Over the years, many people have asked me how our daughter, born in Burma in 1996 and adopted by my husband and me in the same year, came into our lives. Below is a close rendition, albeit with names and a few details changed, of how it all came about. This was indeed the singular most important event of our lives, and remains so to this day, as I am sure many parents would also say. From the moment I held that three-month old bundle of joy in my arms to today, it has been a marvellous life journey together. Destiny, or the Divine, smiled down on us on that fateful day, for which I shall be eternally grateful. LMP
IN THE NEW YEAR
Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1995
In the dark corners of the temple grounds, the high-pitched wailing of the metal horn rose sharply in the hot, thick night air. A soft, full, crème-coloured moon shimmered above, silently surveying the empty courtyard below.
A scene from another far-away time unfolded, as beautiful maidens - outfitted in long, hand-woven skirts and high buttoned, long-sleeved blouses, colour coordinated scarves passing under their arms and over their shoulders and copious piles of hair rising in crests upon their heads and festooned with fragrant flowers - emerged from the darkness, stepping to the clashing rhythm of symbols.
The nearby massive chedi – jutting insistently into the heavens - stood sublime in its symmetry and beauty. And the wiharn – its awnings, wooden roofs and stairways - carved with mythological figures in intricate detail, exuded the serenity of the many Buddha images contained therein.
The young women had golden replicas of preposterously long ‘nails’ on their fingertips; and they tapered into thin fineals that curved outrageously into the air. They were about to perform the fawn lep, a traditional dance of the northern Lanna kingdom associated with the sacred rituals of the Thai New Year.
The epitome of femininity, they moved in a small circle, around a softly glowing lantern, seemingly entranced by the persistent wailing and drumming. Their movements and the instruments of the traditional orchestra – cymbals, drums, bells, gongs, horns and flutes – together created a scene that ignited the senses and touched the soul.
In the dance, hands and fingers took prominence over foot movements; and as the women bent their knees in perfect time with the crashing cymbals, swaying gently from side to side, they were a picture of perfect grace and elegance.
There were no spectators, the dancers and musicians performing not for others, but out of a need to recreate and live their culture, and thus to bond together in that cultural expression. They cast away in a world of their own, held hostage by the hypnotising music, the repetitive, rhythmic movements and the entrancing ivory moon overhead. They were re-enacting an ancient tradition that was part of the complex rituals surrounding Songkran, the Thai New Year – a time of ritual cleansing and renewal.
As the pace quickened and the music intensified, a middle-aged European woman emerged from the shadows of the gabled wiharn. She too seemed totally taken up with the dance, transported to another time and place.
The performance now over, the ensemble dispersed through the ornate gates of Wat Phan Tao and joined the streaming crowd outside. The woman followed from behind, into the cacophony of noise and commotion.
In a moment, she was enveloped in a mass of human bodies, swept along by a crowd pushing hard against her. So tightly bound was this surging force of humanity that she found it difficult to place one foot ahead of the other to walk.
It was a happy, well-intentioned, wholesome and not at all menacing, crowd, a mixture of Thais and tourists from Europe, America, Asia, even Africa - chatting, joking, having fun, stopping to check out this or that item for sale, and of course, snacking - the favourite Thai past-time.
The woman was now in the thick of it – Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Market at Songkran - the nation’s biggest festival in an annual calendar packed full of festivals - a colourful panoply of religious observances, beautiful processions, temple prayers and offerings, rituals and water-throwing merry-making.
The Sunday Walking Market, an area in the Old City which dated back more than 700 years, had been cordoned off to vehicles; it was a canvass of colour and movement - of vendors and their wares, many of them traditional arts and crafts, food stalls, and local musicians and dancers, many from outlying villages.
Two columns of people moved in contrary directions, and in the middle stood performers of every persuasion. A husband and wife team, probably in their fifties, dressed in traditional Lanna clothing, he breathing life into a long and upright mouth accordion, she looking elegant in pastel-coloured traditional clothing, flowers and trinkets adorning her hair, doing a traditional dance she had probably learnt as a child, with obvious pleasure and at times even abandon.
Not far along in this ‘entertainers’ middle lane, a young girl, not more than eight years old, dressed in golden laced skirt, top and head-dress, played the ranak, an exotic Asian version of the western xylophone.
Further along, a group of blind boys and young men from a local school for the handicapped pounded with abandon drums, symbols, guitars and wind instruments, in their blend of Thai and western sounds – the ubiquitous Thai pop music.
At the main market intersection, flanked on one side by a City Pillar and on the other side with glittering temples, young artists sketched in charcoal the images of subjects who sat and posed with seriousness, or playfulness, and much anticipation. In this most artistic and dynamic of cities, artists of every persuasion could often be seen at such events, nearly at every turn, selling fine, hand-made arts and crafts.
