The top of Pagoda Hill is a boat ride, a truck ride and two days’ walk from Manerplaw, and light years away from everything sane. I am wet with perspiration and aching from exhaustion after hours of climbing to a maze of trenches dug in dusty pulverized earth in this forsaken patch of high hill top. The few trees that remain are shredded, splintered and scarred from bullets and shell fragments.

The putrid and unmistakable smell of rotting flesh hits my nostrils and churns my stomach. I vomit the rice and fish paste I have eaten five hours earlier, and kick powdered dry trench dirt over it. Steven, an English-speaking medical officer and my front-line guide explains that 29 Burmese were killed here, yesterday, trying to take control of this remote patch of jungle. They were mostly killed by claymore mines planted along the side of the hill, that are fired remotely through wires leading from Karen-held hill-top trenches. Steven explains how they effectively cut the Burmese soldiers in half.

Steven pops his head up. In an instant the silence was cracked by a hail of machine gun fire that raked the dirt and shredded trees behind us. “You smell that gun powder?” Steven asks. “There is a Burmese soldier maybe ten meters in front of us. He is very close. I think they sent him close because they know there is a foreigner here. They hear us speak English.” Steven lifts his Kalashnikov machine gun above his head and sweeps a barrage of fire in front of the trench. The acrid smell of gunpowder momentarily displaces the stench of rotting flesh rising up the hill in the heat. In the next moment I hear the distant thunder of artillery, and the screeching whistle of incoming shells. Everyone sinks very low in the trenches. The percussion of an excruciatingly loud explosion shakes the earth and my insides, and jolts my body off the bottom of the trench, where I am lying face down, with my hands over my ears and head. Dust is driven into my nostrils. I’m suffocating, frozen, and mortified, with no place to go.

Sweat runs off the faces of the two boys, 17 and 20 years old, who crouch in the front trench with us. After each shell hits they strain their eyes to see through the dust, and over the logs piled in front of the trench to prevent grenades from rolling inside of it, and shoot blindly down the hill, where the Burmese soldiers are. In the chaos and paralyzing panic comes eerie silence between the artillery barrages and machine-gun fire. My thoughts and heartbeat seem surprisingly loud. Over the next three days I find myself believing that the secret to my survival here is because of the hat Steven had given me to cover up my bald head. This morning five Karens had been killed and nine injured. It is so crazy here, that my hat is keeping me alive.

Burma 1987