Thursday, April 2, 2015

The first day of the rest of my life

“I want to be an example. It’s my turn to help others”
By Mariana Palavra

©UNICEF Myanmar/2015/ Mariana Palavra

Yangon, Myanmar, January 2015: He entered the empty, austere room shyly. His eyes facing the floor, as if afraid of my voice and presence. I introduced myself and clumsily attempted to put a few words together in Burmese. Almost immediately, he looked straight into my eyes and greeted me with a big smile. That smile stayed on the entire time we spent together talking and conjuring up his childhood memories.

"In the last five years the worst experience was being punished at the battalion school because I couldn’t memorise some of the English vocabulary”, he recalled. “Three of us had a wooden board locked around our legs.  That only happened once. After that I studied hard to memorise all the words.”

Win Thu Aung, 19 years old, laughs as he throws out a ‘Yes’, showing that he studied English hard.

These are not memories of war - but they could have been. Win Thu Aung was recruited by the Myanmar Armed Forces when he was 15 years old. He spent the last four years in the Tatmadaw, before being released last January along with 41 other young boys under the auspices of the Joint Action Plan signed between the UN and the Government of Myanmar to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in the armed forces.   

Now 19 years old, Win Thu Aung doesn’t unveil any other bad memories, not even from those four months he spent on the frontline of the conflict, in Kayin State. Indeed, his words flow better when he recalls his life before becoming a soldier.  

“When I was 10 years old, I worked in a motorcycle shop selling tires. My father was a rickshaw driver and my mother sold fruit. All of us were working. Lots of memories of hard work.”

“When I was 6, my mother gave birth to my younger sister. I was very happy. We got a new family member.”

And later on, each night before falling asleep during those five years spent in the Army, he would think about her, his little sister.

His nightmare had started when he was15 years old. “By that age I was already following my father’s footsteps: I was a rickshaw driver”, he said. “Most of the time, I didn’t have any work, I couldn’t make any money. So my mother told me to join the army.”

Win Thu Aung didn’t question that decision. Whatever Armed Forces were, it would probably be a synonymous of hard work. And he already knew by heart what this meant.   

“I didn’t feel anything. There was no difference between being inside or outside the battalion”, he recalled. “Life was already hard before, so whatever joining the army would mean, wouldn’t make any difference”, he initially thought.

But it did make a big difference. “I missed my family, especially my sister. She is now 14 years old. “

And his hope to leave the Armed Forces started to grow. In 2013, Win Thu Aung became aware of the national campaign to prevent children from being recruited and used by armed groups. Through TV and newspapers he also learned that a hotline had been set up to report cases of child soldiers. His release could be as close as a phone call.

“Although I understood that I was entitled to be released, I needed someone to report my case.”  He waited, but nobody did it for him.
“So, I did it myself: I called the hotline to report my case”.

The good news officially arrived by the end of 2014. In fact, 2014 marked a record number of children being released by the Tatmadaw. Since the signature of the Action Plan in June 2012, 595 have been discharged, of which 70% were released between January 2014 and January 2015. Win Thu Aung was part of the latest group of boys to return to civilian life. I met with him exactly 24 hours before his release. 24 hours before his return to life. 

“Was I happy when I knew I was going to be released? YES!”  [in English language accompanied by his ear-to-ear smile.]

“Today, am I happy? Yes! I really want to start my life over again!”, he exclaimed. “My first priority is to focus on education, I want to return to school. Then, I want to learn some skills, I want to learn how to drive. But this time I will have an upgrade, I will drive a Taxi, not a rickshaw.”

He laughs at his own joke. We all did.

“The first thing I will do tomorrow is to hang out with my friends, go to People’s Square. (No, I still don’t have girlfriend). But before I do that, I want to hug my mother and sister.”

And starting from today, Win Thu Aung has already embraced another long term commitment: he wants to tell his story.

“I want to be an example. It’s my turn to help others. I will raise awareness of child soldiers’ issues”, he promised. “When I was attending grade 9 at the Army, I saw child soldiers even younger than me. I will contact the hotline to report their cases or encourage them to do so themselves. Yes! I want to do prevention work in different communities and villages”, he assured.

During the entire conversation, Win Thu Aung “forgot” to mention the night he was arrested and put in jail because he didn’t report to his battalion after a weekend spent at home. Fearing her child would be accused of desertion, his mother called a UNICEF national staff asking for help. This episode almost jeopardised his release. But Win Thu Aung doesn’t want to hold on to bad memories. He is already looking ahead. As he countlessly repeated with an ear-to-ear smile throughout the interview: YES!

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