On both sides of this moving mass of humanity, vendors plied every manner of ware – from traditional musical instruments, celadon, hand-woven silk, hand-carved wooden Buddha images, Buddhist amulets, laquerware, silver jewellery, leather hand-bags, clothing, silk ties, t-shirts, shoes, paintings, weaving, embroidery, to trinkets and baubles sold for 5 or 10 baht. Many of the items were made by the vendors themselves, who hailed from villages and settlements surrounding Chiang Mai.
Food stalls were everywhere, and one could literally ‘eat one’s way’ through the market, so savoury and tasty were the foods on offer.
And representatives from schools, NGOs and other charity organisations gently approached shoppers for donations for this or that cause, their entreaties usually promptly rewarded with a 20, 50 or 100 baht note, demonstrating well the Thai propensity to give instantaneously - so strongly engrained in their identity and collective character.
At the centre of this swirling, sensual delirium stood the temples, some having been built centuries ago, still very much in use and highly revered by the Thai people.
Embellished in fine and minute detail, their multiple curved roofs drifted upwards, their chedis soared to the heavens; they were now softly illuminated by candles and the smoke of incense, acting as magnets for the devoted. Hordes of people streamed through their open gates, wai’ing Lord Buddha images inside and outside the wiharn, pouring lustral waters over the revered images, in an act of ritual cleansing and transformation, praying and placing offerings of flowers, candles and incense at the alters.
The chanting of monks wafted over the temple grounds and drifted into the market streets, lending a note of religiosity and antiquity, for they sang in the ancient Pali language, spoken by the Lord Buddha over 2 500 years ago.
This riotous display of human artistry, creativity and activity – a 20th century extension of the markets of old - took place twice a week, in this enormously diverse melting pot of peoples and cultures, an ancient crossroad of trade.
The dancers and musicians who had released themselves into this New Year’s world within a world most probably would not have seen any of this as remarkable; it was just part of their everyday environment, part of living, part of what made their lives interesting, pleasurable and fun. That was what made it all the more extraordinary.
For the middle-aged woman who was new to the Chiang Mai community, and who now moved through the crowd - inspecting, sampling, tasting and absorbing it all, it did seem extraordinary, moreover that this was re-enacted each and every week of the year.
Now wilting from the oppressive heat and humidity, she finally sought a reprieve in a small restaurant - its giant whirling fans spurting streams of water to cool the air - and began to write.
Happy New Year, my darling. Where are you on this special night. At one of the refugee camps at the border?
The sights and sounds of this holiday are amazing. How I wish you were here to share this with me!
The start of the New Year has put me in a pensive mood. What is coming up for us this year? What does fate have in store? I am trying to get a feeling for it. Perhaps a big change. Who knows, I could be wrong.
Please send me a tape as soon as you can.
As always, your loving wife, Juliana
In the Rice Paddies
ONE MONTH LATER
It was back-breaking work. And yet, they executed it with such verve, energy, and a discernible joie de vivre - chatting incessantly, commenting on this and that, teasing one another, flirting with one another, cracking jokes and letting them fly over the water-filled fields and flat, humid air.
They worked at a brisk but not hurried pace, some 20 or so men and women from the nearby pottery village adjacent to the moo ban where Juliana lived.
Totally covered from head to foot, to protect themselves against the searing tropical sun, they resembled living scarecrows. Long-sleeved, checked lumber-jack type shirts, stretched nearly to their bright orange, thigh-high boots, baggy trousers, wide-brimmed hats with attached cotton scarves that covered face, neck and shoulders, and thick gloves all ensured that the farmers were well insulated against the fiery rays of the sun.
Backs bent, they placed rice seedlings in the oozing mud, each one precisely equidistant from the other, in large square patches demarcated by narrow walkways where weeding could be done and the crop easily cared for.
Juliana sat outside, at her upstairs bedroom verandah, watching the planting process, marvelling at the speed with which it had all been done – and done well. By late afternoon, the entire rice paddy had been planted. It shimmered before her in uncountable, shifting shades of green, as the pale pink sun began to descend the sky.
It all looked so perfect, and so beautiful, the squares in the paddy fitting together so as to resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Juliana loved the constant gurgle of the nearby brook that fed the fields – ensuring that soil and roots were constantly inundated in water. At night, the cacophony of the paddy’s resident frogs and nearby crickets was so loud that at times it woke her from a deep sleep. But, rather than irritate, it lent a tingle of delight, knowing she was so close to this wondrous process of growing food.
Juliana gazed once more over the soft, mint green seedlings, now undulating in a gentle breeze, then lifted her eyes towards the mountains just behind the moo ban. This was Doi-Suthep-Pui National Park, now clothed in a deep, dark green; but, as dusk settled over the fields, the lights of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of Chiang Mai’s most revered and beautiful temples, high on Suthep mountain, twinkled before her, beckoning her to come for prayers.
