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“I’m an American”
Comments () | Published October 12, 2010
Genser decided it was time to take the fight public. On February 22, the Wall Street Journal published a scathing op-ed written by Wa Wa admonishing both Secretary Clinton and President Obama for their silence about Nyi Nyi’s torture and detention.

“When we became Americans, Nyi Nyi and I took an oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’ ” she wrote. “And yet, to the U.S. government, [Nyi Nyi] might as well just be one of the other 2,100 political prisoners languishing in a Burmese prison.”

A few days later, Genser, Schwanke, and Wa Wa headed to NPR on DC’s New York Avenue to tape an interview about Nyi Nyi with Tell Me More host Michel Martin. Genser fielded most of the questions, taking aim at State. He brought up the higher level of attention given to Yettaw. Martin took the bait, asking Genser if he really believed that Nyi Nyi’s Burmese origins made him less of a priority.

“The State Department would strongly and vigorously deny that,” Genser answered, “but I have yet to have a good explanation as to why the disparate treatment.”

On the same day as the NPR interview, Genser and Wa Wa met again with assistant secretary Campbell and deputy assistant secretary Marciel along with a few others at State. The officials had agreed to the meeting after hearing that Wa Wa’s Wall Street Journal op-ed was coming out.

According to Genser and Wa Wa, Campbell was furious about the article. “It was totally inappropriate to me,” says Wa Wa of Campbell’s behavior in the meeting. “He didn’t even ask how I was doing.”

Genser and Wa Wa told him they wouldn’t have slammed the State Department if they had been kept informed about what was happening with Nyi Nyi’s case. “It was the lack of communication,” Wa Wa says. “After the last meeting [on January 5], there was no communication. They didn’t tell us anything.”

Genser says that when he asked Campbell why his e-mails and calls about Nyi Nyi hadn’t been returned, he was told it was because he couldn’t be trusted with sensitive information. “Bullshit,” Genser says. “All I needed was a simple response to an e-mail that just said, ‘Trust us, something is happening.’ ”

The senior State Department official, speaking anonymously, says he doesn’t want “to get into characterizing what people said” in the meeting, but he doesn’t deny Wa Wa’s and Genser’s versions: “What I would say is there was a difference of views on the tactics.”

But the meeting did yield promising news. The State Department officials said they were getting what seemed to be encouraging feedback from the Burmese regime. They asked Genser and Wa Wa to hold off on public discussion of the case for four weeks. They aimed to have Nyi Nyi home by then.

Genser agreed to halt his efforts, but not for a day longer than those four weeks.

The prison guards entered Nyi Nyi’s cell on March 17, shackled his wrists and ankles, and brought him onto the same public bus that had delivered him to Prome more than a month earlier. Nyi Nyi’s right leg was in terrible pain. He thought maybe he was being taken back to Rangoon to see a doctor.

When he arrived at Insein Prison hours later, he was put back into solitary confinement, where he spent the night. The next morning, one of the prison officers came in and told him to get showered because he was leaving—not to see a physical therapist but to get on a plane to the United States.

Despite the relief and joy of the moment, Nyi Nyi’s thoughts wandered to his mother, whom he had never gotten to see, and to the other prisoners he was leaving behind. He knew that their suffering would continue.

But for Nyi Nyi, more than six months after the nightmare began, it was over. On March 19, Wa Wa, Genser, and Schwanke went to Dulles to meet him. Several family friends as well as a group of reporters who’d been notified by Genser and Schwanke showed up outside international arrivals. Bystanders wondered aloud if someone famous was coming.

Wa Wa looked like the sun had come up for the first time in ages. Months of worry had melted off her face, and the black pantsuit that had become her uniform for Hill meetings and interviews was gone. In its place was a bright-blue cardigan over a lacy white top.

Nyi Nyi’s flight was expected to arrive at 3:30, and everyone’s eyes were fixed on the announcement board that would show when United Flight 898 from Tokyo had landed. Finally, a low echo of “It’s up” moved through the crowd. Nyi Nyi was on the ground.

Wa Wa pressed herself against the low barrier separating the waiting area from arrivals, trying to get a glimpse of Nyi Nyi. When he rounded the corner, the crowd erupted.

He spotted Wa Wa and moved toward her, a bad limp keeping him from running. They grabbed each other in a long embrace. A few feet away, Schwanke attempted to snap photos as tears streamed down her face.

When Nyi Nyi and Wa Wa turned toward the reporters, Nyi Nyi’s physical condition became more apparent. He weighed barely 100 pounds, and his dark-gray polo shirt and khaki pants drooped off his thin frame. Wa Wa held onto him tightly, not only because she was happy to have him close but also to help steady his shaking body.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/12/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles