‘We were bulletproof’: As child soldiers grow up, legacy of war lingers

Twin leaders of Myanmar’s God’s Army were once thought to have magical powers. Now adults, they are contending with the trauma of exile, alcohol and loss.

Johnny Htoo lay on a concrete floor. His eyes stared at nothing in particular.

Back when he was a boy, when he and his twin, Luther, commanded God’s Army, Johnny was renowned for seeing what others could not see.

His soldiers, men hardened from one of the world’s most enduring civil wars, believed that Johnny and Luther Htoo could magically shield them from bullets — child talismans for an oppressed people, the ethnic Karen of Myanmar.

Johnny’s cousin hushed the others in the shack on Thailand’s border with Myanmar. They waited for his words. Johnny, now 32, closed his eyes and eased into sleep.

“Drunk,” whispered Hser Ler El, one of Johnny’s friends and followers. “Always drunk.”

Hundreds of miles away, in the forests of eastern Myanmar, the light from a cheap cellphone shone on Luther Htoo’s bare chest, where a tattoo of the flag of the Karen people covered his heart. Below it was a pucker of scarred skin.

Luther pointed to his eye socket, his knee, his thigh. There were at least 10 bullet wounds on his body, he said.

He lapsed into silence. His eyes were glazed.

“Drunk,” his girlfriend’s mother, Naw Htay Myint, said, more an observation than an indictment. “He’s always drunk.”

Just before the turn of the century, Luther and Johnny Htoo, then not even 10 years old, took command of a Karen militia hundreds strong that aimed to protect the ethnic group from incursions by the Myanmar army. The boys were barely taller than their rifles. But their followers, descendants of Baptists converted by US missionaries, worshipped the twins. Each, they said, could use prayer to conjure up a battalion of invisible soldiers sent by God.

The Htoo boys — one with flowing hair and the poignant contemplation of a Raphael, the other with a fierce determination that belied his young years — generated worldwide attention when their crusade ended in a storm of bullets. At least 100 of God’s Army’s fighters, some children, were killed in years of battle. Many more lost limbs, livelihoods and their grip on reality.

Two decades later, the Htoo twins’ mystique endures. The boys, now men, are the last connection to a lost home for their followers, who have dispersed across the world, from refugee camps in Thailand to exile communities in places like New Zealand and North Carolina.

The displaced soldiers are part of a global diaspora of refugees that is now the largest in history. At least 100 million people around the world have had to flee their homes over the past decade. In Myanmar alone, more than 1 million ethnic minorities, mostly Rohingya Muslims, have been uprooted by conflict since 2016. As Myanmar’s borderlands remain at war, United Nations investigators have accused the nation’s army of acting with genocidal intent against its own people.

After years in exile, Johnny and Luther’s fighters — and even Johnny and Luther themselves — have watched their physical scars heal. Some of their children are now Americans, Swedes and New Zealanders, pledging allegiance to other flags.

But emotional wounds are harder to close, especially when refugee life means a constant struggle with menial jobs and still unfamiliar cultures. Post-traumatic stress remains undiagnosed. The coronavirus stalks their workplaces.

As they escape to farther and colder climates, the former ranks of God’s Army have found that their present is still weighted by the past. Even for the younger generation, those who have never set foot in Myanmar, their lives are tied to a village long gone or an army since beaten.

Luther and Johnny’s mother, sisters and other relatives were resettled in Auckland, New Zealand, 12 people now crammed into a five-room house. More than a decade after arriving in the country, the twins’ mother, Pe Khen, cannot get used to the highways or the inability to just stroll to a friend’s house on a dirt path. Everyone is isolated, Pe Khen said, even if a dozen relatives live together.

“I want to go home,” she said. Then she reconsidered. “I don’t want to go home.”

She sighed. Neither was wrong. But neither was right.

Dreaming of a messiah

Everyone in the village near God’s Mountain, deep in Karen country, knew that Johnny and Luther Htoo, born in 1988, were special.