The birds were busy in the bamboo stands next to her house, loudly and insistently calling to one another, as if to announce to others still dallying in the nearby trees that day was done, and they should return home to roost.
Clouds created white swirls and curls in the powder blue sky. Then the pastel pink sun disappeared behind the mountains, and the sky quickly darkened with the gathering night. Bats emerged, seemingly from nowhere, soaring and swooping to catch unsuspecting insects in the fields. A dog half-heartedly barked, perhaps at a passing cat.
Juliana hurried indoors – to prepare for the coming event.
“Hello, Madame! Come, Madame. Take water. Take drink. Take food. All free!”
Reluctantly leaving the magical evening at the rice paddy, Juliana had arrived at the base of Doi Suthep Mountain at nightfall. As she began the 14-kilometre ascent up the mountain, along with tens of thousands of devotees, vendors at the sides of the narrow road – just wide enough to accommodate one car going up the mountain and one car going down – called out that free refreshments were on offer.
It was Visakha Puja, the holiest and most important religious holiday of the Buddhist calendar, celebrated on the full moon night of the fifth lunar month, marking the birth, death and enlightenment of Lord Buddha. Everywhere in Thailand, Buddhists congregated at their temples of choice - to tamboon (make merit) - to make offerings and pay respects to the sangha, parents and elders, and to pray.
Juliana joined the throngs of people – now six or seven abreast – starting the ascent up the mountain to Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep, a magnificent temple with a breathtaking golden gilded chedi built by King Ku Na (14th century), as a repository of sacred Buddhist relics.
It had become a tradition amongst the people of this northern Lanna kingdom, to collectively climb the mountain, arriving at the temple in the early hours of the morning, to hear dhamma sermons by the monks, pray, make offerings, and for many, sleep at the temple that night.
First stop was the monument of Khruba Srivichai, a highly revered monk who had initiated and overseen the repair and construction of many temples and religious monuments in the Lanna Kingdom, and who had overseen the construction of the mountain road to the temple.
Here thousands of devotees converged at the golden gilded statue, laying gold leaf on it, and placing garlands of flowers round its neck, or bouquets of flowers before it, lighting candles and incense, whilst monks chanted nearby.
Mountains of flowers lay before the statue, in a swirl of smoke from the burning joss sticks. Attendants periodically appeared to remove the flowers, only to see the stacks quickly piled again.
Floats holding statues of Lord Buddha, elephants and mythological figures stood in the background, their attendants – dressed in traditional Lanna attire – waiting for the signal to begin the procession up the mountain.
“Hello, Madame… Here, take water…” the vendor seemed to want to ensure Juliana’s well-being.
Juliana took the small plastic bottle of water and pushed on, starting to feel the crush of the enormous numbers of people behind her. Families, individuals, schoolchildren – some dressed traditionally, people from local temples, companies, hospitals, government offices, NGOs, some in trousers and polo shirts bearing the names of their organisations, still others in jeans and T-shirts. All had one intention – to pay homage to the ‘Great Teacher’, the ‘Enlightened One’, whom they held in the highest reverence and respect.
Chanting, chatter, the shuffling of thousands of feet, flickering candles, incense smoke, the stars twinkling above. And then, a sudden stillness, as a single elderly male lay person, dressed totally in white robes, sat on a small plastic chair, in front of the monk’s statue, and slowly, deliberately, began to chant.
All pressed their hands together in a wai, silently listening during the long discourse.
Legend held that King Ku Na – wanting to search for the perfect place to build a temple to house Buddhist relics, placed them on a howdah on the back of a white elephant. It was set free to wander the foothills surrounding the city. The elephant climbed and climbed the foothills of Doi Suthep, until finally, high up the mountain, it stopped walking, trumpeted and turned in a circle three times, before kneeling on the spot. This was the place the king was sure his most sacred of temples should be built, and the holy objects were enshrined in a chedi there.
Juliana sat down, listening and watching, attempting to take in the wildly colourful, yet reverent, scene before her. Her cell phone rang and she moved away from the crowd to answer it. It was Chris, calling from Bangkok.
“What?” she strained to hear him. “You what?”
“I’ve just got the official papers,” came the warm, resonant voice.
“I’m being transferred to Myanmar, to Burma, to a place called Maungdaw, in Rakhine State.”
“What? Where?” Juliana strained to hear him over the din of the crowds.
“Where in God’s name is that?”
“In the extreme northwest of Burma, on the Bangladesh border.”
“But… But… Will I go with you?”
“No, you can’t. This is a non-family duty station, politically a highly sensitive area. I will be allowed family visits every six weeks. Either you would come to me there or I would meet you in Yangon.”
‘Oh….” Juliana’s voice sank.
“I have to go now. I’ll phone again tomorrow.”
And he rang off.
Juliana kept her eyes on the garlanded statue, yet felt that all-too-familiar veil of depression enveloping her. Another lengthy separation. Too much time alone. Too little time together. Not the right conditions to have a family.
