Tortured almost to death, a 17-year-old former Covid-19 volunteer is now a committed resistance fighter
By Myanmar Now
Zeya was thrown into a hole with his hands tied behind his back. Blindfolded, he couldn’t see a thing. All he could feel was the beatings, which continued right up until the moment they started to bury him alive.
“They filled the hole, with just my head exposed,” the 17-year-old recalled. His tormentors, who held a shovel to his neck, told him he should be praying for his life.
“I felt that at least it would all be over in a moment if I died. My only hope was to be reincarnated back into my family,” he said.
But then another man arrived who said they needed to interrogate him some more. And so he was pulled out of the hole.
Arrested in early May on suspicion of involvement in a series of bombings in Yangon, the slightly-built youth knows that he is lucky to be alive after spending 10 days in an interrogation centre in the former capital.
Many others have been less fortunate. According to a statement released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) on June 11, the junta has tortured at least 22 people to death since seizing power on February 1.
But even before the coup, Myanmar’s military was notorious for its extreme mistreatment of prisoners. In a 2019 report, AAPP details the military’s systematic use of torture under successive regimes.
After being tortured so many times for a very long time, I no longer fear death.
Zeya said he was well aware of this history and just assumed that once he was captured, he was as good as dead. First, however, he would have to live through hell.
“They tied me up and blindfolded me, and just started beating me non-stop,” he said of his ordeal.
Day after day, he was pummelled relentlessly as his captors demanded to know where he had learned how to make explosives. It didn’t matter that they had the wrong person.
Somehow he survived. But after being pushed to the limits of his endurance, he knew that his life would never be the same.
“After being tortured so many times for a very long time, I no longer fear death,” he said.
A remorseless enemy
As a teenager, Zeya was not very interested in politics before the coup. He did, however, believe in helping others. That’s why, at the start of the year, he was working as a volunteer at a Covid-19 centre in Yangon’s Yankin Township.
“I was so happy that the pandemic was ending. But then the coup happened, and suddenly we weren’t able to do anything,” he said.
Like many of his fellow Covid-19 volunteers, he decided to leave his PPE suit and mask behind and don a safety helmet and gas mask so that he could join the anti-coup demonstrations.
He soon learned that the enemy he was now facing was even more remorseless than the coronavirus.
On May 2, Zeya was spending a drizzly evening with friends when soldiers suddenly stormed the apartment they were in. The troops, who had shot the lock off the door to get in, destroyed everything in sight as they searched for weapons. They also beat the young men, who they believed had received military training in an area under the control of an ethnic armed group.
Zeya panicked and tried to hide in a water tank. The soldier who caught him in the bathroom hit him in the head with the butt of his gun.
He was then blindfolded and transported to an interrogation centre. The beatings began the moment he arrived.
Zeya lost so much blood from his head injury that at one point he passed out. To stop the bleeding, his interrogators crudely closed the gash with a needle and thread used to repair boots.
“It was like a nightmare. I couldn’t even catch my breath to answer their question, as one guy in front kept beating me as another behind me was stitching up my wounds,” he said.
This continued for 10 days, as he was repeatedly asked about the “explosives crash course” he had supposedly taken, and about who he knew who had taken part in protests.
Every day it was the same routine, at least at first.
For three days, they beat him constantly. If he asked for water, they would beat him first and then splash some water in his face that he assumed had come out of a toilet. He was so thirsty that he tried to catch every drop that reached his lips.
“If I kept asking for water, they would just beat me, and I still wouldn’t get enough to drink. So I lied and told them that I had to use the toilet. Then I would drink as much of the toilet water as I could,” he said.
I would have suffered a lot less if they had just shot me. The torture was unimaginable. It filled me with hatred.
After the third day, they tried a new form of torture on him. If they weren’t happy with his answers, they would keep him out under the hot sun all day long. Then, in the evening, they would put him in a hole in the ground in an area with some trees.
“I was just waiting for the day when they would come to murder me,” he said. “I would have suffered a lot less if they had just shot me. The torture was unimaginable. It filled me with hatred.”
They took the stitches out of his head on the seventh day, and on the tenth day, they sent him to Insein Prison.
However, even Myanmar’s most notorious prison refused to accept him because he was too young. So in the end, he was sent to a juvenile correctional centre, which released him on bail on June 9.
He said he didn’t know what happened to the others who were detained together with him. Even if they were released, he wouldn’t be able to call them, because the military took their phones.
It was possible that they were still behind bars. If so, and assuming they were still alive, there would be no way even their families would be able to contact them.
His experience in the interrogation hell room has only strengthened Zeya’s hatred for the dictatorship.
Now that the third wave of the pandemic has started, the streets are again crowded with ambulances. However, Zeya is in no position to return to volunteering at the quarantine centres.
“I think back to the things they did to me. Every time I feel the scar on my head, my desire to rise up against them grows,” he said, speaking to Myanmar Now by telephone 11 days after his release.
Just a few days after his release, Zeya wrote on social media that he would never forget the time he was tortured “to the point that I didn’t even look like myself anymore.”
A day later, the army came looking for him again at his home.
By the time they arrived, however, he had already fled Yangon to a border area controlled by an ethnic armed group.
“I can’t get caught again. If I am, there is no way I’ll get out of there alive,” he said.
Thanks to his brutal treatment at the hands of the regime, Zeya is now exactly what he was accused of being—one of the legions of young people who have joined the armed resistance.
Holding a pistol, he said that armed struggle was the only way to defeat the dictatorship.
“This is the end game now,” he said as a marching song played in the background.
Original Post: Myanmar Now