‘On the way to an ambush’, Bruce Connew, April 1999
“She dawdles forward to the television, still stiff from sitting but with the assurance of petty responsibility, and jabs the buttons of the video machine to rewind a Rambo movie. Perhaps she is the General Secretary’s daughter, or his batman, I don’t know.”
Thirty boy soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army shuffle off the General Secretary’s bamboo verandah, down the stairs and into the night of Manerplaw, some to barracks and others home to their parents. As they leave, a slight young Karen woman in over-sized battle fatigues uncrosses her legs, leans back onto her left hand and, with barely a sigh, pushes herself up from the floor. She dawdles forward to the television, still stiff from sitting but with the assurance of petty responsibility, and jabs the buttons of the video machine to rewind a Rambo movie. Perhaps she is the General Secretary’s daughter, or his batman, I don’t know. I want to talk to her, but she’s fixed on the appliance. I turn toward the General Secretary, at whose invitation I'm sitting here, but before I say a word, he pitches a question straight at me.
“Do you know Colonel Travis?” He must have held onto this through the entire movie.
I have no idea who Colonel Travis is, and can’t think why I should. Even so, I go sheepish, like I’m holding back. It’s so soon after the movie. The General Secretary is very important to me. On his nod, I'll get to go where I want. I'm eager to please, but can’t think what to say.
“With us, with us,” he half shouts. “From your country. SAS.”
SAS? A New Zealander? He’s got to be kidding. Sure, the Special Air Service reaches into some unlikely events. But the Karen? No one’s been interested in the Karen in the forty years they've been fighting the Burmese.
“How long’s he been here?”
I look to the young woman and the rewinding tape, hoping still to catch her eye, but she swishes back her long black hair with a calculated aloofness that says don’t bother. Travis, the General Secretary tells me, has been with the Karen three years. Right now, he’s in Bangkok.
After a week at Mae La, in the wet heat and political undercurrents of the Karen trenches, I returned to Mae Sot back over the border in Thailand for a short spell at the Siam Hotel. I collected my letters from home at the post office and my faxes from an Indian drapery shop.
Tim, my seven-year-old, had faxed asking where he could find his birth certificate; he needed it to register for rugby league. I faxed back telling him to look in the third draw of the filing cabinet under Documents.
There was a letter from nine-year-old Jane telling me about a car smash she was in, on Orewa bridge near home, not long after I had flown out. Both Sally, my eldest, and Tim were in the car too, and a friend of theirs. “It was totally freaky,” Jane said. They were okay, only a few scratches, but they could have been killed.
Afterwards, I bought a buttered waffle and an ice-cold Coke from an old woman two blocks away at a sidewalk stall.
Tee Moo joggles me awake at the pitch of a rollicking dream, and I flick out of it too quickly, and it’s gone. Daybreak is still a few minutes away as we boot-up and cross to the kitchen hut for warm rice. It’s a brief meal, and immediately afterwards, while the raiders coddle their weapons, I check and clean my cameras — a leather neck strap broke yesterday on the way up the mountain but, luckily, Tee Moo was able to replace it with tubing from a medical drip. Together, we soot-blacken our faces. An early morning mist obscures our destination and, importantly, will keep our departure hidden from Burmese eyes.
Yesterday, just before sundown, I blinkered my view from the fort, and fixed on the mass of jungle below, and the high, endlessly replicating hills. It looked such a picture that it was difficult to conceive of the killing that went on down there. Splendour, it would seem, is able to soothe away a carefully constructed vigilance, as if beauty on its own can preclude violence. Vacating the fort, I can’t help thinking what a trap that is.
We quickly leave the plateau, clambering down over rocks, at first, and then in formation along a narrow track to a valley below. We avoid the easier, more regularly mined routes, by going the hard way. Less direct but safer, Travis says. We break around lunchtime, search out water, cook rice (I’ve never had so much rice), and move on within the hour. It’s so stinking hot that water has become a precious commodity, and its whereabouts potent information.
Sometimes, the scouts get it wrong, for all their local knowledge, and take you up — never down — a blind track. You can tell when this happens. The line stops and a pressing debate develops among Travis, Tee Moo and the hapless scout. Travis closes his eyes and sighs deeply, and I get quietly angry, because, invariably, it means scrambling up another hill or wrenching yourself through convoluted undergrowth and over fallen trees. It’s such an enormous effort. I can’t believe that no one else seems bothered. At this point, and probably because I’m agitated, I stare at Travis and couldn’t care less what makes him tick, or why he’s here. I care more, right now, about my thirst, about losing my legs and that point eight of a second calculation. I watch and watch the three of them gesticulate in different directions; lives are inexplicable. I can only guess at explanations for Travis’s soldierly presence in Burma, and even then be wide of the mark. His few quixotic justifications confuse rather than clarify, and perhaps baffle him too; stories, fictions, like the photographs I’m grabbing here. I think I see a little kid behind his face, before his parents were gone, struggling to lift a lamb (I place him on a farm, for some reason) when he’d been told not to, laughing, doing it anyway, and I try to imagine him with his parents dead. We left-wheel in tight formation, dodging each other’s eyes, and space out as we trudge back down the track.