She supposed that having a child would be put on the back-burner again. Such were the conditions under which UNHCR employees and their families lived. Chris believed in what he was doing, and hoped that his efforts would make better, even in some small way, the lives of the refugees he worked with.
Juliana was overwhelmed with a pervasive gloominess that wordlessly told her she was not meant ever to have a child. Suddenly, there came a strong impulse to abort the climb. She hurried down the hill, stars peeking through the towering trees overhead. She was already beginning to resign herself to another separation from her husband, and childlessness.
THREE MONTHS LATER
My dearest Juliana:
You are on my mind always; I miss you so. I wonder how long this letter will take to get through to you, or even if it will get through to you at all.
I am now getting settled in this new posting. Fellow team-mates are wonderful indeed, we enjoy good relations and communications. Accommodation, built next to the military post – I presume so they can keep an eye on us, is all right; but it would be better if we could have a more private space for when you come; I’ll continue to look into that.
Work going well, trying to put together a proposal for small-scale income generation projects for the Rohingya women here. For those who have lost their husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles – many to the forced labour situation – they have absolutely no way to earn a living and provide for their children.
The poverty is appalling, the discrimination they suffer on the basis of religion is criminal. Many Buddhist Burmese have a deep-seated hatred and distrust of the Rohingya, sometimes sparking violence in Rakhine State.
They have been shuffled between Burma and Bangladesh for generations. Their ancestors had settled this area hundreds of years ago, and regard themselves as Burmese citizens, though few have the proper papers. Though succeeding generations were born in Burma, they have been denied citizenship – both in Burma and Bangladesh, essentially becoming a stateless, land-less people.
They have been abused and exploited by the Burmese military regime, who use the men as forced labourers, and, randomly raiding their settlements, rape the women, destroying whatever small dwellings they have. The atrocities are mind-boggling.
Back and forth they have gone, when at first Bangladesh decides to take them back, then later expelling them. For unfathomable reasons, Burma decided to take them back in 1995. There was a mass movement of about one million people to this Rakhine state.
The Burmese junta agreed to cooperate with our UNHCR programme of repatriation, health, education, agriculture and small-scale income generation projects. And this is where we stand today. I know you have heard these kinds of stories before!
I’m wondering what you are doing, how you are feeling, if you are travelling, where to?
How is the house, the dog? I miss him too!
But most of all, I miss you, my darling, holding you in my arms, and talking, talking, always so much to say to one another.
The month to wait for your visit seems so very long….
All my love, Chris
Juliana clutched her husband’s letter as her plane descended over the emerald green rice paddies that enveloped Yangon. Though sent some weeks ago, the letter was already tearing at the folds so many times had she read it.
She made her way off the plane into the blinding tropical sun, enveloped in a mood of mixed and conflicting feelings.
The worn down and dilapidated airport, resembling something out a movie harking back to Burma’s colonial days under the British Raj, was steaming, suffocating, chaotic. She ploughed her way through the endless, chattering crowds to try and find her baggage. The simple act of walking, going through immigration formalities and picking up her luggage sapped her energy, so oppressive was the heat.
The old, broken taxi she hailed made her feel worse, with the obscenely hot hair blowing in her face.
But, ahh, once at the clean, cool, tranquil Winners Inn, tucked away in a leafy suburb of Yangon, she felt rescued. And the unique brand of friendliness, kindness and open-ness of the hotel staff immediately impressed her.
Once installed in her comfortable room, all the discomfort of the day vanished, as she peered from her verandah at a sight to behold.
The magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda lay its golden brilliance over the city, with a mystical energy that held Juliana’s gaze. And, very early the next morning, as she prepared for her trip to Maungdaw, to visit Chris, she could not take her eyes off the awesome scene.
Dawn broke over the towering Shwedagon like a blossoming flower gradually revealing its inner beauty.
A pink sky, laced with lavender and golden streaks, bathed the massive, bell-shaped stupa, soaring nearly 100 metres into the sky, in soft, muted colours, until the gathering strong light of the day revealed its perfect composition and dazzling facade.
At the top, the ten-metre golden umbrella - hti - crowned with thousands of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and topaz, and a huge emerald in the middle, shimmered in the sparkling sunlight.
Hundreds of smaller pagodas and pavilions – some gold-plated, some white-washed and some in teak wood, all ornately carved in impossible detail, and stacked upwards in decreasing size, surrounded the giant stupa. Devotees knelt down in front of the pagodas, at every turn, laying flower and incense offerings, or crouched in supplication before Buddha and deva images.
This scene, occurring daily from as early as the 6th century AD – visible from any vantage point in the city – never failed to stir the spiritual in all who beheld it. For Juliana, it felt like an emotional homecoming.
Several flights Yangon to Sittwe had been cancelled, so threatening were the monsoon clouds.
