LAIZA, Kachin State — “I really want to go back. But I cannot,” says the 70-year-old woman as she chops up banana skins to feed to pigs.
“I miss my village,” she says in the Kachin language, smiling as she sits in front of her temporary shelter in Hpun Lun Yang camp near Laiza.
It has been two years and six months to be exact since Marang Kok left Pann Taung village in northern Shan State, together with a family with whom she lives.
Since a long-standing ceasefire broke down in mid-2011, more than 100,000 people have been displaced, and more than half of those are estimated to be living in camps, like Hpun Lun Yang, inside areas administered by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) on the Burmese-Chinese border.
For many, going home is looking less and less likely.
“There is no hope for my home. It’s already decayed,” says the mother of the family, feeding her 3-year-old son. He was just five months old when they were forced to run from her village and hide in the forest.
Hpun Lun Yang camp houses more than 2,000 people from 47 separate villages that now lie empty.
There has rarely been work of any kind for these internally displaced persons (IDPs)to do since they fled renewed fighting between ethnic rebels and the government army, said Tang Gun, chairman of the camp’s administrative committee.
“IDPs really want to go home, but because of the political situation and the war, they don’t dare to. We have our responsibility to look after them,” Tan Gun said.
“We have difficulties with food and medicine. When NGOs don’t come, we have nothing to eat.”
But some have opened small grocery shops in front of their shelters. Some have small pools from which they sell live fish. The camps have become villages in their own right.
“I make about one or two thousand [kyat] per day,” said a lady who has opened a shop selling salads and groceries. The amount is equivalent to US$1-2, but provides useful cash in the camp.
“They are really keen to work,” said Sinwa Naw, a staffer for the KIO’s IDPs and Refugees Relief Committee, who showed Irrawaddy reporters around the camp on a recent visit.
Many don’t want the settlement to become permanent, or for a new generation to grow up with the camps as their home, as many others displaced by ethnic conflicts have all along Burma’s border with Thailand.
There are 278 children in Hpun Lun Yang, about 95 of who were born in the camp. With family planning services lacking, birth rates are reportedly high among the IDPs.
However, due to malnutrition during pregnancy, most infants born inside the camps are underweight at birth. Newborn and 1-year-old children also have nutritional problems.
Other health problems at the camps are many—including diarrhea, skin problems and malaria—and medicine is often in shortage.
There are also shortages of decent housing to protect internal refugees from the cold winter, the heat in summer, and the pounding rain in the wet season.
Zaw Mai, head of the Woi Chyai camp, which houses about 4,500 people, said that 675 families need new houses, at an estimated cost of $420,000.
“The shelters built when the camp was established are not good anymore, since they were only built with bamboo and tarpaulin,” said Bum Wai, the head of another camp of more than 8,000 people near Laiza named Je Yang, where about 600 of houses need repairs.
When The Irrawaddy arrived at Je Yang, the biggest camp in the area, people were lined up to collect aid boxes—some of 4,200 such packages, containing rice, cooking oil, blankets and other essentials, donated by the Chinese Red Cross.
The recent Chinese aid was worth about $800,000, but most aid for the IDPs is provided by the KIO, or through local NGOs like Karuna Myanmar Social Services and Wunpawng Ninghtoi, who channel international aid to the camps.
To supplement their meager rations, and as a distraction from their trauma, families grow vegetables in small plots of land beside their shelters or raise pigs.
In four camps around Laiza—all of which are within a 30 minute journey of the KIO’s nominal headquarters—there were few men present during the day. Locals say some have been recruited by the rebel army, while others travel for work nearby, often in China.
Neat banana plantations cover large swathes of the hills around Laiza. Plantations on both sides of the border are reportedly owned by Chinese businessmen, and take on laborers from the camps.
“IDPs from here go to work there for daily wages when they are free. Women are employed by the hour or paid for the number of times [they carry banana branches],” said Bum Wai.
“If they work for eight or nine hours a day, they get 30 yuan [about $5].”
The KIO does not allow the IDPs to return to their villages, but some attempt to check on their homes or farmland. They may be interrogated by Burmese authorities if they do not have identification—as many do not since they fled the fighting without their belongings.
For 34-year-old Ral Din, life in Je Yang camp is getting harder.
She lost her husband last year, when he left the camp to try to earn some money. Instead, he stepped on a landmine in the forest and was killed, a fate that is said to have met a number of IDPs who have ventured into conflict areas, often trying to go home.
The mother of five says she regrets that she did not get a chance to see her husband’s remains. Her youngest is just one year and four months old.
“There is no one to earn money and find wood for the family,” she said while busy washing clothes.
Her 6,000 kyat ($6) per month allowance for food is not enough to feed her family, she said. As she is the only adult in the family, Ral Din does not have time to plant crops in an empty plot next to her shelter.
Through tears, she said she doubts she will remarry.
“I don’t know what to do next,” she said.