10 Minutes To Read

“We always feel unsafe in our homeland”: Dispatches from Kachin IDP youth

10 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Hpan Ja Brang spoke with four people living in camps near Laiza. Edited by Emily Fishbein.

    Women and children in Woichyai IDP camp dig bomb shelters on March 22, 2021. The adjacent camp of Mung Lai Hkyet was bombed by the Myanmar military on October 9 of this year, killing 28 people (Credit: Yawng Hta)

    On the night of 9 October 2023, 28 civilians, including twelve children, died in a large explosion adjacent to Mung Lai Hkyet internally displaced person (IDP) camp, located around three miles from the Kachin Independence Organization headquarters of Laiza. Rights groups have attributed the attack to the Myanmar military. In this article, four Kachin youth share their stories. These youths and their families have lived in Mung Lai Hkyet or the adjacent Woi Chyai IDP camp since war resumed between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar military in 2011. Three of them were present at these camps during the attack in October, while the fourth was attending school in the border town of Mai Ja Yang.

    A week after the attack, they all talk about their experiences of displacement and living under war over the past twelve years, as well as how the recent attack on Mung Lai Hkyet impacted their sense of safety and well-being. 

    All sources have been given pseudonyms and their interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Excerpts can also be found in this Al Jazeera article published on 18 October 2023.

    Seng Mai, 21, born in Sama district and lives in Mung Lai Hkyet IDP camp

    In June of 2011, fighting broke out near my village in Waimaw township. At the time, one of my relatives was a patient at the Laiza Hospital, so we decided to flee in that direction.

    We traveled on foot, hiding in the forest when we heard clashes on the way. We finally reached Woi Chyai IDP camp, but it was overcrowded, so camp administrators arranged for us to move to Mung Lai Hkyet.

    I attended high school in Laiza, walking back and forth because my family couldn’t afford a bicycle. Now I volunteer with a youth group that provides health and other community services in my camp.

    In 2016, everyone from Mung Lai Hkyet fled to another camp for almost two months due to nearby military attacks. During that time, we were always on alert, and we hid in trenches when we heard the sounds of planes or shelling.

    We passed our lives like that for years, but I never expected that our camp itself would be bombed. On the day of the attack, we didn’t hear any planes, just a sudden explosion. The sound was so loud that I wondered whether I had even survived. Then, the military shelled our camp four times while we were running to the trenches.

    By the grace of God, all of my family members escaped from that terrible situation. We were covered by broken pieces of our shelter, and we had to run over the roofs of other collapsed shelters. I don’t even remember how I got out of there. I saw a grandmother crying and shouting for help and my mother running barefoot. Some children were also running in the dark, struggling to reach a safe place. We were so scared that we were shaking.

    When it was over, we felt like we had come back from the dead. The entire camp was destroyed. I saw many injured people and the bodies of those who didn’t survive. I helped the other survivors as much as I could.

    My family temporarily moved in with relatives along with two other families who lost their homes. When I think about what happened, I feel excruciating pain in my heart and I don’t even know how to overcome the night. I keep thinking about what might happen, and I recall the terrible experiences that I’ve been through. Since I became an IDP in 2011, there have been many long and sleepless nights.

    I always feel unsafe. I realized that although we can hide in the trenches temporarily, if this kind of sudden attack happens again, we don’t have any secure place to go and I might not even survive. I also feel a lot for my people. We, IDPs, are living in poverty and facing many hardships. We have already lost our homeland once, and now we have again lost our precious things that we worked so hard to collect. There are many children in Mung Lai Hkyet who can’t even eat what they want or play freely. Some children lost all of their school materials in the attack and can’t afford to buy new ones. I feel so lost and I pray that this kind of case won’t happen again. We, IDPs, don’t want war anymore.

    Since 2011, I have faced so many difficulties. Because of our displacement, my family had many financial troubles and I had to pause my education many times. Still, I hope to attend university in Japan one day, and then to go back to my homeland to serve my people.

    To those who are reading my story, please remember the IDP youth, and help us as much as you can. We are enthusiastic to learn. Please give us opportunities and share your knowledge with us. We are waiting for it.

