560 Kachin Villagers Make It to Sanctuary After 4-Week Jungle Ordeal

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 10 May 2018

Yangon—Over 560 villagers from Awng Lawt in Kachin State’s Tanai Township who fled into the jungle after fighting erupted between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Tatmadaw in early April have been rescued.

“Around 300 got out of the forest on May 8 and arrived near Dwan Ban village while over 260 more arrived at a creek northeast of Tanai yesterday,” Naw Tawng, vice-chairman of a Tanai-based Christian committee to help displaced persons, told The Irrawaddy.

All together, more than 2,000 Awng Lawt villagers were forced to flee the fighting. The other 1,500 still remain in the forest.

Of the 300 villagers who made it out on Tuesday, half went to their relatives’ houses in Myitkyina and Namti, and the other half are taking shelter at a church in the village of La Wa in Hpakant Township. The other 260 villagers who escaped on Wednesday are staying at a Catholic church in Tanai.

Displaced villagers who had escaped from the forest. (Photos by Father Naw Latt)

“They fled en masse after the fighting broke out. As the clashes grew more intense near them on April 17, they fled in groups guided by those who can lead [in the forest],” Naw Tawng said.

The villagers tramped for around three weeks in the forest on foot. On April 26, a 26-member group of displaced persons got out of the forest and reached Dwan Ban Village. Fifteen of them are villagers of Awng Lawt and 11 others are internal migrants working at gold mines in the area.

The leader of that group, N’Sang Awng Lat, told The Irrawaddy that during their time in the jungle they had to run away from wild elephants and drink water from muddy ponds as they found no creeks on their way.

“I ran with my four children and one is them is just two years old. The thirst was the worst problem we experienced,” he said.

“On a rainy night, we had to cover ourselves with a plastic sheet and sleep on the ground. We were thoroughly miserable. I want to cry when I recall these days,” he added.

Displaced villagers who had escaped from the forest. (Photos by Father Naw Latt)

Residents of Awng Lawt first fled into the forest after artillery shells fell near their village on April 11. Among them were pregnant women, elderly and disabled persons and children younger than five.

The villagers asked the religious leaders in Tanai to recuse them. Tanai is only accessible by water from where they were trapped, and as Tatmadaw troops control the waterways, religious leaders sought permission from them to be allowed to pass. But the military refused.

On April 14, the Christian committee to help displaced persons in Tanai sent a letter to the Kachin State chief minister asking the government to rescue the Awng Lawt villagers, but there was no reply.

Displaced villagers who had escaped from the forest. (Photos by Father Naw Latt)

Kachin civil society organizations, and the Kachin Peace-talk Creation Group also sent letters to the Kachin State chief minister, and the National Reconciliation and Peace Center to help the villagers.

With the approval of the government and Tatmadaw, the Myitkyina-based Red Cross Society went to Awng Lawt to rescue the villagers on April 20, but they could rescue only about 200 amber and gold mine workers.