Sunday, December 25, 2011

Reliving 1973 Kachin Christmas Eve in New York City!

New York City's Skyline.
The Big Apple or the New York City is a wholesomely overwhelming town for a simple jungle boy like me. Especially the enormous Romanesque facades of century old skyscrapers. And it hurts my neck so much that I’ve stopped trying to look up at their distinctive tops.

Like many other wide-eyed tourists from the Australian fringe of the mighty empire of USA I ended up wandering on the wide avenues leading to the Times Square brightly lit and filled to the rims by the excited crowd on the Christmas Eve.

I walked and walked and walked aimlessly on the near-zero freezing but still unbelievably crowded Fifth Avenue and ended up, fortunately of course as I wasn’t really looking for it, right in front of a beautifully grand Gothic-revival church. I walked in and realized this is the historic St.Patrick’s Cathedral   and the traditional Midnight Mass was just a few hours away.

Since my short stint as a boy soldier in the Burmese Army in the predominantly Christian Kachine State of Burma almost forty years ago I always love to sit in a Christmas Eve service. Even though I am not a Christian I tried every year to attend the Midnight Service at St Mary Cathedral in Sydney.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC.
One great thing about Christianity is the churches and Cathedrals welcome non-Christians into their Masses and Services with open arms. Normally I just sat through a Service without taking part in the Communion as that was what the priests advised me.

And the rare opportunity to soak up the serenity and the overwhelming peace of spirituality is, I honestly believe, available only in a grand Cathedral or at a great pagoda like the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon.

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Unlike St. Mary’s Cathedral back in Sydney the New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s midnight mass on Christmas Eve is a reserved seating by tickets only. I’ve been told the New Yorkers are to send their ticket requests in writing to the Cathedral almost a year in advance and the tickets are First-Come-First-Serve only and there is a strict limit of four tickets a family.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg.
But I somehow miraculously got a ticket for a seat at the second last row of the left-side centre-pew from a kind Asian-American family and was timely seated. 

I even saw the world-famous Mayor Bloomberg walked past us to the very front rows by the altar where the Arch Bishop of New York Reverend Timothy Dolan and other priests were ready for the Mass. And the Service had started right on the midnight of 24 December 2011.

The music and the choir were so incredible I didn’t even realize that almost two hours had passed so fast and soon a lady soprano from New York Metropolitan Opera was singing the Communion Rite. Then the Cathedral Choir began to sing the Silent Night in three languages. German, Spanish, and English. German version was the Choir's first.

"Stil  -   le – Nacht       hei – li – ge     Nacht!       Al – les  schlaft,
Ein  - sam wacht        Nur      das     trau-te        hoch – hei – li – ge  Paar,
Hol – der  Kna – be  im   lok –  ki – gen  Haaar,    Schalf     in
Him – li scher Ruh,        Schalf        in      himm – li- scher   Ruh."


St. Patrick's Cathedral of New York City.
The Silent Night is a very calming Hymn and by then I was also tired and absolutely exhausted from the whole day of aimlessly walking on the New York streets. 

Momentarily I had lost control of myself and suddenly fallen asleep. And my tired and tortured mind had swiftly drifted into a nightmarish dream.

In my dream right there  amidst many thousands of people in the Cathedral I was strangely back in the army and also back in the Burmese jungle. 

And I was clearly hearing the Silent Night Hymn being sung not in German or English or Spanish but in the Lisu language of native Kachins the warlike minority tribe violently rebelling against our army in the rugged northern-most part of my former homeland, Burma.

I was reliving my 1973 Kachin Christmas Eve in my repeatedly-occurring nightmarish dream.

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Back then I was a young lance-corporal and on the night of Christmas Eve in 1973 I and the eight men of my rifle-squad were unknowingly inside a Kachin village deep in the jungle south-east of Htaw Gaw Hills between Chinese border and May Kha River.

Kachin State of Burma.
I didn’t even know it was Christmas Eve and nobody else from the squad did.

Back in 1973 our infantry battalion was stationed in Myitkyinar the capital city of Kachin State but the battalion’s forward-command-base with two rifle companies was on the Htaw Gaw Hills and that night our platoon was sent out to a remote Kachin village about 20 miles away from our fortified base.

The Military Intelligence unit attached to our battalion had solid information that a regular unit of KIA (Kachin Independence Army) had camped in the village for last few days and we were to assault the village and wipe the rebel unit out.

Night marches and surprise night raids are the specialty of Burmese soldiers and our plan that night was a brutal night assault on the sleeping village and its inhabitants including the armed-rebel unit of about fifteen. So our platoon of about 25 men marched in a long column through many thick pine forests and reached the edge of the seemingly lifeless village in the middle of the night.

The Kachin village was an old village and could be easily located on our maps. Under the soft light of half pale-yellow moon in the black sky we had found the large village exactly where it was supposed to be. The whole village was just a cluster of about 50 thatch roofed and walled houses built on the gradual slope of a low hill at the edge of the jungle we had just come through.
 
Our platoon leader was a sergeant-major and his battle speech to us was that strictly no quarters were to be given as some other KIA unit had successfully ambushed our company and killed our young lieutenant and a squad of ten men just two months before that night. "Shoot anyone that moves!" was his exact words.

And he ordered the Second Squad my squad to go round the village and block the rear exit out of the village if there was one. His First Squad would enter the village while Third Squad was to block the front.

But at that cloudy night, the half moon quickly disappeared behind the moving mass of dense clouds in the black sky and the moist rain clouds totally blocked any faint lights from it, creating a sudden total darkness over the village and its immediate surrounds as if some higher power had dropped a giant blanket over the sleeping village and us.