    The remains of Mung Lai Hkyet IDP camp following a Myanmar military attack on October 9 (Credit: Awng Ja)

    Htu Raw, 27, born in Maisak Pa village and lives in Woi Chyai IDP camp

    I only started living in Woi Chyai camp in 2013, although my family was displaced in 2011. When the war resumed that year, I was attending school in Myitkyina with my sister. We could hear the explosions from the city, and we heard that the situation back in our village wasn’t stable, but our parents didn’t tell us how much they were struggling. I think they were afraid that it would affect our education.

    In 2013, we finished tenth grade and our mother came to pick us up. On the way back, I noticed that the journey wasn’t the same. I asked my mother where we were going, and she replied, “We have become IDPs now, and we’re going back to the camp.”

    When we reached Woi Chyai, our parents told us that Burmese soldiers had come into our village one day, and that they could hear shooting sounds from our home. When they woke up the next morning, they saw that our neighbors weren’t there anymore, and they fled too.

    After we got our exam results, our parents also told us that they had sold our family’s land to support our education. At first, I didn’t realize how important it is to own land, but as I grew older, I realized how much we had lost.

    It has been so hard for us to earn an income in the camp. My parents are farmers, but here, there are many restricted areas. Being displaced also affected our education. I started attending a liberal arts program in Mai Ja Yang in 2014, but I had to drop out after the first year so that my brother could continue his theological studies. My family couldn’t afford to support both of us.

    I began working with a local civil society organization in 2015, but in 2020, I stopped working in order to study development at a school opened by my church. But after just a few months, the school closed due to COVID-19, and then there was the military coup. So I have fallen more than three years behind in my plans.

    I am sharing all of this with you because I want you to understand what it feels like to be an IDP.

    There have also been many times when I had to run. Once, a few years ago, bombs fell near our camp. I was outside of my shelter at the time, preparing for an event with other youth. At first, I didn’t recognize the sound, but after the second explosion, I ran back home and hid in a trench with my mother. My father and brother were away at the time, and we felt like there was no one to protect us.

    I was also in Woi Chyai camp this year, when the Mung Lai Hkyet incident happened. We didn’t hear any jets, just the sound of the bomb. Everyone from my block ran into the trenches. After the noises stopped, the youth from my camp gathered to help the affected people. When we saw what happened, we were very upset. The victims are our people and our relatives, and many of them are from my village. All of them are IDPs, and now they have been doubly-displaced.

    Now, I don’t feel safe at all. Sometimes we have to go out at night, but we don’t even dare to turn on a bright light. As a woman, I’m especially worried about my safety. I’m also not able to sleep soundly. I’m always alert, and whenever I hear the sound of a falling object, I immediately think it could be a bomb and feel scared. We, IDP youth, are traumatized by the incident. We’re even scared when darkness falls.

    My ambition is to help people as much as I can. I’m especially interested in IDP development, but there are many things that I still need to learn. Our people are still considered underdeveloped, and because we became IDPs, our situation got worse. Just like other IDPs, my dream is to return home one day. I want to be independent and excel at my work.

    Many IDP youth want to continue their education. Some are very passionate about becoming educated, but because their families aren’t able to support them, they have to let go of their dreams. It’s also difficult for us to move forward because of our trauma. And even though many NGOs come to the camp and conduct awareness-raising activities, we also lack confidence. When you come across IDP youth like me, please warmly welcome us and guide us.

    A funeral for the 28 victims of the military's bombing of Mung Lai Hkyet village and IDP camp was held in Laiza, Kachin State on October 10, 2023. (Credit: Awng Ja)

    Ah Ngwar Mee, 23, born in Npawn village, lives in Mung Lai Hkyet IDP camp and Mai Ja Yang

    In 2011, I fled from my village to Mung Lai Hkyet with my parents and seven siblings. I graduated from Laiza High School in 2019, and since 2020, I’ve been studying at the Mai Ja Yang institute of Education.

    I have a lot of feelings about being an IDP, and I think that others might feel the same way because we all left our beloved homes, land and property. When we fled, I was just a child and I was very afraid. I didn’t know where to go, so I just followed my parents. We faced a lot of difficulties just to eat.