There are occasions when walking in our line through the jungle, suddenly, out of nowhere, somebody passes us by: a monk with a parasol, or girl with a dead lizard across her shoulder. No one seems surprised, but I always get a fright.
From what I can work out, each Karen village, on the way, keeps its own militia linked with the KNLA, or certainly Travis’s arm of it. Yet when we set foot in the village where we’re to sleep the second night, there is an atmosphere of suspicion, caution, for twenty minutes or so. Only the occasional person lurks about at a distance or half-hidden behind a hut. It’s peculiar, eerie. Travis lets me in on it later. The village militia monitors its territory and sounds a silent alarm back through the jungle at the approach of any possible threat. Everyone efficiently slides into the bush and waits, slowly filtering back as word spreads that it’s safe. Back at his hideaway near Manerplaw, Travis had shown me several colour snapshots he’d taken (and keeps with him) of the tortured and mutilated bodies of babies and children from a Karen village, their mothers and fathers broken and strewn about. The aftermath, he said, of a raging Burmese army. I couldn’t stop looking at them.
As the village slowly comes alive again and a game of spirited hackie sack kicks into action, Travis picks the moment to solicitously hold out a large bag of mixed sweets for the children who recover their pluck and quickly move in. I nab one or two liquorice allsorts for myself as the scurry begins. The adults hang back until Travis produces pharmaceutical drugs: malarial prophylactics, nausea and diarrhoea tablets and vitamins. One little boy, proud on his mother’s hip, has, I can see, one eye milky white with glaucoma, but there’s nothing in Travis’s kit that can help. Travis has his medic look at him, anyway. “Nothing we can do,” Travis interprets for me. “He’s had it, really. He’ll go blind.” The villagers crowd around with their problems, fixed on each other’s consultations, and, in turn, take their pills, advice or despair, and back out from the gathering.
Later, the raiders wash together in the cool, shallow stream that runs beside the village, each in his underwear. It’s an opportunity to observe quite intricately patterned leg tattoos, a chest image of Che Guevara, and rougher, almost quick sketches of tigers and perhaps other animals that I can’t work out in the discreet glances I allow myself. The smell of cooked pork floats tantalisingly through the splashing while the men launder their clothes vigorously, and put them back on to dry. Before bathing, Travis had lined up his men — “d’line, d’line,” he shouted — and lectured briefly on weapon housekeeping, about being prepared, before dismissing them to clean and make ready their tools of trade. The young men of the village, some of whom are scouts already or in the militia, Travis tells me, lay woven mats on the ground outside and then stand watching the visitors eat, their rifles beside them. I look from man to man about the uneven circle and notice that the soot-camouflage they have rinsed from their faces has left a mascara line right round each eye.
I can’t stop eating the pork and gorge way past politeness, resisting a general move away from the meal across to the other side of the village where some sort of ritual is taking place. At first, I think it’s a funeral with all the long, thin candles dancing in the dusk, but there’s no body. The candles are everywhere, stuck to metal bowls and on thick bamboo poles. A couple of the raiders take part, while the others watch in a brotherly way from the edges. Everyone, children too, wants to poke coins into the end of a bamboo pole as if it’s a piggy bank. The crush obscures my view, and I can’t see how they seal the end before hoisting the pole straight up and down and fixing it in position. Typically, I fail to check out the significance of what’s happening, even the next morning when the ceremony continues with clusters of villagers singing and chanting as they walk around and around and around a tall pole off which hang bundles of fabric. There is more folded cloth in a basket that shares the base of the pole with a small shrine and a tin plate of the same sort that Walter had left on Saw Dee’s lifeless chest. Even here, the raiders have their weapons in hand.
Four days out from Manerplaw, we enter the vicinity of Travis’s ambush target, leaving behind the comparative sanctuary of the Karen villages. We camp the night spread out in the dry creek bed we have been following intermittently since early afternoon. Tonight, Tee Moo unwraps the marvellous comfort of a totally enclosed zip-up hammock.
“Mosquito-proof . . . malaria.” When I explain that my regular Tuesday dose of malarials will safeguard me anyway, he laughs. The strains have become so virulent, Travis calls out, that infection is inevitable.
