny’s friends and followers. “Always drunk.”

Hundreds of miles away, in the forests of eastern Myanmar, the light from a cheap cellphone shone on Luther Htoo’s bare chest, where a tattoo of the flag of the Karen people covered his heart. Below it was a pucker of scarred skin.

Luther pointed to his eye socket, his knee, his thigh. There were at least 10 bullet wounds on his body, he said.

He lapsed into silence. His eyes were glazed.

“Drunk,” said his girlfriend’s mother, Naw Htay Myint. “He’s always drunk.”

Just before the turn of the century, Luther and Johnny Htoo, then not even 10 years old, took command of a Karen militia hundreds strong that aimed to protect the ethnic group from incursions by the Myanmar army. The boys were barely taller than their rifles. But their followers, descendants of Baptists converted by U.S. missionaries, worshipped the twins. Each, they said, could use prayer to conjure up a battalion of invisible soldiers sent by God.

The Htoo boys generated worldwide attention when their crusade ended in a storm of bullets. At least 100 of God’s Army’s fighters, some children, were killed in years of battle. Many more lost limbs, livelihoods and their grip on reality.

Two decades later, the Htoo twins' mystique endures. The boys, now men, are the last connection to a lost home for their followers, who have dispersed across the world, from refugee camps in Thailand to exile communities in places like New Zealand and North Carolina.

The displaced soldiers are part of a global diaspora of refugees that is now the largest in history. At least 100 million people around the world have had to flee their homes over the past decade. In Myanmar, more than 1 million ethnic minorities, mostly Rohingya Muslims, have been uprooted by conflict since 2016. As Myanmar’s borderlands remain at war, United Nations investigators have accused the nation’s army of acting with genocidal intent against its own people.

After years in exile, Johnny and Luther’s fighters — and even Johnny and Luther — have watched their physical scars heal. Some of their children are now Americans, Swedes and New Zealanders, pledging allegiance to other flags.

As they escape to farther and colder climates, the former ranks of God’s Army have found that their present is still weighted by the past. Even for the younger generation, those who have never set foot in Myanmar, their lives are tied to a village long gone or an army since beaten.

Luther and Johnny’s mother, sisters and other relatives were resettled in Auckland, New Zealand, 12 people now crammed into a five-room house. More than a decade after arriving in the country, the twins' mother, Pe Khen, cannot get used to the highways or the inability to just stroll to a friend’s house on a dirt path. Everyone is isolated, Pe Khen said, even if a dozen relatives live together.

“I want to go home,” she said. Then she reconsidered. “I don’t want to go home.”

Everyone in the village near God’s Mountain, deep in Karen country, knew that Johnny and Luther Htoo, born in 1988, were special.

There was the tale of the time when Luther went to bathe in a stream and shape-shifted into an old man who might have been an apostle. There was the moment when Johnny supposedly walked on water, his long hair flowing like they imagined Jesus' did. By the time the twins were a decade old, the villagers said, the boys had assembled armies of invisible men who could ambush Myanmar soldiers with barely a rustle of bamboo to give away their positions.

The villagers had longed for a messiah, and they received two.

The Htoo twins came from a family that farmed the land and fashioned homemade bullets for hunting. Myanmar army offensives forced them into the forests along the border between Myanmar and Thailand when they were in kindergarten, and the boys were expected to join the Karen National Liberation Army, the largest Karen militia, as their father had.

Karen rebels have been fighting the state almost since the moment that the country also known as Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. The new nation was a patchwork federation of the majority Bamar and dozens of minority groups. But the Karen, some 5 million people, chafed against the fledgling government’s chauvinism. Some took up arms, as did other ethnic insurgents.

When Luther and Johnny were toddling around, Myanmar soldiers had begun clearing the forest to make way for a natural gas pipeline that would bring riches to the country’s military dictatorship. The Karen who lived on the land received almost nothing.

As Myanmar infantrymen surged over the densely forested hills, the Karen National Liberation Army lost hundreds of soldiers. Johnny and Luther stayed to fight. They were crack shots, able to lug and steady their weapons against their small frames. They never stepped on land mines. And, villagers said, they emerged without a scratch, even as bullets flew.

“It’s like a superpower in a movie,” Johnny said. “You know that you are being shot at but the bullets don’t hit.”

God’s Army was born. The militia’s ranks were augmented by war orphans, who had nowhere else to go. Adult soldiers prayed in a circle and then lifted the twins on their shoulders during battle, like child amulets. South Korean Christians sent donations.

“We did not drink alcohol, and we prayed every day to ask permission from God to make us safe,” said Eh Na Wah, a former God’s Army major. “We were bulletproof.”

Eh Na Wah was shot in a firefight in 1998, when God’s Army tried to fend off a brigade of Myanmar soldiers. Three of God’s Army men were killed in that battle. Eh Na Wah’s leg was amputated above the knee.

In 2000, members of an extremist student group and God’s Army stormed a hospital in Ratchaburi, a Thai town not far from the border with Myanmar, and took hundreds of patients as hostages. They were desperate for medical supplies for their wounded soldiers.

The Thai army killed all the hostage takers. Luther and Johnny were not part of the raid, but God’s Army lost some of its best fighters. Within a year, the twins had surrendered to the Thai army and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand.

God’s Army was finished. The boys were not even 13.

In 2009, Luther left the refugee camp in Thailand for Sweden. He lasted a decade in Gotene, a small town with three other Karen families.

One day, he went on Facebook and plugged in a common Karen woman’s name: Naw. He scrolled through the Naws, looking for one that pleased him.

For Naw Lay Kapaw Wah, living in a Karen village where Myanmar soldiers had sent inhabitants fleeing into the forest, the Facebook friend request seemed like a prank. Surely someone was impersonating Luther Htoo, one of the boy twins who had commanded God’s Army.

It was the real Luther. He was lonely. After a couple years of online dating, she asked him to come home to Myanmar. He did two years ago. The couple now live mostly on the edge of a forest.

Johnny and Luther dream of a new God’s Army.

Across the country, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities continue to suffer. Damage is inflicted by both sides: a national army conditioned to target minorities and various ethnic militias that see armed struggle as a cultural obligation.

But the Htoo twins are often drunk. Both are unemployed.

One evening, in a jungle clearing, Luther and his girlfriend’s family gathered around a cellphone to watch a video of a gospel choir.

Luther moved his lips with the lyrics on the screen.

“God’s boundless mercy,” he sang. “We will live another day. We will fight the good fight another day.”

Saw Nang contributed reporting from Nat Than Kwin, and Muktita Suhartono from Suan Phueng, Thailand.


Source: https://www.baltimoresun.com/featured/sns-nyt-child-soldiers-legacy-of-war-lingers-20201013-juislld5rzgd7chgxgok2hmlzu-story.html


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