It had been two months since Chris had departed their home in Chiang Mai, and the letter safely tucked in her purse was the first correspondence Juliana had had from him. There were no telephones; and - long before the era of internet, smartphones, and the like - the communication between this remote outpost and Thailand was poor.
The pervasive, silent loneliness of her husband’s absence had overcome Juliana once again. She wanted only to see him; and the almost desperate urgency she felt made her push on with her plans, despite the weather.
Fear and apprehension filled her heart as she boarded the small plane, watching a massive gathering of thick, grey-black clouds descending over the airstrip. Despite these ominous beginnings, the plane took off smoothly and the flight passed uneventfully. Soon she was walking the plank of the worn, ageing and decrepit-looking boat that would take her up the Kaladan River and into her husband’s arms.
Petrol fumes and a mixture of vomit, urine, faeces, human sweat and body odour, curry and chillis virtually seized her senses; and she moved from one end of the boat to the other to escape the disgusting and overwhelming smell.
It was difficult to find a place to put her feet, so packed was the vessel. Passengers grabbed whatever space they could find, spreading out cotton cloths upon which to sit, lie, sleep, nurse their babies and eat. As the sun broke through the clouds, it sent a layer of damp, suffocating heat over the deck, intensifying the putrid stench that now overwhelmed the lone foreign passenger.
There simply wasn’t a space to be found, not upstairs, downstairs or on the heat-struck open deck. Juliana moved to a corner where she could at least place her two feet together and stand against a metal door. She soon found she was near the ‘toilet’, a filthy hole in the floor littered with faeces, diarrhea and sheafs of soiled newspaper.
The urge to vomit rose up in her, and she desperately searched for a way out. She looked around her; people stared past her, not seeming to register her presence. As she moved again to the other side of the boat, tears rose up in her eyes at the impossibility of the situation.
Finally, she found a tiny corner – too small to sit down in, but at least far from the ‘toilet’. There she stood, zealously guarding the space, lest someone try to steal it. She knew only too well that she would have to hold this position for the next twelve or so hours, as the ancient vessel, labouring under the weight of too many passengers and cargo, crawled at a snail’s pace through the river’s muddy waters.
The journey seemed interminable, as they passed one river village after another, their bamboo and thatch huts on stilts sagging under the the searing sun. She was afraid to eat or drink anything, lest she imbibe the filth of her surroundings; hence she chose to fast.
Finally, the boat chugged into the Budidong Port; and Juliana - sickened, sunburnt and exhausted - fell into her husband’s arms. The 80-kilometre journey had ended.
One month at this remote outpost, a sensitive area carefully surveilled by the Burmese military which had a station nearby, had taken its toll on Chris. Repeated bouts of gastro-enteritis – difficult, if not impossible to avoid, no matter how careful one was - had brought rapid and dramatic weight loss. Thin though he was, Chris was full of his usual high energy and exuberance. He held his wife tightly as the driver turned the vehicle turned down a dark, dirt road.
Chris had rented a small cottage at the Maungdaw golf course. The hang-out for highly placed Burmese military officials who had taken a fancy to the sport, the ‘club house’ was big enough for a bed and chair; and its large bay window gave a petty view of the forested mountains surrounding the town. Here Chris hoped they would have privacy, away from the rest of the team and offices. Juliana was overjoyed.
The week passed all too quickly; and soon she was standing on the dreaded boat pier once again.
“You’ll have to come down to Yangon to meet me next time. There’s no way I’m taking this horrendous boat ride again!” she laughed, but meant it.
“Why, what’s the matter. You don’t like curried chicken?” Chris teased.
She pulled a face.
“Or chick pea snacks?” he goaded her on.
“Promise me you’ll look after your health,” she said worriedly, as they embraced tightly, boat attendants and porters staring aghast.
“I will,” Chris reassured her. Then, seeing her distress, whispered in her ear, “I didn’t want to tell you this until I had more information. But….
“I just heard about an American couple from the US Embassy who have adopted a Burmese baby.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll get the details and send them to you.”
This seemed like such an outlandish thing that Juliana let go of it, filing it into the recesses of her mind, and latched onto the thought always uppermost in her mind when they had to part.
Chris knew exactly what she was thinking. “As soon as I know when will be my next family visit, I’ll send a message through.”
They embraced again, hanging on to each other until the whistle blew.
Juliana turned to walk the wooden plank onto the boat, dreading every moment of the journey to come.
Juliana put the chaos, filth and disgust of the return boat ride behind her as she mounted the steps to her room at the lovely Winners Inn. Thankfully, her room had a bathtub, where she could soak out the black grime and grit that now stubbornly stuck to her skin, like a ghastly, decrepit disease.
She was too exhausted and disturbed by the journey to even think about dinner, and, once satisfactorily clean and smelling sweetly, fell onto the bed in a swirl of fatigue and agitation.
