A relief team from Burma is in Iraq assisting ethnic Kurdish troops currently fighting against the jihadist group calling itself ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
Formed in 1997, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) has provided emergency relief to those in the remote ethnic regions of Burma plagued by over 60 years of civil war.
Since January, a group of one Kachin and three ethnic Karen ‘rangers’ from the organization have been delivering the same type of assistance in Iraqi Kurdistan.
One ethnic Karen team member, who goes by the nickname “Monkey,” spoke with The Irrawaddy from the northern town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border.
“In accordance with the Free Burma Rangers’ motto, we stand for those who are oppressed,” he explained. “We were invited and encouraged to come here, so we came here to help… as much as we can.”
Since November, Sinjar has been under the control of ethnic Kurdish troops, after previously falling to ISIS expansionist ambitions in 2014. The region has also been the site of an ethnic cleansing campaign by ISIS against the indigenous Yazidi ethno-religious group.
This is the second time the FBR has dispatched its team to Iraq to help the Kurdish forces, or peshmerga, in combating the ISIS militants. The first group was sent in June 2015. During this visit, before Kurdish militia was able to take back Sinjar, the FBR team survived an ISIS attack on a Kurdish base where they were staying.
Like the organization’s work in eastern and western Burma, the FBR’s activities with Kurdish troops and their families also involves both healthcare and documentation. Occasionally, they said they have to engage in military defense with the peshmerga soldiers against ISIS.
“We provided medical trainings, such as first aid, in order to immediately help those injured on the frontlines of a battle,” said Monkey. “We are collecting information and documenting what is happening here, to let the world know.”
Monkey explained that the obvious difference between war in Iraq and in eastern Burma is the geography: battles in Iraq take place in the desert, and are marked by airstrikes and heavy rocket shelling, while fighting in Burma happens in jungles and on hills or mountains with the use of smaller weapons.
“Here… there are no trees. They mostly fire at each other from very far away and planes drop bombs. In Burma, they fight very close [to one another],” he said. “Every conflict zone is risky. But we have to help suffering people, so we have got things to do here.”
David Eubank, a former US Army officer, founded the FBR and has led both the previous and current delegations to Iraq.
“We have a very good team from Burma. Our mission is to give medical care and humanitarian assistance to people who are under attacks by ISIS and tell the world what happens—help the people and get the news out,” he told The Irrawaddy.
“They suffered like the people of Burma suffered,” Eubank said of the Kurdish people. “They said, ‘wow, you came a long way here, even though you have troubles in Burma. You care about us.’”
“I see that Iraqi people, Kurdish people, they love these people from Burma because they came from Burma to help them,” he added.
The FBR’s 2015 activities in Sinjar were documented in a video, titled “Evil at Our Doorstep: The Free Burma Rangers in Kurdistan.”
FBR is largely funded by Christian charities, Christian communities, and churches across the United States and abroad.