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Left in limbo: Kachin IDPs face monsoon season dilemma

Kachin IDPs shelter at the Catholic church in Tanhpre, 1 May 2018. (PHOTO: DVB)

Some 5,000 Kachin villagers, who abandoned their homes one month ago due to the proximity of armed clashes between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence army (KIA), are still sheltering in churches and makeshift camps as monsoon season rapidly approaches.

Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, Father Steven Sut Awng from the Catholic church in Tanhpre village, Myitkyina Township, said that some 1,100 displaced persons (IDPs) from Injangyang have been sheltering in his church since 26 April, while many others are camped out at the nearby Baptist church.

“This is the first time that villagers and families have come to Tanhpre seeking shelter,” he said. “We have received some donations of food but we don’t know if more will come. Unless both sides stop fighting and allow these people to go home, they are facing a dire situation.”

He said that the monsoon rains were due soon, and that he worried for their health, with the possibilities of dengue and malaria very high, not to mention viruses caused by poor sanitation.

Recently, the Kachin State Department of Health sent in a medical team to work out of the church compound, said Father Steven Sut Awng.

A leader of that medical team said that the refugees need proper toilets built around the camp.

“As yet, I don’t see any infectious diseases in the camp,” he said. “But we need protection. The state government provided mosquito nets for the refugees but they need much more.”

The eldest woman in the church compound, N Kap Htu Bu, who is over 100 years old, fled from Pasip Zut village with the assistance of her grandson.

“I told my family to leave me alone in my home because I can’t walk,” she said. “But my grandson insisted on carrying me. I have been a refugee three or four times in my life, but this is the worst it has ever been.”

Her grandson, Tang Seng, 22, said that he could not bring clothes or supplies because he had to carry his grandmother.

“I am glad I was able to help my grandmother escape from our village,” he said. “However, I am worried about her health. We just want to go home.”

Another IDP, Seng Awng, aged 45, from Taung Paw village, said that she had never abandoned her village before despite years of conflict in the area.

“I want to return home because my cows were left behind,” she said. “They are my only income and I don’t want to lose them.”

It is estimated that more than 5,000 Kachin civilians from Tanai and Injangyang have abandoned their homes in recent weeks. In addition to those hundreds sheltering in churches in Tanhpre, it is believed that up to 3,500 others are camping rough in the jungle.

‘We must endure’

Meanwhile, the conflict between the Burmese army and the KIA continues unabated in Tanai and Injangyang townships.

KIA spokesperson Colonel Naw Bu told DVB yesterday that the Kachin rebels have no intention of disrupting the lives of civilians.

“But I think we must endure this tough situation until our revolution is complete,” he said.

Khar Li, a humanitarian and development officer for the Kachin Baptist Convention, said that the Burmese military will not allow IDP camps to be opened in Tanai Township.

“Civilians from Awng Lawt village were blocked in the jungle. The Burmese troops would not let them pass,” he said.

On Monday, thousands of protesters gathered in state capital Myitkyina to rally on behalf of the IDPs sheltering in the jungle.

“We will continue to stage non-violent rallies until this situation is resolved,” said organiser Sut Seng Htoi.

The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, has expressed concern over the rising number of IDPs and the escalation in hostilities in Kachin State. She urged all parties in the conflict to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law.

“Civilians must never be subjected to violence during the course of conflict,” she said. “All parties must take all necessary measures to ensure their safety and security.”