The night had suddenly turned pitch black I couldn’t even see my own hand right in front of my face. Only things we could faintly see were the white reflective triangles on the back of our jungle hats, which we used to follow each other in the night marches.

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St. Columban's Cathedral in Myitkyinar, Burma.
One piece of crucial information we didn’t have at that time was that the village had no proper boundary or a main track through it as it was just a cluster of small huts and a few houses on stilts. 

In the pitch-black darkness we wandered around in vain for more than an hour like a group of blind men chasing each other’s tail.

Luckily we could still see each other by the white triangle marks on the back of our jungle hats. I sometimes wondered what they put in these little triangles to be slightly visible even in the stark darkness. 

I was trying to find the main track at rear of the village, but I couldn’t in the total darkness.

Finally out of desperation I decided to stop and stay still wherever we were after failing to find any significant access track to the village.

Out of the respectable fear of unknown enemy, the whole squad of men stood silently still where they had just stopped. By then I knew very well that we were definitely inside the village, unintentionally of course, as I could smell their domestic animals and also heard the belching of a water buffalo nearby. We could get shot by our own troops. I worried.

But nothing really happened in the silent darkness for at least an hour and, then I heard the faint sounds of people moving about not far from me. Alarmed but thinking it could be our sergeant major and his squad of men I just stood there in silence, trying to figure out what was going on.

Then suddenly someone lit a kerosene pressure lamp close by, followed by at least two other lamps around it, blinding me for a while till my eyes got used to the bright lights. After belatedly realizing that I was now standing right beside one of the brightly-lit houses forming the cluster of houses, I was amazingly shocked by what I saw next.

Others might have felt the same as me, since nobody could respond for a while to what was slowly unfolding right under our light-stricken eyes.

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A village Church in Kachin State of Burma.
A group of at least ten young Kachin men and women, two men with acoustic guitars, gradually appeared one by one from the houses and gathered in the clearing right in front of me.

Then they began singing the Lisu Kachin version of ‘Silent Night’ followed by other Christmas songs without noticing me or the others still standing silently with awe in the darkness behind the brightly-lit houses.


It was near impossible for the group of singers to see us in the darkness as they were in the bright lights and also they were joyfully celebrating a very special occasion, the birth of their Lord Jesus Christ.

It was Christmas Eve and we had completely wrong information about them. They were just a group of travelling missionaries from Myitkyinar, not a KIA Unit as our Intelligence people thought. They might have met a few KIA regulars on their way through the jungle and been referred to many times in the radio chatters between the KIA units.

Our Intelligence people intercepted the coded messages and just roughly or wrongly interpreted them as an enemy unit. Luckily for all of us and for them too, everyone in the platoon behaved well and nobody got hurt in that dangerously confusing situation.

Except for the couple of fat pigs our sergeant-major later bought from the frightened villagers and killed for the Christmas feast we accidentally gate-crashed, as a goodwill gesture to the unfortunate village.

The Kachin villagers were not too overly happy to get the shock of their lives by unexpectedly seeing many heavily-armed Burmese soldiers in the middle of their Christmas celebrations. But the roasted pigs on the spits over the fire definitely helped foster the newly-formed relationship between them and us.

It was a standard procedure for our Sergeant-major to buy a pig or two for the feast together as an apology or show of goodwill towards any friendly village we entered uninvited. We all knew very well that any other Sergeant or Sergeant Major would just simply march out of the village without an apology or, even worse, kill any livestock for meat at their will as if these jungle villages were their own lawless fiefdom.

Next morning as dawn came we did a thorough search of the village and its surrounds. After a good night’s rest on the outskirts of the village, we happily marched back to our base without a single engagement with the enemy. 

On the way back I was fondly thinking of the Christmas feast we had together with the villagers, and even thanking Lord Jesus Christ for preventing us from committing a horrible massacre, and saving the village and the missionaries from the possible bloodbath on that pleasantly faithful night of Christmas Eve.

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Half asleep and half awake I gradually noticed the Silent Night I was hearing now was no longer in Lisu but in English.  

"Si    -   lent night,        ho      -     ly     night,         Son  of   God
Love’s pure light        Ra   -    diant  beams          from    thy   ho – ly  face,
With  the dawn   of    re -  deem -     ing   grace,        Je   -    sus,
Lord,  at  thy  birth,           Je   -   sus,      Lord,     at  thy      birth."

The Cathedral Choir was now singing the Silent Night in English and I regained the control of myself as I woke up and immediately realized that my nightmarish dream inside the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was over.

People all around me were now standing up and shaking hands, hugging, and saying Merry Christmas to each other. I also quickly stood up and shook hands with as many people as I could.

Arch Bishop Reverend Timothy Dolan.
Arch Bishop Reverend Dolan had also taken a long walk down to the Cathedral’s front doors and greeted the groups of firemen and police-officers from world-famous NYFD and NYPD there. The Midnight Mass was almost over at here in peaceful and prosperous New York City.

Back in Burma all the Christians must also be celebrating the birth of Lord Jesus Christ on Christmas Eve soon as they are lagging almost a day behind New York’s Celebrations because of time-zone difference.

I prayed for them that there will be long-lasting peace in Kachin State after so many years of nasty civil war, and I also wished that their long sufferings will be over very soon as Burma has slowly progressed into a free and fair democratic society under the Rule of Law.

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video
(Sinnead O'connor's Silent Night)