UPPER MYAT LAY VILLAGE, northern Rakhine State – Filthy and smelly, 151 rickety bamboo huts swelter under the Rakhine State sun. Amid an occasional whiff of urine, half-naked children play between the huts. Women gaze into the distance.
Welcome to Upper Myat Lay camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled fighting between government troops and the Arakan Army (AA) in northern Rakhine State.
The camp in Ponnagyun Township is now home to nearly 700 ethnic Mro, a Rakhine sub-tribe from remote villages in the state’s mountainous north.
As the fighting between the two armies has been intensifying since December last year, Rakhine, Mro and Chin communities have fled their homes for their safety.
They ended up in makeshift relief settlements like Upper Myat Lay camp, which is named after the nearby village.
According to the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a relief group documenting the IDPs, there are more than 60,000 people affected by the fighting in northern Rakhine State’s eight townships: Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk U, Minbya, Myebon, Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Maungdaw.
The camp next to the Yangon-Sittwe highway has been sheltering displaced Mro for more than nine months. They fled from around 12 remote villages in Kyauktaw and Ponnagyun.
It is one of the few camps established near villages between Sittwe and Mrauk U. On the way to Mrauk U from Sittwe, The Irrawaddy saw thousands of IDPs taking shelter in Kyauktaw’s Wah Taung and Mrauk U’s Tain Nyo villages. The camp in Tain Nyo is considered to be the biggest along the highway.
“In mid-December, we fled first to a village in Kyauktaw Township and stayed for two weeks. Then we took the boats to Upper Myat Lay. We were placed in the monastery and moved to this new camp in July,” said U Tun Tun from the camp, which hosts nearly 700 people from 151 homes.
As no proper jobs are available, IDPs mainly rely on humanitarian support provided by the World Food Program, Red Cross (ICRC) and the state government. In August there was widespread hunger.
“We have no jobs and it’s not possible to keep living like this. But if we go back, how can we work on our farms and gather vegetables in the jungle? We hear the sound of gunfire and there is the threat of landmines,” said U Tun Tun.
Numerous displaced farmers told The Irrawaddy that they were too scared to go back home.
“We will be able to go back only when there is peace,” said Ko Thar Hla from Kha Maung in Kyauktaw, who fled his village on Jan. 3, two weeks after the fighting started. More than 100 households from his village are taking shelter in Upper Myat Lay and Wah Taung in Kyauktaw. He sometimes tries to return to check on their homes and to see if it is possible to return.
Mro IDPs told The Irrawaddy that the only advantage of being in the camps near towns is improved access to schools.
Mro villages are mostly in the hills so access to education has always been a problem.
“The camp is filthy with foul smells, crowded huts and diseases from contamination. We miss our village,” said U Ngan Saung, 77, from Wah Pyan. In 2016 he fled clashes between the AA and the military near Daw Ma mountain.
Villagers could not farm and feared landmines as both sides moved through their village. In December 2018 he finally fled to Upper Myat Lay.
In the camps, some women weave but most of them, especially the children and elders, who have little to do apart from smoking pipes and talk.
Sadness is written across their faces.
And hunger is a constant problem. Since December, rice supplies to their remote villages in Kyauktaw have been limited to two bags per boat and it has caused them to leave their homes.
“When the fighting stops we want to go home but we know there will be no food or seeds for our land, and support for education and health,” Ko Maung Htwe from Wai Taung camp told The Irrawaddy. Other villagers repeated the same concerns.
Ma Ngwe Ma Phyu from Pu Lay Kaing worries about her husband, who is trying to make money by cutting bamboo.
They fled their home in March with some of the village heading to Wah Taung camp in Kyauktaw, which shelters more than 1,100 people from around 10 villages.
“The fighting was not very close. We could always hear gunfire. We could not transport food and goods and it became difficult to survive,” said Ma Hla Win, a Mro volunteer teacher, who moved to Wah Taung camp on Dec. 30.
“The camps are unsafe because the huts do not have proper walls,” said Ma Hla Win, who is in her early 20s.