MRAUK-U, Rakhine State — As military artillery shells land and fighter jets bomb mountain ranges near rural villages, women and children from villages in restive northern Rakhine’s Mrauk-U Township have fled to urban areas in search of refuge.
Ywar Haung Taw Village is one of these villages which experienced shelling by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, which started Monday and continued through Thursday. The village lies about 10 kilometers from the Mrauk-U heritage zone. More than 200 people from Ywar Haung Taw are seeking refuge in the town of Mrauk-U at Chit Thaung Monastery which has become a temporary camp for the displaced.
Daw Thein Thein Aye told The Irrawaddy that she vividly remembers the explosion of several artillery shells in her village, one of which landed in a home, severely wounding a woman and a man on March 18.
She speculates that the artillery fire either came from the Mrauk-U-based Light Infantry Battalion No. 540 or from the police regiment situated next to Koe Thaung Pagoda in the heritage zone of Mrauk-U which is a popular tourist destination.
“There was no fighting in my village, but many bullets and artillery shells landed in our village,” she said.
Daw Mhwe Yaing Sein, another woman from the same village, explained that she had been afraid to leave her home as military troops were occasionally seen in the nearby forest during the day time. In rural Rakhine, many villages have not yet adopted modern toilets and traditionally practice open defecation in wooded areas near their homes.
Several women from Ywar Haung Taw explained that military troops stationed themselves in the forest and have been patrolling the village since Monday. Daw Khine Saw Than said that, smelling the strangers around the village, the dogs would bark throughout the night.
“We are scared of when [it gets dark]. We cannot sleep inside our home, so my family members and I sleep on the ground [under the house] as we have not prepared a bomb shelter like other villages,” said Daw Khine Saw Than.
As women and children left the village for the town of Mrauk-U on Tuesday, most men stayed behind look after their homes during the day, sleeping together at the village monastery at night. The Irrawaddy traveled to Ywar Haung Taw with a local resident named Karen Chay on Wednesday in order to observe the situation.
On the way to the village, this reporter travelled close to the police regiment at Koe Thaung Pagoda and witnessed them firing artillery several times. After driving for another 15 minutes, Karen Chay led us to a home which had been hit by artillery shell.
A survivor of the shelling Daw Kyar Htay Sein explained that while her family and the family of neighbor U Maung Win Ye were lying on the floor of their home, they heard artillery shooting. This reporter saw the 120-millimeter mortar which landed on their home. U Maung Win Ye and his wife were wounded.
With bullets flying across the village, no one was able to stop the fire which had overcome the house and by morning it had been reduced to ashes.
“We never see a single [Arakan Army (AA) soldier] in my village. It was all about [the military’s] aggressive actions towards us and [they] blame [their actions] on the AA.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the military carried out an airstrike using two fighter jets on the mountain range close to Myebon Township’s Pan Myaung Village, a neighboring village of Ywar Haung Taw which is at the border of Mrauk-U Township.
Pan Myaung resident Daw Than Than Win was shot on her thigh by a government soldier at her home at about 1 p.m. on Wednesday while government soldiers raided her village. She was transported from the village to Mrauk-U General Hospital in the afternoon.
Recounting the ordeals to The Irrawaddy, she said that while walking to the toilet, a young soldier, who she guesses to be aged about 20 years old, knelt down with an assault rifle outside the fence and then shot at her. Her daughter and a sibling quickly came out and dragged her into the temporary bomb shelter they had made near the house.
“If my daughter and sibling failed to drag in me like that, I could have been killed by bullets,” said Daw Than Than Win.
Daw Than Than Win’s daughter said that army fighter jets were bombing in the mountain range since earlier on Wednesday morning. She said it was around 1 p.m. when they heard gunfire nearby and found her mother had been shot in front of her home. She said about 130 men from the village were captured by soldiers and interrogated, and all but four were later set free.
A local relief group from Mrauk-U told The Irrawaddy that about 1,500 people from Pan Myaung Village were displaced and fighting was still ongoing in the region as of Thursday. Since last December, government military troops and AA rebels have been clashing in five townships of northern Rakhine State and Paletwa Township in southern Chin State.
Local charity groups estimate that the displaced population in northern Rakhine has now reached approximately 20,000.