Displaced and Distressed



LAIZA, Kachin State—Maran Tu Ring has a broad but cautious smile and the fixed glare of a tired mind. I met him in Laiza in Kachin State, a place he doesn’t want to be.

The 54-year-old is an internally displaced person or IDP, a civilian victim of the fighting that broke out in June last year in northeastern Burma.

Since then, the Tatmadaw, or the Burmese armed forces, has reduced the area under the control of the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The fighting has reached a stalemate; both sides say they are seeking a political solution and a ceasefire, but negotiations are tainted by decades of mistrust.

Maran Tu Ring had to abandon his home village of Japu last autumn. He is now living in the Wai Chyai IDP Camp on the outskirts of Laiza, the Kachin Independence Organization’s operational capital situated right on the border to China.

“I really want to go home, but I can’t,” he said. “I have no choice in the matter.”

He has been living in the refugee camp for the last four months. His arrival in the giant warehouse that initially provided housing in this camp marked the end of a three-month flight from the conflict to provisional safety in Laiza.

“There are 12 families from my village here,” he said. He explained that his own family was dispersed between this camp, another camp in Laiza and a camp in Myitkyina.

According to information provided by the KIO, 2,631 people from 40 villages are currently living in the Wai Chyai IDP Camp.

Some have built primitive bamboo huts, while others continue to live in the two-by-two meter compartments provided by the KIO government in the warehouse.

Most cover the entrance with a cloth for privacy and sleep at night on mats. Most had left all they had in their villages.

“Some youths sneaked back into their villages to get a chicken or a piglet to sell or to eat,” Lt. Geng Du Awng, a KIA officer, told me. “We provide them with rice, but it is scarce.”

No less than 45,678 people have left their homes and sought refuge in camps in China, KIO-controlled areas and government-controlled areas, according to March 4 figures released by the KIO’s IDP Refugee Relief Committee (IRRC). Almost half of them are sheltering in Laiza and its outskirts.

More than 5,000 of these displaced people are under five years of age.

“The UNHCR has criticized us for exaggerated numbers, but at the time, we hadn’t released any numbers,” said Larip, the 41-year old head of the Kachin Development Group and coordinator of the Laiza-based Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees (RANIR). “Other people have exaggerated the figures.”

“Sometimes the figures have been exaggerated, this creates confusion among politicians and donors,” Kareng Awng from RANIR said.

Meters away from Larip’s office is the Chinese border. Chinese officials and media have denied the existence of refugee camps on their side over the last months. Chinese journalists have reported on the conflict, but their reports refute the existence of refugee camps on the Chinese side.

One interview on Chinese Central Television showed a local explaining that Kachin people from both sides of the border travel back and forth freely to visit relatives and do business and should not be considered refugees.

“These people are not refugees,” the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Liu Weimin said at a press conference in Beijing in early February.

According to the IRRC figures, 7,223 refugees are living on the Chinese side of the border. Asked why he thought the Chinese government has denied their existence in recent statements, Larip said, “They might have the understanding that the conflict will be settled very soon. If they say they have refugees, they have to give them refugee status. But they don’t want international organizations to get involved in this issue.

“I think, that is one of the reasons why they have facilitated the peace talks,” he added. “They want to localize the issue as much as possible—it should not spread and become a big issue.”

One single UN convoy brought basic household and shelter supplies to camps near Laiza in December last year. Larip said he has not seen any international help in the IDP and refugee camps either from China or from any other country recently.

In February, the UN Special Envoy for Burma Vijay Nambiar said that the UN had reached an agreement with the Burmese government to allow humanitarian aid to IDPs in KIO-controlled territory.

The scarcity in food is due to restrictive export legislation on the Chinese side, he said.

“We cannot legally bring Chinese food items across the border to IDP camps in KIO-controlled territory,” he said. “A sufficient supply of medicine has also been a challenge.

They don’t allow us to bring in a lot, but we have to find a way to get it to the camps.”

Larip said he had learned of nine cases of human trafficking from the IDP camps to China.

“We don’t know how they are trafficked to China,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the local people, sometimes it’s even the parents.”

The fighting has also strained the KIO’s teaching capacity. At Laiza High School, one of three schools in the town, the teaching schedule had to be changed to cater for hundreds of new students when the fighting started.

“Due to the IDP [flood]a lot of children came from the villages, so we had to change the timetable,” Secretary of the Central Education Department Yao Sau told me.

Local children now start school at six in the morning, ending at half past 12. Then the IDP students begin their classes at one and end at 5:30.

“The really good students from the IDP classes get moved into the local classes,” Yao Sau said.

The IDP flood brought in teachers as well. Thirty-six-year old Hkun San is one of them. Originally from Myitsone, he was a teacher in Bandong village. “I came here when the fighting broke out,” he said.

Hkun San is the headmaster of a provisional school in the Je Yang IDP Camp. In a dozen bamboo huts with makeshift bamboo stools and tables, 32 teachers teach 1,063 children. After the 7th grade, some students are allowed to continue their education at the Laiza High School, but for must IDP children schooling ends at age 14. “We prepare to teach grade 8 and 9 next year,” he said.

The Laiza Hospital also had to struggle to provide its services to as many of the newcomers as possible. Asked on how many new patients came to his hospital, the head of the Laiza hospital named Major Prang Mai, replied with a forced smile.

They had set up a temporary clinic, which by now has been scaled down to a small room in the Wai Chyai IDP Camp, he said. His hospital caters for those IDPs who sickness is too serious to be treated there.

Kaw Awm, 53, from Namsam village is one of them. She has AIDS and is spending the last days of her life in Major Prang Mai Hospital. Lying in her bed, extremely thin, her eyes are hauntingly sad.

Before the fighting, she used to be a teacher in her village, her 20-year-old son Prang Awng told me. She left in June last year with her two children, a boy and a girl, and found shelter at Laiza’s Manau Wang IDP camp. Six days ago, she was brought from the camp to the hospital.

She shared her room with two other terminally ill AIDS patients. The 100-bed hospital is struggling to get basic equipment, some donated years ago by the Japanese embassy in Rangoon, medicine is mostly smuggled from China.

Five minutes drive from the hospital, another IDP is under arrest. Thirty-four-year-old Sang Bu was sitting on a mat along, holding her child, along with a dozen other inmates of the KIO’s drug rehabilitation centre.

She left her home in Namsang village in October 2011 and until two weeks ago lived in the Wai Chyai IDP Camp. She was arrested for drug consumption and placed under detention in the centre.

She told me she started using opium a month ago. “I tried to lessen my stomach pains but eventually got too fond of it,” she said. “I bought the opium on the Chinese side for 20 yuan [US $3] per dose.”

Sang Bu is one of 128 people detained for drug consumption or sale at the center. They can be detained up to six months and are administered gradually lower quantities of drugs, said Assistant Secretary of the Drug Eradication Department Gam Ba.

“Most arrested are from IDP camps,” he said. He also employs some IDP as cleaners at the camp.

“What’s needed most is food and shelter, nutrition for children and pregnant women,” community worker Larip told me.

That evening, just like every other evening in the past six months, thousands of families cook their meals on makeshift fires in crowded camps around Laiza. Most, like Maran Tu Ring, just want to go home.

Photo : Patrick Boehier


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