WAN HAI VILLAGE, Shan State — Midnight, October 29. Silence hung over Wan Hai, and the air was cold and still. Hours earlier, villagers had lit up candles around their homes to celebrate the Thadingyut Full Moon Day, the religious holiday marking the end of Buddhist Lent.
I was in Wan Hai, the headquarters of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), to cover the latest round of clashes between the ethnic insurgent group and the Burma Armed forces that had erupted early in the month.
I was shocked when I heard the explosions.
“Sister, pack up your things.” The owner of the home where I was lodging had rushed into my room. “A mortar shell fell near the monastery. We have to leave here.”
I came out of my room and saw everyone else frantically gathering their belongings. The homeowner bundled blankets and clothes into her car and we drove for nearby Pan Lauk village. Joining us were a middle-aged woman and her seven-year-old daughter. Following us on the road out of Wan Hai were the rest of the villagers, fleeing for their lives in cars, on motorbikes and trailers, all in panic.
I heard the seven-year-old girl asking her mother in the Shan language: “Why do the Bamar want our home? Why are they firing at us?”
Her mother was lost in her own thoughts. “I heard five rounds of mortar fire. I was so scared that I didn’t take anything. I have to go back and get my things in the morning.”
After a silence, someone offered a joke to ease the tension: “The guardian spirit of our village must be sleepy. That’s why mortar shells fell on our village!” The car erupted into a chorus of laughter.
Before I went to bed that night, I had asked the homeowner: “Has everything been okay here? Nothing has happened?”
“It’s okay,” she replied. “We’ll have to flee if something happens. We had to flee once in 2013.”
Prior to Thursday’s attack, the SSA-N had asked Wan Hai locals to leave the village for a while, warning of a possible artillery attack. Fortunately, no one was injured in the bombardment, though a house and a car next to the village monastery was slightly damaged. Seven of the eight shells fired landed on farmland.
Lt-Col Sai La, an SSA-N spokesman, has told the Irrawaddy the insurgent group’s leadership believes the military is attempting to pressure them into joining the government’s “nationwide” ceasefire agreement. The SSA-N’s bilateral ceasefire with the government has been violated more than 100 times since it was signed in January 2012.
The most recent conflict, which began on Oct. 6, has now forced more than 3,000 people from their homes. While the rest of Burma relaxed and celebrated one of the most important days on the Buddhist calendar, peace was elusive for the people of Wan Hai.