There was the tale of the time when Luther went to bathe in a stream and shape-shifted into an old man who might have been an apostle. There was the moment when Johnny supposedly walked on water, his long hair flowing like they imagined Jesus’ did. By the time the twins were a decade old, the villagers said, the boys had assembled armies of invisible men who could ambush Myanmar soldiers with barely a rustle of bamboo to give away their positions.

The villagers had longed for a messiah, and they received two.

“When I was pregnant, I dreamed that my sons were famous soldiers who wanted to be reborn,” Pe Khen said. “After Johnny and Luther were born, life got better. We could hunt more animals in the forest, and we were safe because they protected us.”

The Htoo twins came from a family that farmed the land and fashioned homemade bullets for hunting. Myanmar army offensives forced them into the forests along the porous border between Myanmar and Thailand when they were in kindergarten, and the boys were expected to join the Karen National Liberation Army, the largest Karen militia, as their father had.

Karen rebels have been fighting the state almost since the moment that the country also known as Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. The new nation was a patchwork federation of the majority Bamar and dozens of minority groups. But the Karen, some 5 million people, chafed against the fledgling government’s chauvinism. Some took up arms, as did other ethnic insurgents.

When a xenophobic general overthrew the civilian government in 1962, he justified military rule as necessary to keep the union from collapse.

In the late 1990s, the Karen, pronounced “kuh-REN,” were on the defensive. Karen insurgents, who had once controlled a ministate within Myanmar, lost most of their territory. Hundreds of thousands of Karen — not just Christian like Johnny and Luther but Buddhist and animist, too — fled to refugee camps in Thailand or toiled in the migrant seafood and construction industries.

Many of the rest retreated into the malarial bush, only to abandon their shacks when Myanmar soldiers launched offensives. The United States has said such incursions by the Myanmar military, rife with sexual violence and village burnings, constitute ethnic cleansing.

When Luther and Johnny were toddling around, Myanmar soldiers had begun clearing the forest to make way for a natural gas pipeline that would bring riches to the country’s military dictatorship. The Karen who lived on the land received almost nothing.

As Myanmar infantrymen surged over the densely forested hills, the Karen National Liberation Army lost hundreds of soldiers. Johnny and Luther stayed to fight. They were crack shots, able to lug and steady their weapons against their small frames. They never stepped on land mines. And, villagers said, they emerged without a scratch, even as bullets flew like monsoon rain.

“It’s like a super power in a movie,” Johnny said. “You know that you are being shot at but the bullets don’t hit.”

God’s Army was born. The militia’s ranks were augmented by war orphans, who had nowhere else to go, a Swiss Family Robinson crossed with Lord of the Flies. Adult soldiers prayed in a circle and then lifted the twins on their shoulders during battle, like child amulets. South Korean Christians sent donations.

The rules of God’s Army hewed to a strict Karen interpretation of Christianity. No eggs, no pork, no alcohol, no lying and no swearing. Verses from the Bible were used as battle directives.

It didn’t seem to matter that the twins cursed and chain-smoked cheroots, that they were just boys. Johnny could be petulant. Luther was impish. Both were too small for their army fatigues.

Their followers kept the faith, even as God’s Army’s adult commanders partnered with a radical student group that laid siege to the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok.

“We did not drink alcohol, and we prayed every day to ask permission from God to make us safe,” said Eh Na Wah, a former God’s Army major. “We were bulletproof.”

But they weren’t.

Eh Na Wah was shot in a firefight in 1998, when God’s Army tried to fend off a brigade of Myanmar soldiers. Three of God’s Army men were killed in that battle. Eh Na Wah’s leg was amputated above the knee.

In 2000, members of the extremist student group and God’s Army stormed a hospital in Ratchaburi, a Thai town not far from the border with Myanmar, and took hundreds of patients as hostages. They were desperate for medical supplies for their wounded soldiers.

The Thai army responded decisively. All the hostage takers were killed. Luther and Johnny were not part of the raid, but God’s Army lost some of its best fighters. Within a year, the twins had surrendered to the Thai army and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand.

God’s Army was finished. The boys were not even 13 years old.

Making a new home

Of his early adulthood, Luther mostly remembers the cold.