Tee Moo strings up my hammock next to the already installed Travis. I raise a confident leg up and land on the ground to a creek bed of chortles, so I try backside first and swing gracefully in, tipping my cap to the audience. Tee Moo picks up my camera from the ground and motions to photograph the two of us side by side in the low light, with our heads poking out from half-closed hammocks, and with big grins through the dark of our unshaven faces. He clicks the camera once and, triumphantly, returns it to me. Travis explains, before he zips up completely, that if the Burmese stumble upon us and the shooting starts, with all the boulders and rocks in the creek bed, bullets will ricochet every which way and the best place to be will be flat on the ground, as far down as you can get. I know that if the shooting does start, in my haste, I will fumble the zip and be riddled.
We don’t eat this morning, and there seems more purpose to the group, a mood change, a seriousness that is growing proportionately, the nearer we come to the road. Or, perhaps, it’s not just me ruffled by the inconvenience of having to crap in a creek bed. I’ve always, always, washed my hands after the lavatory, and here it’s not possible, and it irritates me. The pre-dawn blackness irritates me. I can’t see. Since infancy, I’ve never been at ease in the dark. I remember my bedroom some nights, the light out, expanding, expanding, on and on to well beyond giant size before a twitch somewhere in my brain pulled it back to the real world. The same impulse is with me now. I scoop out a little earth against the waist-high bank, feeling my way blind, then wipe with leaves gathered from in front of me and hastily cover up the evidence of my anxiety, scratching at the earth like a cat. Rambling through the jungle with an occasional mine tucked off at the side was yesterday. This morning, everything feels riskier, as if we are bestride some emotionally defined boundary on the jungle floor.
The group forms a condensed line, by touch, an arm out to the indiscernible back of the man in front; a few of them speak, but very softly. Travis, a little louder than the others, says, “Let’s go.”
The leader takes his first sightless step — and immediately trips. There is a muted thud and a rifle slams onto the rocks, echoing all the way to Rangoon and Mandalay. There is complete silence for just a second, and then a plaintive groan from the front of the line sets everyone shuffling.
“Ah, fuck!” Travis responds, in an emphatic, deep-throated whisper, while those next in line help the half-conscious fugleman to sit up. “Right, we’ll stay here until it gets a little light, and then we’ll move off.” Tee Moo repeats the instruction in Karen.
About midday, we reach a small clearing. We had set off for an elevated but well-hidden position, a couple of hundred metres from the road to be ambushed, but haven’t quite made up time after the morning’s debacle.
“Why not push on?” I ask Travis, as he arranges his men about the clearing. “There’s a Burmese patrol in the area,” he patiently replies, and explains about a radio intercept made back at the last village. “I don’t mind having a scrap, I just don’t want it now. Not before the ambush. Complete surprise, it’s our escape. We’ll stay here until twilight and then move up to the forward position for the night.”
Travis sends three of his men up ahead to a smaller break in the jungle and spaces out the rest behind logs and bamboo around and within the main clearing. Everyone lies low, a picture of concentration beneath the jungle leaves that adorn their caps, while covering the approaches in case a Burmese patrol happens by. If one does, Travis says, he would prefer to remain concealed and take them on only if it is unavoidable. I work my way into a thicket of bamboo around a large tree, where no one will see me too easily, with Travis immediately in front, lying against a log and reading the same war novel he had in the riverboat. He’s on page 151 and I can just make out some of the words over his shoulder: but worst of all is the natural camouflage of this jungle that makes it a daytime ambusher’s paradise. I stop reading. Meanwhile, the scouts step silently through the jungle in a wide circle.
Despite the urgency that’s found its way into this endeavour, the tranquillising natural noises of the afternoon nearly send me to sleep. There’s nothing to do. For hours. Just lie and wait, quiet, unable to move around. I take too many photographs through the bamboo. It’s why Travis has his paperback. As twilight approaches, one of the scouts busies himself about a fire and cooks rice for the last meal before the ambush tomorrow morning. The smoke trickles up through the trees, and I wonder whether this is a mistake. Eat well, Travis urges. There is very little talk. Afterwards, we re-blacken our faces and adjust our camouflage leaves, while Travis encourages his group around and makes clear how this end of the operation is to work. A team talk before the match.
As he speaks, I flick back to Jane’s letter and the car smash at Orewa. The bridge is foolishly narrow for a main state highway, barely room for a truck and a car to pass. One small misjudgement and there would be an accident. There are always accidents on the bridge and the approaches to it. The traffic banks up for kilometres.
