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Orchid girls...

I HAD VISITED Chogali village so often, in stray moments, it sometimes seemed I never left. In reality, almost a year had passed since my husband and I volunteered in medical clinics along the Thai-Burma border.

We took many snapshots, but I didn't need them to travel back -- down the rutted elephant trail, across the steppingstones in the stream, past the black pig in the bamboo pen, along the path lined with white star flowers that smell like magic.

This is how I liked to remember Chogali, as a place of little girls and orchids, of peace and hope.

Actually, Chogali was -- and is -- in the middle of a war.

On one side is a military dictatorship that in the past 35 years has killed, tortured and displaced millions. On the other are ethnic tribes who want autonomy and dissidents who want democracy.

The military is winning. Burma's people have lost just about everything that makes life decent. And every year, things get worse.

In this country of chaos, Chogali was an oasis. The village was nurtured by a remarkable woman known along the border as "Dr. Cynthia." She ran a clinic there, took in orphans and trained medics to care for hill-tribe people who had no other access to modern health care.

That such a gentle community could exist in the middle of war became my antidote to the world's horrors.

After we came home to Seattle last summer, I kept returning, in my mind, to Chogali. To escape from the blur of news of war, of genocide, of rape, of hunger and hate . . . .

I'd hear a snippet, read a headline, then drift away to be with the little orchid girls, mixing mud and rain in coconut shells -- playing pretend within a game of pretend.

Then Chogali fell.


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