A Myanmar medical student who left Yangon to provide care in a conflict zone describes a life of constant danger and upheaval, but also burning commitment to the revolution.
I left my home in Yangon in March last year to take part in the revolution. I’ve been living in a war zone ever since.
Before I left for Karenni State, also known as Kayah, I was a final-year medical student. My boyfriend, who arrived in Karenni two months ahead of me, was a qualified doctor.
At the first village we stayed at, we’d wake up each morning pouring with sweat from the heat. There we established a makeshift hospital with a team of doctors and medical students. Our group of about 30 people provided care to displaced people in an area of eastern Demoso Township where there were no other health facilities.
The village was far from active conflict and surrounded by mountains, so we felt we had little to fear from mortar fire and air strikes. But after little more than a month, I heard the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life: a shrill whine that ended in a deafening thud. My boyfriend and I were on 24-hour duty at the hospital, and we rushed all the patients and staff into nearby woodland. Fortunately, only one house empty of people was destroyed in the mortar attack.
Two months later, on the night of June 2, the sky was reverberating with the sound of mortar fire. I found myself crouching in the corner, tightly shutting my eyes, thinking that this could be my last day. Shells rained down in front of and behind the hospital, seemingly encircling it. But miraculously, none of them struck the building.
As the chaos subsided, a man from the village with shrapnel in his chest was brought in for emergency treatment. Our team desperately tried to save him, but in vain. By chance, the man had visited that morning with his two-month-old daughter for a routine procedure. That night broke my heart and left me trembling with fear.
We decided to relocate. After a lot of hard work, we established a functioning hospital in a new village, powered by solar panels and diesel generators. The facility was complete with an operating theatre, laboratory and X-ray, and was staffed by technicians, surgeons, doctors, nurses and medical students like me.
We did our best to stay clean and healthy but the conditions didn’t always make this easy. A 10-minute walk from our rooms took us to a communal concrete bath connected to a water source in the forest. There, men and women would bathe together in their longyis. But during the walk back, we would often be made dirty again as vehicles and cattle sprayed us with mud and dust.
Despite the distance from the fighting, we heard the echoes of grenades and aerial bombs. Our whole team suffered from PTSD. After seeing first-hand how much destruction an air strike and other weapons can cause, I developed a traumatic response – even flinching at the sound of a door slamming, a car engine starting or thunder rumbling. Sometimes, I was even frightened by the wind whistling.
If we heard the sound of jets, we instantly fled to bomb shelters, which we dug into the earth wherever we settled. And it wasn’t just us – even our pet cats and dogs ran to safety. But even when we slept, we couldn’t escape. The jets still threatened us in our dreams.
On other nights, when we gazed at the starry sky, we were disturbed by the whir of enemy drones, which moved like shadows against the stars. But despite the many dangers, we were determined to support those in need.
On the morning of October 12, a shell landed in the hospital compound. I was paralysed with fear, but my boyfriend swiftly pulled me into a sheltered corner of the room we were in, as rubble fell from the ceiling. Feeling helpless, I wanted to scream.
As with the other attacks, there was no fighting nearby at the time. It seemed clear to us that the hospital wasn’t merely collateral damage – the junta had deliberately targeted it.
After what felt like forever, we cautiously emerged from our hiding spot, only to encounter one of our medics crying for help with blood trickling from her head. One of the doctors rushed to pull her from the rubble as the rest of us rallied, dressing her wound and tending to another colleague with a minor injury.
It was clear we had to seek out a safer sanctuary, but we were already weary from the constant upheaval. Yet, none of us had regrets or thought of surrender. Our commitment to the revolution burned brightly in all of us. We would keep going, no matter the cost.
We settled on a new location deep within a forest and far from any populated areas. Everyone helped transport building materials and construct our new haven – a revolutionary hospital in the forest.
Over two months, the hospital gradually took shape, backed by towering rocks and ringed by trees. We believed these natural barriers would hide and protect us. But we hadn’t reckoned with the unforgiving coldness of the forest. Each night left us shivering, praying for the dawn.
While many chose to sleep in the bomb shelters, a skin allergy made that too uncomfortable for me, so I slept in a hut above ground. This meant I had to quickly run to the shelters when a jet was heard overhead. It was too unsafe to use any artificial light, so I would often get bruises and cuts as I rushed through the darkness.