We will line up, on the ground, along the dirt road, and a couple of metres back into the jungle for cover. Travis will lay three Claymore mines. A Claymore mine has the diameter of a genteel saucer with three slender metal legs. He will stand one at each end of the section of road to be ambushed and a third off to the side between them, directly opposite where he wants the truck, or whatever rounds the corner, positioned when the mines go off. He will set them off with a clacker — it will be the very first thing to happen.
Each Claymore has seven hundred ball bearings — like seven hundred bullets. They will wipe out anything in their path. The moment he pushes the button, the rest of them are to start firing — there are rocket launchers, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers. Everything. They have the lot. Then he’ll give the signal to stop.
“Any bastard that doesn’t stop, I’ll shoot,” he warns. Only one or two keep from averting their eyes. Timing is of the essence. They are to stop and see if any fire is coming back, and if there is, he will yell fire and they will direct their firepower at that point. Then he will signal stop again, and all should be quiet. Two of his men will rush onto the dirt road. They will have between forty and sixty seconds to collect rifles and watches from the bodies and get back. I will follow them onto the road and photograph. I have black-and-white and colour film.
The Burmese camps are each less than half a kilometre away. They will hear the pandemonium. Travis takes me aside at the end of his group instruction and says gravely, “Look, when the mines go off and everyone starts firing, the noise is unbelievable, especially for someone who hasn’t experienced this sort of thing before. It’s deafening. Just be prepared. OK?”
“Yep,” I nod, scanning his eyes, then gazing at my boots.
“And whatever you do, don’t move before the Claymores go off. Don’t even blink. OK? If they get even a hint that something’s wrong, all hell will break loose. OK?”
“Yes, OK,” I answer, unconvincingly, wondering whether I will keep control of myself. I have composed myself at death on other occasions, as recently as the other week in the trenches; but I fainted once at the crack of an arm breaking during a pub Indian-arm-wrestling match. What he’s talking about — the noise and the slaughter — is monstrous.
“It’ll take them about ten minutes, they’ll know straight away what’s happened, but it’ll take them that time to get organised and reach the road. We grab the rifles and watches and scram. Like a flash.” Travis has the escape route worked out. They will lay two small plastic mines on the track as they retreat. “They’ll come racing along, hit the mines and lose a foot or two.” He smiles. “Slow them down. And if they keep coming, we’ll turn and advance into them and let them have it all. That’ll fuck them!”
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to keep up,” I tell Travis, feebly.
“Adrenalin will get you over the first hill,” he smirks, unable to contain a mild contempt.
We walk deliberately in the dusk to a forward position between the two Burmese camps. I can hear dogs barking and hens, noises so pleasantly rural that, apart from the deadly intent swirling about, it could be Te Awamutu where I spent boyhood holidays with my grandparents. Cecil, my grandfather, would chase and grab a hen from his flock — there would be such a kerfuffle in the coop — and carry the bird by its legs to a chopping block. Sunday dinner. To terrify his grandchildren, he would let the headless chicken loose to run around crazily, trying to tag us.
Tonight will be as black as the last and we settle straight away, while Travis, with a scout behind, skips off a short distance to reconnoitre the road. There is much talk, banter even and laughter, but it’s very, very hushed. I sort out a fairly even slice of the raised ground where we’re to sleep — no stringing of hammocks tonight — and, in unison with the others, prepare my bedding. I slide into the hammock, fully clothed, and very suddenly, out of nowhere, and before I can zip closed, a squadron of mosquitoes dive-bombs me. The sleeve of my uniform gets caught in the frenzy and I have to jerk the zip free. When finally it strikes home, I spend the next few minutes flailing about inside on a killing spree.
We lay the ambush on the edge of dawn, spaced out two or three metres apart, just off the dirt road. Tee Moo, the sweat coming through the pot black on his face making him glossy, is to my immediate left, while Travis lies two men beyond, to the right, clasping the clacker. Travis has set up the Claymores earlier, in the dark, with two of his men.
I lie there, repeatedly bitten by a phalanx of insects. I figure they’re coming after my whiteness because no one else is scratching and itching as I am, I’m going insane, they’re biting right through my uniform and they’re inside too. Tee Moo keeps turning to me, irritated, and the camouflage leaves in his cap shake as he does so. I want to think he’s slightly sympathetic. Christ, I’m a liability already, and we’ve hardly begun. I try to concentrate on which camera settings will be appropriate for the light and the quickness with which I’ll need to work, but I feel like puking and crapping, and this sickness in my belly, whatever it’s from, tugs at my attention.