    After we moved to the IDP camp, we received some emergency assistance, but there are still many livelihood challenges in every IDP family. It’s difficult even to garden because we don’t own the land, and there are limited work and educational opportunities.

    The coup and ongoing war really affected the hopes and dreams of Kachin IDP youth. Fortunately for me, I stay in a KIO-controlled area where I have been able to continue my education. I feel sorry for people who stay in places that aren’t fully under KIO control and whose education was interrupted by the coup. Some of them came to study in Mai Ja Yang.

    The recent attack on Mung Lai Hkyet damaged my home and other nearby buildings, and my entire family had to flee to a nearby camp along with the other residents of Mung Lai Hkyet.

    When we fled our homes in 2011, we thought that Mung Lai Hkyet would be a safe place for us, but the recent case showed that it couldn’t offer us safety and we had to run again. A few years ago, our ward elders had asked us to dig trenches where we could hide in case of an attack, but even though we dug trenches, they couldn’t totally protect us.

    I feel deeply sorrowful for all the people who lived in Mung Lai Hkyet. Every day, we saw and greeted each other and shared our love for each other, but now, we have been separated. Some people lost all of their family members. I have a lot of painful feelings that I can’t express. I have been crying a lot for my people.

    Because of this war, many people died, including innocent children and elders. Our homes were lost and damaged. Our people, including many Kachin IDP youth, are failing in different ways. We, IDPs, are feeling cramped and late in every sector.

    I hate war and I want to stop this war. Then, I want to go back to my home and live peacefully.

    Destruction caused by the Myanmar military's October 9 attack on Mung Lai Hkyet village and IDP camp (Credit: Awng Ja)

    Ah Hpung, age 28, a youth leader in Woi Chyai IDP camp

    Since the war broke out in 2011, the educational opportunities available to IDP youth have been so limited. There is Laiza High School, and for those who pass the KIO’s matriculation exam, there are academies affiliated with the KIO and other resistance groups. But most of the youth in this camp are poor, and some can’t afford to continue their education.

    Our limited educational opportunities have also affected our livelihoods. During COVID-19, youth were already feeling trapped. Then, the situation got much worse and all the opportunities closed. Some youth misdirected themselves and went the wrong way. Many youth feel hopeless and depressed about the future.

    After the recent Mung Lai Hkyet attack, we felt even worse. We realized that there was nothing we could do and nowhere to run when bombs fell, so we just prayed and stayed here. Fighting has often broken out nearby, but even though the entire Laiza area isn’t a safe place for us, we don’t have other places to go. We only have the trenches which we dug for our safety. Now, those who were affected during the recent attack don’t even dare to go back. We always feel unsafe in our homeland.

    On that night, we saw the bodies of victims including young children. Some people lost their family members and some lost their entire families. In some cases, children lost their mothers. They did not speak at all and just stared. Some of the children who heard the sound of the bomb and witnessed the scale of damage are losing their minds. As a youth, I felt fear and also acrimony.

    When I think about that night, and also the military’s bombing of A Nang Pa in October of last year, I strongly feel that it will be recorded in our history forever. We should remember it as long as we live, and we should pass it down to the next generation. This is not the first time. It shows the brutality of the Burmese military and that we should never ally or join with them. We should not trust them.

    Since the attack, many local organizations, church groups and individuals have assisted us. There is no specific program for the youth, but we have been badly affected. We feel afraid, and we need healing and caring. We also need a better plan from our KIO and religious leaders.

    But during this time, we must not lose our trust in our [KIO] government or let ourselves be further divided. We must remember that they have supported us since 1960 and after the war resumed in 2011. If one leader isn’t performing well, it doesn’t mean that all KIO members aren’t good enough.

    I would also like everyone around the world to remember what is happening in Myanmar. Whenever there is war, we, the youth, have to suffer. We need to support the youth who are supporting our people.

    Hpan Ja Brang is a social justice activist from Kachin state, Myanmar. He is also a freelance researcher who supports human rights, social justice, and peace.

    Emily Fishbein is an independent journalist and researcher who focuses on underreported issues related to Myanmar using a collaborative approach.

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