In 2009, he left the refugee camp in Thailand for Sweden. He didn’t know much about the country. The people were tall, he heard, and pale-headed. He, like his brother, barely reached 1.5 metres, perhaps the result of chronic malnutrition.

Someone told him the seafood was good in Sweden. But the fish, giant and meaty, was not like the small river fish he used to catch, the sweetest flesh between tight bones.

Luther lasted a decade in Gotene, a small town with three other Karen families and one Chinese restaurant. He tried. He thought it could be home. He learned about Swedish kings and socialism. He married another Karen refugee, and they had a child. He worked in a community centre, taking care of older people. He divorced.

The stress of dislocation has played out across the diaspora. The biggest Karen population in the West is in the United States, where tens of thousands of refugees have congregated.

Life in the United States is materially better than in the Thai refugee camps or in their homeland, where most Karen were subsistence farmers. Yet more than one-third of Burmese Americans, of whom the majority of arrivals this century are Karen refugees, live below the poverty line, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 2009, Saw Ma Cher, a Baptist pastor who once fought for God’s Army, moved with his wife, five children and 13 grandchildren to New Bern, North Carolina, a river town where nearly 1,000 Karen were resettled.

The Karen revitalised New Bern’s Baptist ministries. They brought new energy to public schools.

But neighbours stared when Karen families tried to dry fish outside. There was much to learn: ATMs, car insurance, boneless chicken breasts.

One study found that the rate of ulcers among Karen refugees in the United States was significantly higher than normal, not just from the stress of war, but also from the hardship of making a new home.

In 2015, a Karen teenager who had arrived in New Bern less than two years earlier walked next door to where another refugee family from Myanmar lived and killed three children with a machete. He is now in a mental institution.

Most Karen refugees in the United States end up in low-wage jobs, like meat packing. It doesn’t take any English to lop off 2,000 turkey tails in an hour.

When the coronavirus began infecting workers in factories around New Bern, about 70 Karen fell ill. One has died.

“The coronavirus is worse than fighting in the forest because you cannot see the virus,” Saw Ma Cher, 72, said.

Sel Lay Moo, whose relatives attend the 400-person Karen Baptist Church of New Bern, which Saw Ma Cher helped found, worries every time her father returns from work at a poultry processing plant.

She arrived in New Bern a decade ago, at age 9. At school, she didn’t know how to ask for the bathroom in English, so she had to hold it in for hours.

It took her mother 24 times to pass her driver’s test. Her older sister found work at a nail salon, and her older brother is in the Marine Corps.

But Sel Lay Moo was young enough that English later came easily. She excelled at school.

Sel Lay Moo hears the stories every day of the grinding conflict back in Myanmar: her uncle’s death at the hands of the army, a pair of twins who led their people to glory until it all shattered.

“Yes, Ma’am,” she said. “As a kid at a time like that when everything is scary and everyone is fearing the Burmese army, it’s not surprising to have kids who are so young to lead other people into fighting.”

Her life has taken a different path. This year, Sel Lay Moo won a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the first member of her family to go to college.

Needing to fight, again

One day, in his home in Gotene, Sweden, a woolen hat on his head, Luther went on Facebook and plugged in a common Karen woman’s name: Naw. He scrolled through the Naws, looking for one that pleased him.

For Naw Lay Kapaw Wah, living in a Karen village where Myanmar soldiers had sent inhabitants fleeing into the forest, the Facebook friend request seemed like a prank. Surely someone was impersonating Luther Htoo, one of the boy twins who had commanded God’s Army.

It was the real Luther. He was lonely. After a couple years of online dating, she asked him to come home to Myanmar. He did two years ago, Swedish passport in hand. The couple now live mostly on the edge of a forest, sleeping in a hammock or in a shack above the chickens.

“I love Asia,” he said. “Sweden is very cold.”

When the monsoons don’t fray the cell signal, and when there’s enough money to top up their phones, they talk with Luther’s family in New Zealand. (His father died in 2017.)

The twins’ mother, Pe Khen, video-chats with Johnny, too. She is worried, like everyone else, about his drinking.

“He misses his family,” she said. “He gets very emotional. I need to take care of him.”

She reached her hand toward the phone screen, as if she were caressing his hair.

Unlike Luther, Johnny has no passport to visit New Zealand. Besides, his mother said, he is still needed by the Karen.

“I worry that the Burmese army will shoot him,” she said. “But they need to fight for our people, for our freedom.”

Johnny and Luther’s younger sister, Naw Paw Law Tah, is 17. After she finishes high school, she wants to study fashion or design, maybe. Her indecision is that of any teenager unbound by war.

She once wrote an essay for school on the Karen. She wrote about how the Karen call their homeland Kawthoolei, how the Myanmar army raped and killed, how children were turned into human land-mine detectors.

She tried to describe the cool hills, thick with groves of bamboo, even though she has never seen them because she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

She wrote about her twin big brothers, their piety and their powers. “I think it’s cool that they could be invisible,” she said. Her paper earned an “excellent” in assessments. It was her proudest moment in school.

But the homeland of her essay does not exist. Today, the Karen armed groups have fractured into kaleidoscopic shards of acronyms: the KNLA, the DKBA, the BGF, among others. Some fight the Myanmar army. Some fight each other.

Across the country, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities continue to suffer. Damage is inflicted by both sides: a national army conditioned to target minorities and various ethnic militias that see armed struggle as a cultural obligation.

Some cease-fires exist in paper form only. A peace process has gone nowhere. A national election scheduled for November has laid bare ethnic divisions that have festered since the founding of the country more than seven decades ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is now the nation’s civilian leader. She was once respected by Myanmar’s ethnic groups for the legacy of her father, the independence hero General Aung San, who formed a nation by pledging equality for all of Burma’s peoples. Now, Suu Kyi’s refusal to adequately condemn the military’s abuses means that she, too, has lost the trust of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and of an international community that once conferred upon her a collection of human rights awards.

Johnny and Luther dream of a new God’s Army.

On Johnny’s arm is a tattoo, its Karen script rough like that of a child who grew up in the rainforest, measuring his height against an M16 rifle.

“From my mother I was born in blood, and I will die in blood, too.”

Luther talks of a cache of weapons he and his followers can access. He thinks he can become invisible again, if the incantations are right. Yet he has to plead for money from his mother to keep his cellphone active. His girlfriend concedes that they once prayed together on a full moon night, and Luther remained visible.

“For peace, we want to fight again,” Luther said. “We want to do this, not only for Karen people, but all people in Burma.”

Padoh Saw Hser Bwe, a joint general secretary of the Karen National Union, the largest Karen political force, remembers the magical powers that Johnny and Luther used to wield, their status “just one step lower than God.”

That’s all gone, he said.

“They have lost their magic power, and they are now in a foolish state,” he said. “Maybe those guys were something before. But not now.”

Others still believe.

“Luther and Johnny will fight for us again,” said Eh Na Wah, the God’s Army recruit who now lives in Auckland with his nine children. “As long as they believe in God, as long as they stay away from alcohol, they can lead us.”

But the Htoo twins are often drunk. Both are unemployed.

Johnny’s cousin soothes him and holds his hands, which shake with tremors. He sleeps when others are awake, curled up like a quotation mark missing its companion.

“I miss the jungle,” said Johnny, who now lives in the village in Thailand, after spending years in the refugee camp. “I miss where I grew up.”

The family of Luther’s girlfriend has told the village store not to sell him more liquor. He sometimes vomits blood after his binges. He is back home in Myanmar but still feels as lost as any exile.

“I’m still living,” Luther said, an accomplishment in itself. “Alcohol can stop my sorrow.”

One evening, in a jungle clearing in front of their shack, Luther and his girlfriend’s family gathered around a cellphone to watch a video of a gospel choir. The night insects hurtled at the screen, attracted by the light.

Luther moved his lips with the lyrics on the screen.

“God’s boundless mercy,” he sang. “We will live another day. We will fight the good fight another day.”

Written by: Hannah Beech
Photographs by: Adam Dean, Travis Dove, Cornell Tkiri and Minzayar Oo,

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