Not long after, sleep overcame her, and she was off to that mysterious land, somewhere between living and dying.
‘8-8-88’ – those fateful numbers crept into her unconscious.
‘De – mo – cra – cy!’ the shrill calls filled her ears.
She was swept into a world of anger, confrontation and gathering violence where a pretty, petite little girl, not more than eight years old, stood at the periphery, preparing to leave for school.
The young girl Su gulped down her rice porridge and sweet tea, then hurried to the door.
“Have you finished your porridge, Su? If you delay, you’ll be late for school,” her mother called from the kitchen.
“Yes, Mama,” the obedient girl replied politely, tugging on her chunky, black school shoes.
She grabbed her school bag and descended the steps into the garden, quickly mounting her bike.
With a last look at her mother now standing at the top of the steps, she waved good-bye and maneuvered her bike onto the chaotic streets of Yangon - filled with tooting taxis, darting scooters and countless bicyclers.
Her English lesson was on her mind; and she wasn’t sure if she had properly answered all the questions. She cycled carelessly, almost oblivious to where she was going.
Su turned a corner and was jolted into the present moment.
Before her stood masses of agitated people lining the main street. Thousands of raucous university students moved in waves down the wide boulevard. Carrying placards emblazoned in Burmese with one simple word – ‘DEMOCRACY’, the emboldened youth moved towards a wall of armed soldiers, dismissing the might of the military they faced.
The crowds – many too frightened to join in, knowing too well the beatings, arrest, prison, torture and possibly death they could face, clearly admired the bravery of the protesters. But some ignored the dangers and joined in. They came from many walks of life – students, nurses, doctors, teachers and other professionals – all demanding ‘De – mo- cra- cy!’ Their faces mirrored the mixture of defiance and terror they felt. The hatred and disgust for the xenophobic military junta that had totally oppressed them for more than 40 years lay over them like a veil of steamy fog following a tropical storm.
Confronted with this scene, Su stood fixed, frozen in fear. Should she try to press on to school, or turn back? She got on her bike, and – dazed and confused, not really sure what she was doing, instinctively moved away from the crowd, knowing she had to flee.
But, at that moment, the protesters picked up the pace. Shouting slogans, they pressed on towards the armed soldiers, in the path of the terrified child.
Closer, closer they came. Fully aware of what awaited them, they ignored the gathering violence in their shared desperation and hunger for change.
Until a callous call was heard above the din – the order had been given to shoot - shoot to kill.
The faceless wall of uniformed men lifted their rifles and handguns and shot into the crowd. Hundreds fell in an instant, like quarries in a British fowl hunt.
The child was now caught in the thick of it, had no way to escape. With gunfire flying past her and bleeding bodies on the ground, she was transfixed in the horror of the moment.
Suddenly she was hit from behind. A stranger had brought her down and they toppled onto one another.
“Don’t move,” a woman dressed in nurse’s uniform whispered. “Stay still. Let it all pass around you.”
The middle-aged woman and child stood huddled, as they watched the massacre unfold before them.
Then, when she thought there was a clear path of escape, the woman signalled for the child to run. She pushed and pulled the girl through the mass of arms, legs and fallen bodies, until they had reached the side of the road and were out of the line of fire.
Without looking back, they ran as fast as they could, until they turned the corner. Breathless, they stopped for a moment to rest.
“Where do you live?” the nurse asked. ‘I’ll take you home to your mother,” she reassured the shaking child.
They hurriedly walked a hidden footpath to the child’s house, where her mother, filled with anxiety and worry, stood at the door surveying the streets. The child quickly climbed the steps, running to her mother’s open arms, whilst her un-named saviour turned to leave.
TWO MONTHS LATER
The black and orange taxi cruised the crowded streets of Yangon – with a great sense of purpose. The driver, a dark-skinned, carefree young man, knew he was part of something important. This gave him great pleasure and joy.
Next to him sat a kind-mannered, middle-aged woman, dressed in a crisply ironed longyi - her demeanour and clothes made her the picture of femininity. Daw Aung Khin’s posture – forward nearly to the windshield – spoke of her strong sense of mission.
Behind her, in the back seat, sat Juliana and Chris, she in a two-piece black suit, he in office shirt and tie. Wide-eyed and mouths agape, an air of incomprehension surrounded them. Frozen in anticipation, they were unable to utter any words that could capture the swirling emotions of the moment.
It had all happened so quickly, giving the event a fairy-tale quality that skirted the parameters of reality.
A random application had been made at the Yangon Department of Social Welfare – one side of a photocopied paper that asked the barest of details about them, and required only copies of passport and marriage certificate. In a rush to submit the application before departing Yangon on her last trip, Juliana had got her taxi driver and his chums to sign as witnesses. A letter of permission from Burma’s national attorney general had been required, and miraculously – and mysteriously – had come through. A phone call from the serene social worker, now seated in front of them, had followed. All had given the illusion of actors in a dream.