On the night of March 29 this year, we heard that the military had invaded a village two hours’ drive away and was setting houses on fire. The next morning, we shuttered the hospital and our entire team relocated to western Demoso. We returned after about two weeks and resumed our work.
Our days were exhausting. Our hospital admitted Karenni soldiers with major injuries from shells and landmines, as well as gunshot wounds. Under the guidance of specialist surgeons, we conducted three to six major operations each day, lasting three to five hours each. We continued to operate even as battles raged nearby. The hours would tick by fearfully as drones and fighter jets passed overhead.
Sometimes we’d be divided into smaller teams, each including a doctor and medical student, and be sent to the front lines of the conflict to care for wounded resistance fighters. One time, a frontline team was targeted in an air strike. Fortunately, they had time to run to safety, although a medical student got burnt palms from the blast of the 500-pound bomb.
On the morning of May 20, we woke as usual to do our chores. I was assigned to kitchen duty that day, meaning a pre-dawn start. But at 6:30am, a plane flew overhead and we all rushed to our bomb shelters before the air strike hit. Fortunately, only one person sustained a minor injury. But our wooden shelters and the hospital we had built from our sweat – including the brick-built operating theatre, X-ray machine, lab and store of medicines and equipment – were destroyed. We had to quickly abandon our forest haven with only the clothes we were wearing and a few rations, leaving everything else behind.
That place had been our home for months. Relocating for the third time was as painful as the first, and we knew it wouldn’t be the last time we’d have to flee.
Our new home was in a village in Hpruso Township, south of Demoso. Lacking our own shelters, we crammed into two small houses that we rented from the community.
Unlike in the other locations, where we could only access the internet after an arduous trek or dangerous drive to an area with connectivity, we could use mobile internet. However, this usually only lasted until about 3pm each day, when the solar power to the nearby mobile network tower was cut. On overcast days, there was no internet at all.
More challenging, though, was the lack of a reliable water supply. To conserve fuel, we could only take occasional trips to fetch water from elsewhere. This meant we could only shower every two or three days, despite the sweltering heat.
The monsoon soon came, though, and it’s hard to describe the joy we felt in the pouring rain. But with rain, other troubles surfaced. Many of us caught the flu and, with few mosquito nets to go around, three teammates suffered from malaria. The rain also brought many snakes out of the undergrowth and we didn’t have enough long leather boots to go into the forest. We also lacked enough anti-venom to treat more than a few bites, but because of the precautions we took, it wasn’t needed.
The biggest blow, however, came three weeks after we arrived, when the head of the village told us that the villagers no longer wanted us there. Because our medical team was involved in the revolution, they feared their village could suffer the same fate as the previous places we’d stayed at, and be destroyed by mortar and air strikes.
This left us feeling homeless, helpless and hopeless. Once again, we uprooted ourselves and began building new homes in another village two hours’ drive away, with no idea of how long we’d be able to stay.
An air strike can destroy our homes and possessions but not our spirits. We grieve our losses but never want to give up. Whenever I feel exhausted or despondent, I listen to Taylor Swift songs to lift myself up.
We often find ourselves longing for the comfort of our homes, the warmth of our families and the taste of our favourite foods. With no electricity at night, the darkness matches the uncertain path ahead of us, making us question when and if we will ever return home.
But by singing songs about our beloved mothers and cherished homes, we act to fill the void left by their absence. We also find strength in knowing that our journey, with its many challenges, is a proof of our commitment.
We are planning to build a new hospital underground to withstand air strikes and mortar fire. In the meantime, we travel between villages as a mobile clinic, caring for children, pregnant women, the elderly and whomever else is in need. Sometimes, we are called to the front lines to treat the wounded. When time allows, several colleagues and I study for our final-year medical exam, administered by the Interim University Council of the National Unity Government.
We will keep up our role in the Karenni revolution. We believe our work is essential not only for the Karenni soldiers fighting the junta, but also for displaced communities. I believe we will win, and I believe in our team. We don’t share the same blood, but we are a family that has faced many obstacles together – risking death and going weeks without meat or any of the other luxuries we were once used to. We will move forward united, until the coup is undone.