This month sees the launch of Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime, an eye-opening collection of oral histories exposing the realities of life under military rule. In their own words, men and women from Burma describe their lives in the country that Human Rights Watch has called “the textbook example of a police state”. In this excerpt, the reader meets Law Eh Soe, a 39-year-old refugee from Karen state, Burma, who now works as a photojournalist in the US.
Law Eh Soe’s story
We met Law in his apartment in Buffalo, New York, where he served us home-cooked Burmese food and showed us his small but growing library of books in Burmese and English. Dressed in a longyi, Law sat on the couch and began telling his life story. His voice raised in excitement as he passionately recounted his journey to becoming a photojournalist. Law’s determination to document the lives of everyday people in Burma was ignited when he shot his first roll of film during the ’88 uprising. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, Law took photos of the SPDC’s brutal crackdown on protesters. In this excerpt, Law describes how his ongoing commitment to capturing and sharing these images put his life in danger and forced him to leave Burma.
In 2008, my family had our first Christmas together in twenty years. I hadn’t seen my brother for twenty years, and my mom for almost six years. I arrived in the U.S. in March 2008, with only an IOM packet of travel documents and my camera, the one I used in the 2007 uprising. My niece came to meet me at the airport too, but she didn’t know who I was. So my mom and my brother’s wife told her, “This is your uncle.” She was scared of me, but it was a wonderful time. It’s so very difficult to explain that kind of moment.
It’s not only my family that’s been separated—it happens to thousands of families from Burma. So that’s why I made a decision when I graduated university. I wanted to do something meaningful and wonderful for my people, and also for my country. At the time, I was crazy about photography. So I made a firm decision: I will be a photojournalist. So many of my friends, they mocked me. It’s a crazy thing, you know? Among our Karen people, there are no photojournalists. How could I compete? In the villages we don’t have enough training. Especially if you dream of working with an international news agency like AFP or AP—it’s 100 percent insane, you know? It’s almost impossible to work as a wire agency photographer in Burma. After 1962, the government did not allow the wire agencies to hire staff photographers in Burma. It’s like an iron curtain in Burma; they want to block the world from seeing the country. But for me, I decided, one day I will become a photojournalist. I didn’t become a photojournalist because I was hard-working, I became a photojournalist because my heart was burning for it.
In 2007, the government tried to arrest me two times, when I shot photos of the monk uprising, and also when they tried to arrest the activist Su Su Nway. When they make arrests, they drag people like animals, so I shot photos of that. After, they tried to chase me. The government people were in plainclothes, but we knew. Everyone simply ran. Run, run, run. By then I didn’t dare sleep at my apartment, so I had to move around several times. They tried to raid my apartment, but I was already staying somewhere else.
As a photographer, you’re just crazy for it—you don’t care what’s happening. I know there are hundreds of people beside me, but I just take the picture. And then when my blood cools off, I think, “Oh, they might come and arrest me.” During the marches, I thought two things. First, when I saw thousands of monks peacefully marching on the street in protest, I thought there would be big change. And also I thought that the army would never shoot these very reverent monks. But they did it. They killed monks. And the second thing I thought: by 2007, the government thought that the people had already forgotten about the 1988 uprising. No, the old wounds are still bleeding. The 2007 uprising shocked the government. Four generations of students were united: 1962, 1974, 1988, and 2007. They did it together.
I just ran, did my pictures, and gave them to my friends. They went to separate Internet cafés and sent them to the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA). Maybe you saw the picture of a young monk— he’s shouting and holding his bowl upside down. It’s from the 2007 uprising. I took that picture. I was at the same location as Kenji Nagai, the Japanese photographer. I tried to remind Nagai that the SPDC soldiers would shoot soon, because I could sense they would do something, but when I tried to approach him, I think he maybe thought that I was his rival or something. I just reminded him and two Western photographers. I just said, “They will shoot soon.” And they did. I ran away just before they shot him. When they started shooting, I just ran. And then, in the evening, I heard that Nagai had been killed. And then I saw that, accidentally, I had taken his picture when he was taking a photo of the monks. So he was in my camera, just a few minutes before he died.
I knew the government was looking for me because just after I left, they raided my friend’s house where I had been hiding for a week. I only stayed in Rangoon for two days. Then I left and went to the border area. I stayed on the Burma side of the border, because I had a good relationship with some people there. So this time, when I was in trouble, they helped me out. It’s like a movie—but it’s not like Hollywood.
I stayed inside Burma by the border for almost two months, and then my friends told me to leave the border and go immediately to Mae Sot—they said there was someone there who could help me. My friends paid money to take me over the border crossing. I was shedding tears in the car as I went toward the border. I asked myself so many questions. I thought maybe I was being a coward, running to another country. But the thing was, before I left for the border, monks came and they prayed for me. They told me very simply, “Law, please never feel sad. Please go to where you need to. You have done enough here, so please go forward. Please go to America because God will use you there.”
Nowhere to be Home, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, is the seventh title in the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, and will be available in the US on 15 March 2011. To learn more about the book and the work of Voice of Witness, visit www.voiceofwitness.org.