“Hello, Mrs. Stevens,” Daw Aung Khin spoke softly, kindly, yet professionally. “You can come to choose your baby….”
Choose their baby? Neither Chris nor Juliana could believe this - not then and even not now, as the taxi raced towards their destiny.
The driver pulled into the tatty grounds of the orphanage; he was proud that he had been able to deliver his charges so efficiently. He was part of this story, Chris and Juliana knew; and care and concern crossed his face, like billowing clouds crossing the tree-d and flowered landscape before them.
Introductions at the entrance, and soon the disbelieving couple were led into a large room where scores of young children ran, shouted, laughed and played – with the pure joy and sheer abandon that only children – no matter where in the world - can have.
Daw Aung Khin motioned to Chris and Juliana, indicating that they should ‘have a look’ and try to interact with the children.
The orphans’ responses varied – curiosity, friendliness and approachability, to fear, shyness and avoidance. In all probability, tucked away in this compound in a country that for half a century had remained isolated from the rest of the world, none had ever seen Westerners before.
Chris and Juliana were totally at a loss as to how to begin; but then, a small girl - perhaps four-years-old – approached Juliana and took her hand.
“Most of the children here are from 18 months and older,” explained Daw Aung Khin. “A few have been adopted by Burmese families, but the rest will spend their lives here.”
“What happens when they come of age? What will they do? Will they be able to find work?” Chris asked.
“We try and find them jobs in town. Some end up working here,” Daw Aung Khin explained.
Juliana looked over the group of children. They seemed so happy, so full of innocence. She could feel the social worker watching her, and instinctively knew that the purpose of this exercise, according to Buddhist belief, was to find a child with a karmic connection to the prospective parents.
She bent down to try and interact with the young girl holding her hand, then realised the futility of speaking to her, with the language gap. Chris tried the same with a little boy; he was better at improvising games of playful gestures that didn’t require words.
The couple stood up, not knowing what to do next.
Suddenly, from the corner of the room, a petite girl – perhaps three years of age or so – ran towards them, dodging others as she went, and, upon reaching Juliana, threw her arms around her legs.
Daw Aung Khin, the orphanage caretakers and, of course, the taxi driver, gasped, giving each other knowing glances.
“This is Ti Da U,” said Daw Aung Khin. “Is this the child you want?”
Juliana knew what she and the others were thinking, and it mirrored her feelings. She looked at Chris inquisitively – giving him the message ‘Is this the one’? To have come this far in the process, she knew they should quickly seize this opportunity – totally unattainable to them only a few weeks ago.
But then, she heard herself speaking up, as if seized by a powerful force from outside her being. “Ti Da U is lovely, Daw Aung Khin. And I would dearly take her. However, I really wanted to have a baby, a baby girl, to raise from infancy.”
The social worker acknowledged this request with an understanding nod, spoke softly to the orphanage director, whereupon they were shown into an office where the director began to make some telephone calls. She had taken the initiative to call local hospitals, to enquire if they had any abandoned babies in their wards. For this was the stipulation set by the Burmese government; for a foreign couple to adopt a Burmese baby – he/she should be abandoned and the parentage not known.
Each time the woman rang off, she smiled at them, not wanting to utter the word ‘no’, as her culture prescribed the avoidance of words or deeds that would cause displeasure, upset, ill feeling or disappointment.
She hesitated for a moment, seeming to not know how to proceed. But then Juliana could see an idea forming in her mind. She dialed another number, and when the conversation had finished, she was beaming, as she first explained the situation to Daw Aung Khin in Burmese.
“The superintendent at Mother and Child Hospital says there is one abandoned baby in their hospital, a girl, two months old. Do you want to see her?”
Now the taxi, filled to the brim with the expectant couple, social worker, orphanage officials and a very excited driver, sped through the streets of Yangon - with palpable urgency. With each passing moment, the story unfolded as a scene in a film, a chapter in a novel, a dream within a dream.
The actors in this improbable story rolled out of the tiny sedan and quickly made their way up the hospital steps – as if the baby might disappear if they didn’t arrive quickly.
A soft-spoken doctor, with a kind and understanding smile, greeted them; he sensed their urgency, and quickly led them into a small, curtained, cool and quiet room. It contained four baby cots, three empty, and one occupied. There lay a beautiful baby girl, looking back at the strangers calmly and serenely, very confidently, not at all intimidated by their presence.
Her eyes – big, round, black – shined with intelligence and a certain sense of knowing. Her lips curled into an open smile. Her copper-coloured skin suggested health and well-being – she had obviously been well looked after in the hospital. Her countenance was one of joy and happiness.
Surrounded by strange adults, her eyes moved from person to person. But when she looked at Chris, the babe held her arm out, directly pointing to him.
