In Kayah, Myanmar, doctors treat war wounded in hidden hospitals | Conflict News

Kayah State, Burma – When the military took power in February 2021, Dr Ye was living the life many young people in Myanmar only dream of: working as a doctor in London. Coming from a family favorable to the military, he had until then hardly thought about politics.

“Before the coup, they brainwashed me,” the 32-year-old told Al Jazeera in an interview in southern Shan State in December. “The coup enlightened me.”

But it also left him reeling from survivor’s guilt. He watched from afar as hundreds of people his age and younger were gunned down in the streets during peaceful pro-democracy protests. Soon, these protests turned into an armed uprising, with the military deploying massive reprisals against the civilian population.

“For a while I was giving money, but I didn’t like it. Every morning when I woke up, I was depressed hearing news about killings, bombings, burning villages,” he said.

At his lowest, Dr. Ye even attempted suicide.

“I decided I had to come back and physically participate in the revolution,” he said.

In April 2022, he visited Kayah State, which shares a mountainous border with Thailand. A coalition of anti-coup armed groups has carved out significant territory there and in neighboring southern Shan.

Dr. Ye’s decision to settle in this “liberated zone” caused a rift in his family because his father is a regime official. prison department in the national capital, Naypyidaw.

“We have completely separated, we don’t speak at all,” he said, adding that his father even threatened him with arrest. “I don’t think he’ll ever change his mind.”

    The Demoso PDF fighter shows a tattoo commemorating the date he was injured by a military RPG.  He smiled and took off his jacket to show the tattoo.
A PDF fighter in Demoso shows the tattoo he had inked to mark the date he was injured by a military RPG (Andrew Nachemson/Al Jazeera)

His experience as a pediatrician has made Dr. Ye valuable in treating the many children displaced by the conflict, but like all medical professionals in Kayah, he is also a temporary war medic.

“I have to stabilize vital signs, check blood pressure and heart rate,” he said of patients brought in after being injured in the conflict.

It’s raining bombs

When a resistance fighter was rushed to his clinic in eastern Demoso with a serious injury to his right leg following an air attack, Dr. May set to work despite the buzz of planes of combat above him.

“We could hear the sound of a fighter jet flying overhead, but we couldn’t escape anywhere because we had to resuscitate the soldier. So we had to stay there and accept whatever might happen,” said the 33-year-old, who worked as a general practitioner at a private hospital in Mawlamyine before the coup.

“I could work in a private hospital again or go abroad, but if I did, I would feel like I was not doing my duty to my country, to my people,” she said .

In the first half of 2023, eastern Demoso was one of the most serious conflict zones in the country, and Dr. May took to sleeping in an air raid shelter.

“Every day when I woke up I would hear the sound of artillery, and sometimes at 2 or 3 a.m. we would hear a fighter jet flying overhead,” she said . “We literally lived underground, in the bunker. We had to sleep there, we had to eat there because we no longer felt safe on the surface.

A pile of rubble in front of a damaged four-story building
Kayah was hit by multiple air attacks by the army, which is fighting forces opposed to the February 2021 coup (Andrew Nachemson/Al Jazeera)

When Al Jazeera visited eastern Demoso on January 4, it was eerily quiet. The fighting has since moved to Loikawthe state capital, but few civilians had returned home, leaving the area largely empty of people.

Dr. May stated that army targets health facilities because she knows that resistance fighters are treated there, even if ordinary civilians also rely on them for vital care.

“Because we took care of our comrades, including the war wounded, and it’s not good for them…” she pauses to think about the right word. “These dogs.”

Since the coup, Burmese people have started referring to the regime’s soldiers as sit-kway, or “military dogs.”

The Geneva Convention specifies that health establishments and mobile health units “may under no circumstances be attacked”.

Anti-coup fighter shows bandaged legs from landmine injury
A resistance fighter injured by a landmine is treated in a clandestine hospital in Kayah (Andrew Nachemson/Al Jazeera)

After months of near misses, Dr. May’s hospital was hit by an air raid in May 2023.

“I felt like I was suddenly on a battlefield, in my own coffin, everything flashing before my eyes,” she said. Fortunately, no one was killed, but the hospital buildings were destroyed.

Dr. May’s hospital has since moved to a more stable area of ​​the state, and Dr. Ye said his facility has also moved three or four times. Dr. Oak, who performed autopsies on victims of the Christmas Eve Massacre, said he also had to move twice. One day, a missile fell near his hospital in Nanmekhon, in the commune of Demoso. The second time, an air raid hit his establishment located in the north of Loikaw commune. Dr. Oak was taking a break and using the Internet in town, but four of his doctors were killed.

For this reason, most hospitals in Kayah are not only hidden, but also equipped with bomb shelters.

In the first line

When Al Jazeera visited one of these clandestine hospitals in late December, a member of the Demoso People’s Defense Force (PDF) was groaning in his bed.

“It hurts so much I can’t sleep,” he said. The PDF is a pro-democracy armed group whose units are spread across the country. The fighter’s legs were seriously injured in an air attack in Loikaw; doctors had already amputated one of his feet.

Half of the 12 hospitalized patients had been injured by landmines in Moebye, a town in southern Shan mainly controlled by the resistance. The military apparently rigged it with explosives before retreating in September 2022.

A 20-year-old woman who worked as a nurse at the clinic was a trainee nurse at Loikaw Hospital before the coup. She spent six months as a frontline medic for the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), another post-coup armed group, before coming to the hospital.

“I want to help in any way I can,” she said, declining to share her name for fear of retaliation. “Nothing is too difficult for me to help people, to save them.

Another 20-year-old KNDF medic, who was a high school student when the army took over, said he had to rush to the battlefield unarmed to extract wounded soldiers.

“Our rule is medical, no weapons. I see the soldiers shooting at my comrades and I really want to shoot them, but I can’t,” he said.

The entrance to an air raid shelter in a clandestine hospital in Kayah.  It's under a table.  with narrow, steep steps leading to the basement.
Hospitals must not only protect themselves from the risk of military attack, but also provide bomb shelters for staff and patients (Andrew Nachemson/Al Jazeera)

In Loikaw town, the commander of the KNDF battalion overseeing the medical response told Al Jazeera that three of his medics had been killed since the resistance. launched an offensive seize the capital in the last months of last year.

“They send aerial drones to monitor the area and if they find us they launch an airstrike, so we have to move every few days,” he said.

He continues to pray for a peaceful resolution to the crisis but is ready to fight until the end.

“We always pray for their compassion, that they would see the truth, turn to us and surrender, but they never do,” he said. “So we must eliminate them once and for all. »

Despite the hostile and terrifying environment, Dr. Ye says he found unexpected fulfillment and understanding in Kayah.

“I didn’t know much about all the difficulties that existed in the border areas because I chose not to know, I think,” Dr. Ye said. “Before the coup, I was not the only one. Most Bamars chose not to think about the conflict.”

For decades, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have struggled against military occupation and oppression, while Bamar-majority areas have rarely experienced armed conflict. But today the uprising against military rule has also taken root in the heart of central Bamar, and many Bamar youth have joined armed ethnic groups in border areas.

Dr Ye said he “firmly hoped” there would be greater ethnic unity after the revolution. Asked about his plans after the war, he replied that he would have to contribute to the “rehabilitation” of Myanmar.

“I used to have so many dreams about London, but I don’t want to think about it because it’s my life now,” he said. “My country needs me. Even if the revolution were over tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to return to London right away, because my people will still need me for some time.”

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