Home » World News » Free Burma Rangers cross rivers, walk up mountains and take shelter in bunkers to deliver aid to people in Myanmar
Free Burma Rangers cross rivers, walk up mountains and take shelter in bunkers to deliver aid to people in Myanmar
July 9, 2021
In the inky darkness, a line of men slowly wade through knee-deep water.
Carefully, they climb over the fallen trees blocking the route.
Headlamps are the only lights illuminating the obstacles ahead.
“The Burma army is reinforcing this road so we are finding another way through,” a Texan voice quietly explains.
The voice belongs to David Eubank, the director of the Free Burma Ranger group which has worked in Myanmar for more than 28 years.
The video is one of hundreds shared with Sky News from a recent mission to bring aid and medical supplies to people living in southeast Myanmar’s Karen State, also known as Kayin.
Karen ethnic armed forces have been battling government soldiers for more than 70 years but violence has surged since the military seized power in February, with junta troops launching air and ground attacks.
Airstrikes have forced thousands of people from their homes, many of whom are now taking shelter in the jungle.
Since the coup, more than 177,000 residents have been displaced by violence in parts of southeastern Myanmar.
Of those, 47600 are in Karen State according to figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The ongoing fighting makes getting aid to remote areas even more challenging.
“Most places we work in Burma and the ethnic areas in the mountains, you have to walk. Sometimes you walk one, two or three months,” Mr Eubank says.
“It involves river crossings and walking up and down mountains… we move with everything on our backs or sometimes with pack animals as well.”
It’s exhausting work.
The team walks day and night, scrambling up muddy jungle paths, carrying a large bin full of supplies with them.
As well as the physical challenges, they’re also at risk from the ongoing shelling and violence.
“Jets over our heads right now. The Burma army bombed earlier today. Can you hear it?” Mr Eubank can be heard saying in one clip.
In another the danger of airstrikes has got too high, so they temporarily take shelter in a bunker.
Thirty rangers have been killed in service and the team is on high alert for junta security forces.
“Those rangers that were caught by the army, if they were alive, they were tortured to death and killed every one of them. So if we were captured or if my men were captured or my family, we could expect death. At a minimum, you’re going to be arrested and taken away,” Mr Eubank says.
Born in Texas, David Eubank grew up as the son of Christian missionaries in Thailand before serving in the US army.
Deeply religious, on leaving the army, he founded the Free Burma Rangers in 1997, which he describes as “a humanitarian service movement for oppressed ethnic minorities of all races and religions”.
During the recent mission, which was filmed in April and May, the team visits the now deserted village of Day Bu Noh.
The villagers have all fled; their homes are no longer safe.
The crumpled shell of a bombed out school can be seen.
Holes made by munitions speckle the walls.
Black singed circles now mark the areas where houses used to stand.
Family homes have been reduced to ashes.
Such extensive footage of the destruction is rare.
The fighting and a media crackdown has made it hard for journalists in Myanmar to access Karen state, while foreign correspondents, like me, are not currently being given permission to enter from abroad by the military authorities.
The lack of access means we can’t independently verify all of the stories shared by Free Burma Rangers, however, the damage in Day Bu Noh was also documented in a recent report by a humanitarian group, the Karen Peace Support Network.
“At 7:30 pm that night [27 March,2021], jets began dropping bombs and firing guns into Day Bu Noh, killing three people, and injuring 10 – in the first air attack in Karen State for over 25 years, since before the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw in January 1995,” it says.
More bombing followed.
A few days after the first airstrikes, I met a survivor from the village who had managed to cross the river to Thailand to get medical treatment.
Sitting in a wheelchair, Saw Lah Bri, 48, told me about the moment the planes appeared.
“As I ran the bomb dropped and hit us,” he says, “There were six people in our group, one died.”
He was being treated for shrapnel wounds and damaged hearing.
During their visit to the village, Free Burma Rangers filmed the floor of a house that was covered in bloodstains.
“This is the blood of a man who was killed in here by the airstrike. He was wounded. He picked up his son who was injured, came down the stairs… and took his son to his wife… and then he died,” Mr Eubank can be heard saying.
The man’s widow, Naw Mu Wah Paw, has now taken her young son into the jungle for protection.
“While they were bombing, it hit my son’s cheek and also the other side of the cheek. My husband was killed,” she says showing the marks on her little boy’s face.
He still has shrapnel in his neck and head.
The medics couldn’t get it all out.
Naw Mu Wah Paw is taking shelter among the trees with five other families.
Mr Eubank continued: “Conditions are very hard, some of them lost family members to the airstrikes or ground attacks, many of them are sick and there’s no school… they’re hiding in the jungle now and it’s the rainy season.
“So it’s psychologically hard, it’s emotionally very hard and physically it’s hard. And sicknesses rise in these circumstances.”
We asked Myanmar’s military for comment on allegations including claims that villages had been targeted in their airstrikes – but it hasn’t responded.
Free Burma Rangers has worked in conflict zones around the world including in Syria and Iraq.
But they’re not without critics.
The Burmese army has previously accused them of training and assisting armed rebels.
Mr Eubank insists the people of Myanmar invited them to help and their focus is on those in need: “We are not a militia, we’re not part of any of the armed groups. We are also not pacifists.
“We believe people have the right to defend their own lives. It’s a basic human right. And to defend others. Our teams go to give help, hope and love and not to fight. However, they can defend the people they’re with. But whether they defend them or not, they can’t leave them.”