Another gasp from the group, once again suggesting a recognition of karmic connection. Juliana and Chris exchanged glances, their eyes silently confirming what they both knew they would do.
The indescribable joy they felt mirrored the babe’s. Impossible as it seemed, they had already fallen in love with the child. Feelings of elation, a kind of happiness they had never known before, a sense of pre-ordained certainty - and the sheer wonder of it all - radiated from their smiles, as they both nodded to Daw Aung Khin that this indeed was ‘the one’.
Though they had not verbalised the feelings to each other, or recognised them in their own minds, each suddenly felt, on a deep and intuitive level, a profound connection with this other being, as if their lives had been intertwined in some pre-determined way. Of the billions of human beings on the planet, this one child had been sent to them, and this seemed completely right, and utterly miraculous.
“I know she is mine and I am hers,” Juliana whispered to her husband. He nodded, then asked the doctor: “What is the child’s name?”
Smiling uncertainly, the diminutive man in white hospital overcoat, searched for a tag that might indicate the baby’s name. And, as his hands moved through the bedsheets, he came across a small white name tag.
He let out with a low, uncomfortable laugh. It read: ‘Baby Unknown’.
The couple – for years living childless and now suddenly pronounced parents, which brought a decided jolt - were asked to organise food and drinks for the adoption ceremony to come. It would be attended by officials from the Social Welfare Department, orphanage and government, as well as their lawyer of choice - a sharp, sprite, seventy-something matron who had adopted five children herself, and who promptly set about knitting booties and cap for the new arrival!
The new parents gave ‘baby unknown’ three names: Dawn – to indicate the light of new day she had brought to her new parents’ lives; Joy – for she certainly was a most joyful child and brought joy to all around her; Metta – reflecting the Buddhist principle of ‘Loving Kindness’.
There was an astonishing outpouring of love, concern and care from everyone involved with this adoption, feelings deeply expressed for both child and new parents. These people were an integral part of this event - and wanted to be - and the coming together of baby and parents seemed nearly as important to them as to Chris and Juliana.
“Lucky baby,” one official exclaimed, as Chris and Juliana dealt with the pile of documents to be signed, taking turns holding the smiling babe in their arms.
“Now, don’t spoil her!” came a warning from another, half-joking, half-serious.
Back at the hotel, the response from the staff was equally as overwhelming. Manager, receptionists, waiters and cleaners beamed at the sight of the European couple entering the premises with babe in arms. They too shared in their happiness. And the porter, brimming with excitement, came to Juliana with a coin, saying this was all he could afford but wanted to give the baby something she would not forget.
So many people throughout the long day had shown that they were totally with them, emotionally involved, understanding the good fortune bestowed upon this babe, and the life it would lead her to, wishing only the best for both parents and child with such deep sincerity and warmth. All had touched Juliana’s heart profoundly, at times leaving her nearly in tears.
While Chris had to return to Maungdaw, Juliana spent several days further in Yangon dealing with still more official paperwork, which would enable her to take the baby out of the country.
And when the day finally came to bring the baby home, she could not contain her excitement, albeit tinged with anxiety. Would there be a problem at the airport? Would some strict military official prevent her from leaving the country?
Filled with apprehension, she arrived to the airport with plenty of time to spare. But when she got to the immigration booth, the officer frowned. In the pile of official documents she had amassed in the past days, she was missing one crucial paper that would allow the child to leave the country.
Seeing her distress, the official brought her to an office where a military official sat. Dawn was stirring from her sleep and getting restless – and hungry.
“You will have to go back into town and retrieve and sign this form,” the officer told her, after getting off the phone. There is someone there waiting for you. I think you have enough time. Your flight is not scheduled to leave for three more hours.”
“Oh, but, what about my baby?” a distraught Juliana said.
“No problem. I will look after her,” came the response.
“But…. But… I think she will get hungry.”
“No worries. Just leave the bottle with me.”
There was no choice. Juliana had to take the risk. She began to leave the small, piled-with-papers office, turning to check on her baby at the doorway, and saw the uniformed man - bottle in hand, contented baby curled and cuddled in his arms - already feeding her.
An hour later, she was back, and found Dawn sleeping in the officer’s arms. Marvelling again at the care and concern that had characterised this incredible journey, Juliana gently took the baby from the officer, thanking him profusely.
Stepping into the chaos and heat of the airport lounge, fear again gripped her at the departure gate. But, smoothly moving through, she walked onto the steaming tarmac, bags trailing from her shoulders, babe still asleep in her arms.
She looked down at the oh-so-beautiful child; at once she felt her heart open up into a deep and tender love. A heretofore unfelt selflessness suddenly made this other being first in her universe; all other people and considerations seemed to pale in comparison.
Overwhelmed with feelings of awe, wonder and excitement at what was unfolding before her, yet contradictorily lulled with a sense of serenity and calm, Juliana boarded the small plane that would take this little family to an unimaginable new life together.
© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer