A little girl wearing only one wellington boot was pushed forward. She had also been trapped in the fire at Nang Seng Tong's settlement. The girl sat down in front of me and tugged off her wellington. Her leg ended in a stump. At first I thought that she had also stepped on a mine, but in fact her foot had been crushed and bent forward, and the fire had fused it to her shin. The girl put both arms around the wellington boot and hugged it.
A posse of Shan rebels arrived to take us to the Colonel. The ruler of this bleak, apocalyptic place was not, as I had idly imagined, an unhinged recluse who stroked his bald head and growled, 'The horror, the horror...' Colonel Yawd Serk was a plain, businesslike man in pressed khakis, with a farmer's haircut and spectacles the size of Game Boy screens. The meeting took place on a nearby hilltop beneath thatched canopy. The journalists and aid workers sat on benches of twine-lashed bamboo. Small men with big guns crouched in the bushes all around.
We asked about troop strengths and rebel strategy and dry-season offensives. The Colonel answered methodically in Shan, and someone translated. He talked to us as he might to his soldiers; his quiet resolve and optimism were meant to inspire us. But this was the Burmese border, a region of the world where politics was so muddied by decades of ethnic war, and people so compromised by the lucrative trade in narcotics, that it was hard to tell who the good guys were any more. Nobody in our party seemed ready to trust him.
But I had a sneaking admiration for the man. There was a kind of formulaic outrage in writing about Burma that turned its people into little more than featureless victims. The Colonel's rebel army was tiny; his war against the Burmese military juggernaut was unwinnable. But he was not a victim. He continued to insist that the destiny of his people would not be decided by the generals in Rangoon. In Burma - a country once described as a prison with 40 million inmates - I would meet many more like him. For, despite the best efforts of the military dictatorship, the peoples of Burma were cultured, deeply eccentric and justly proud of their vibrant traditions. It was this courage and individualism that I hoped to seek out and celebrate as I set out in Sir George Scott's footsteps.
The Colonel spoke earnestly and at some length, mostly about the future. As he spoke, I watched a leech wriggle slowly across the table in front of him, climb on to a tape recorder lying there, and arch itself into a dot-less question mark.
Copyright Andrew Marshall, 2002. All rights reserved.
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