BURMA AND THE "BLACK ZONE"
The Black Zone is a decade long journey following workers from a covert and daring medical relief program as they struggle to provide aid amidst war atrocities inside the jungles of Burma.
The majority of ethnic minority groups in Burma have been at war with the Burmese military junta but the Karen (kah-REN) endured the longest -- over 50 years of civil war. During the 1960s, the Burmese military regime began a scorched earth campaign against the Karen, which Human Rights Watch called a “campaign of ethnic cleansing”. The Burmese military regime perpetrated rapes, killings and countless other human rights abuses. They also barred relief agencies from the conflict zones pushing the population to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
But with a little improvisation, a lot of organization and some assistance from Western physicians the Karen began training mobile backpack medics to provide the only medical care for their war weary people. Thousands rely on them to treat everything from the deadliest drug resistant form of malaria to amputating limbs injured by landmines -- all without electricity or running water. It’s a unique situation where the medics providing aid to a displaced population -- are stateless themselves.
The backpack medics work in the “black zone” -- an area demarcated by the Burmese military as a region inhabited and loosely controlled by the Karen in Eastern Burma. Providing healthcare in this area was a crime punishable by death.
Recent high profile political changes resulted in a rapid shift towards talk of economic engagement and a positive narrative of peace by Western diplomats. But Burma has shifted to a hybrid system of military rule and democracy and under the current constitution, the military can take control of the government if it deems necessary.
The reforms in Burma loosened the grip of military rule but the medics continue their work as justice eludes many ethnic minority regions. Intense conflicts throughout 2012 - 2015 displaced thousands of more people and humanitarian aid continues to remain restricted in some regions.
Human rights abuses perpetrated by all sides of the conflict have yet to be addressed including the active targeting of medics and community workers by the Burmese military -- a horrific trend witnessed in conflicts worldwide.
The Journey and The Border
The backpack medics trek through the black zone regions of Karen State on 6-month medical “tours”. Karen soldiers escort them through dangerous territories and “free fire” zones in order to reach some of the most remote villages in the war torn region. All medical supplies are carried in on foot for most of the mountainous journey and are always in short supply.
Medics must cross the border between Thailand and Burma without paperwork or passports. Most of the medical supplies in black zone regions are smuggled in from Thailand.
The backpack medics also receive critical medical training in “safe houses” set up in Thailand and at a free clinic established to assist refugees and migrants fleeing Burma. Travel is always dangerous. In Burma, they are persecuted for their health work. In Thailand, they are undocumented illegal migrants.
Medics worked tirelessly to procure medications and further their training all while being hunted by the Burmese military. Over the years, many were arrested and some even killed.
The Black Zone highlights the ongoing courageous work of many -- where ordinary people refuse to be labeled victims and hundreds of lives have been saved because of their defiance.