Tyre tracks are evident in the dirt road, criss-crossing all over it, and I wonder again at the capriciousness of the death to come; who will motor round the bend in the road, today of all days; who will climb aboard the truck at the last moment or be ordered off to other duties? We hear vehicles coming, and everyone tenses, wriggles slightly in last-second preparation, glances at each other, acknowledging the moment, and then focuses on the engine groaning just out of sight. At this second, a fear like I’ve never known vice-grips my legs from the thighs down, anaesthetises them in an enormous panic, and I can’t even think if they’ll work when I need them. I’m being pulled down to where I don’t want to go, and have to hyperventilate madly to escape, calming myself finally with a long, deep breath that makes my head as light as my reasons for being here. I don’t think anyone notices.
Tee Moo, who enjoys the hunt as much as Travis, gets very excited. Not talking, he just nods and smiles at me, the yellow white of his wide-open eyes reflecting the preposterousness of what is about to happen. I lie stock still. But the truck doesn’t reach us, it turns off before the corner, and those of the raiders I can see sag in disappointment, and we wait for the next. But it’s the same story with a further three trucks, and each time I squeeze out my panic with the controlled pants of a birthing mother. They whine in a low gear, closer and closer, as if they’re just round the corner, on the brink of a bloodbath, so near you can almost touch them, and then turn off. They always turn off. They get so close, I think: this has to be it. We lie in the ambush for three hours thinking: this is it, this is it. I’m beside myself, right then, running through the list of camera options; whether, in those brief seconds on the road, I might confuse which camera has which film and get the exposures wrong. It might all be too much for me. Or I’ll stumble going onto the road or, just like the movies, be shot by a Burmese soldier still half-alive. That I’ll be the one. All these things. I keep thinking, if I’m killed, will it have been worth it? Will I have achieved anything? And, of course, the answer is no. My children? I see Tim in hospital after Barbara’s accident, a stitched and distended face, saying to me, he wished he’d told Mum about the truck, blaming himself for her death. Nonsense, I know, but it still needs to be sorted out. What am I doing here? Tee Moo, Travis, the others; they’re going to kill people.
But nothing comes. It’s like someone’s having a joke, teasing, flagging down the trucks, warning them and spoiling the fun. I suspect, though, it’s more a game of chance being played out in this tiny corner of the world, and luck’s swung the other way. Travis beckons Tee Moo over and after a few words pulls at the man adjacent and they scoot onto the road to retrieve the Claymores. The ambush doesn’t happen. It’s time to leave; the risk of being detected by a Burmese patrol has increased. I’m reluctant to get up, and Tee Moo has to jog me along. It’s odd. I’m just lying there, limp, and he’s grabbing at me while I’m trying to grab hold of myself. Leave me alone. How do I feel? The question trampolines in my head. I want to throw up still. There’s been no blood-letting and I’m thankful, but very quickly that twists into something else, something unpleasant, sinister even, as a smidgen of disappointment rises through my veins. I realise, now, in a rush, I wanted the killing. The cacophony, the carnage, the randomness. I had really wanted it. I had worked hard for it. That’s what’s ripping through my mind. I feel betrayed. And there’s my father, hovering just out of reach, cutting loose depth charges on the Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate. Mentioned in Dispatches. Tee Moo pulls at my arm impatiently, saying, “Come on, come on, hurry.” I’m somewhere else, bottled up, and while I hear and understand, I can’t seem to move.
This could only have taken several seconds.
Despite Tee Moo’s urging, we don’t bolt from the stage, although everyone’s eager to be on the way. After a few minutes’ brisk march, we slip back into a gentle hike and, before nightfall, reach the village that had treated us to pork. This time, and why I don’t know, all the villagers are there, or as far as I can tell; no one has felt the need to disperse at our approach. The bush telegraph is a complete mystery, I decide. The raiders debrief outside in a grouped circle, like a counselling session, and Travis tempers his men’s frustration by planning the next ambush. I didn’t know there would be another, it hadn’t occurred to me, but it made sense. You don’t walk all this way for one crack at the opposition; there’s probably a whole sequence of ambushes planned. He wants me in on the next, but after five days, I’m not in good condition. In truth, I’m a write-off, and it must show. As well, something happened back there in those few seconds, something revealed itself, something that didn’t fit with feeling bad slugging sparrows, and I know it’s time to quit. The scouts try to cajole me into staying on the promise the next will get a result. One of them raises his arms, holding an imaginary rifle, sites along it into the distance and makes a shooting noise. They all laugh. I begin to feel that maybe the whole affair is for me; but this is their regular business, a core activity. And they’re throbbing to show their stride. They will get their kill. Already, I’ve resolved to head back.
BRUCE CONNEW / 04.1999