Human Rights

‘When Will We Go Home?’

By Nang Seng Nom 9 June 2015

June 9 will mark four years since a ceasefire broke down in Burma’s northern Kachin State, ending 17 years of relative stability. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has joined peace negotiations with the Burmese government, but some 100,000 civilians who were displaced by the conflict have yet to return to their past lives. The Irrawaddy recently spoke about the current state of affairs with Mary Tawm, a Kachin aid worker who represents Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), a homegrown organization providing assistance to those displaced by war.

What is the current situation like in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), four years after the conflict erupted?

The camps have faced a lot of difficulties during these years. Without any outside funding, a group of women with motherly instincts and a genuine desire to help the victims established Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), which means “light for people,” on June 14, 2011, just after the clashes broke out. Nearly one year after that, we still weren’t getting major help from other organizations. We survived the first year by fundraising with music shows by Kachin artists and donations from our friends and from Kachin communities in other countries.

How many IDP camps do you run at present, and how many people do you support?

At present we run six IDP camps, providing shelter and humanitarian assistance to more than 10,000 people.

What kind of difficulties are Kachin IDPs facing at present, and how do they sustain their livelihoods?

This month marks the fourth year that they have been living in displacement camps. While clashes are still ongoing, the victims are receiving less and less humanitarian aid. Since the start of this year, they have only been getting rice and oil. They used to receive rations of rice, oil, and basic food items such as beans. They also no longer receive supplementary foods like potatoes, onion, pepper and dried fish, since the start of the year.

Most of the makeshift tents that they are living in are in urgent need of repair, as the monsoon season will soon be in full swing.

For livelihood, most IDPs rely on humanitarian aid. Some work as daily wage earners at sugar cane plantations and other farms nearby. But the number of working people is small. Most of the displaced are elderly people, children and students.

What kind of difficulties do students face, in particular?

[Our student hostel] is in desperate need of repair. The number of students has increased every year and we are very short of beds, daily use items and stationary. Most of the students don’t have school uniforms. But the particularly serious problem is that students have only two meals a day.

How do you manage to offer assistance when rations are cut?

When rations were cut [early this year], we rented land for victims so that they can grow vegetables on a manageable scale for their own consumption. We provide them with seeds and agricultural tools. But that still can’t meet all the needs of the victims. In case of emergency, we ask our friends, Kachin communities abroad and our partner organizations for help.

What kind of assistance do you offer for women who were affected by the conflict?

During the past four years, the number of female dropouts has risen because some girls are too shy to go to school. They are embarrassed because of their age, as they are too old to go to primary and middle school. Because the camps are close to the Chinese border, some girls want to work in China, and some get married at a young age, so we try to save some young women from being trafficked.

With limited funds and within a limited project period, we provide mothers with training in knitting, tailoring, weaving and baking, so they can take care of their children while working in the camp. We also provide some support for profitable farming.

What has life been like for these IDPs over the past four years?

They have led a hard life these past few years, and we passed those years together with them in sympathy. We have also shared some of their hardships.

There are some victims who do not want to live anymore because they have lost their loved ones. Thousands of students who should have graduated are now out of work and doing odd jobs.

Many elderly persons and some others are suffering from mental trauma, they feel hopeless. The number of students who no longer want to continue their education has increased. Whenever I talk to them they ask me the same thing: “When will we go home?” I’m always speechless and, in fact, I have been asking myself the same question.