The health of tens of thousands of villagers displaced by the Kachin conflict is quickly deteriorating due to a severe shortage of aid supplies such as food, blankets and medicine, local relief groups warned, adding that the recent escalation in the fighting between Kachin rebels and the Burmese government is terrifying villagers and affecting their safety.
“The food security situation is very serious and the political situation is very tense,” said La Rip, coordinator of the Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees (RANIR), which coordinates aid for the displaced ethnic Kachin in Laiza, a town in a valley on the Burma-China border.
“There are more than 15,000 people in four camps around Laiza. They are really short on food supplies. But all other camps are also short on assistance,” he told The Irrawaddy by telephone on Friday.
The fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government erupted in June 2011 after a 1994 ceasefire broke down. Kachin rebels demand more autonomy but the government wants to control the resource-rich ethnic region.
An estimated 100,000 Kachin villagers have since fled the violence. They now stay in 17 camps in rebel-held areas along Burma’s mountainous northern border, which China has closed off for refugees.
Local relief groups are struggling to support the villagers as aid supplies have been running low since last month. The groups have not received any international support since July, when the Burmese government cut off UN access to the area. Meanwhile, severe winter cold has also set in.
“The UN cannot access the IDPs [internally displaced persons] along the border, and the local aid agencies cannot address the needs here by themselves,” La Rip said, adding that villagers’ health was deteriorating due to insufficient supply of food and other necessities during their long stay in the camps.
“The situation is becoming worse… They’re only getting rice and salt, not any food supplements. We are concerned about the impacts of this on pregnant women, lactating mothers and young children,” La Rip said, adding that a survey in October found that a third of all young children were already undernourished.
Mary Tauwn, a relief worker from Wun Tawng Ningtwey (Light of the Kachin People) said the aid group lacked supplies for the six camps that it supports, while food and other items were expensive and scarce because all local roads were blocked.
“We can just provide for basic food stuffs like rice, salt and garlic. Some IDPs ask us: ‘Can you provide us some meat for nutrition?’ But we cannot,” she said, adding that villagers also required more clothing, blankets and medicine during the winter cold.
To make matters worse, fighting between Burmese government and Kachin guerrillas has intensified recently, with the Burmese military launching airstrikes with helicopter gunships and fighter jets in the strategically important Lajayang area, close to the KIA headquarters in Laiza. Ground fighting has reportedly also worsened in many areas.
La Rip said the intensification in the fighting was endangering villagers, for example when they go to inspect their village crops, while people in Laiza valley were deeply concerned as the fighting draws closer and jets bombed the surrounding mountains.
“Local people mostly stay home—normal life is crippled,” he said. “People are very scared that the government might take Laiza and there will be indiscriminate bombing and shelling.”
Mary Tauwn said that in Mai Ja Yang—an area north of Laiza, where Wun Tawng Ningtwey is based—ground fighting was getting closer. “Since [Thursday] morning we can hear mortar shells falling here. Some of the IDPs are frightened,” she said.
RANIR and other Kachin groups are now calling for immediate international support for the displaced. The groups sent out an appeal on Dec. 27 and on Thursday they sent a request for help to the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The letter warned of “daily escalation of attacks,” AP reported.
“The situation is very urgent and we need to settle this issue,” La Rip said, explaining that if international aid could not reach rebel-controlled camps by road, then it should be provided to local relief groups, which could find ways to distribute it in the camps.
“I also urge the government to allow international aid to come in again and to end the fighting unconditionally,” he added.
International criticism of the Kachin conflicts has grown recently and the use of airpower by the Burmese government has caused particular concern. The US and UK governments, along with the UN, called on the warring parties this week to open negotiations and to allow international aid into Kachin-held camps.