The Irrawaddy

Last Group of Awng Lawt Villagers Rescued from Forest

A group of Awng Lawt villagers prepare to move to a shelter after leaving the forest on May 9.

YANGON — The last of more than 1,100 residents of Awng Lawt village in Kachin State’s Tanai Township known by aid groups to have been trapped in the forest by fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were rescued this week, according to the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).

Some of the villagers reported that additional IDPs remain in the forest, according to aid groups, but The Irrawaddy has been unable to confirm the reports. Aid workers said those people may have opted to travel to relatives’ homes independently.

“All those [from Awng Lawt] trapped by fighting have come out of the forest. No one is left,” said Hkali, a KBC official with responsibility for social affairs.

Between April 29 and this week, a total of 1,135 people were evacuated from the forest. They are taking shelter at churches in Myitkyina, Hpakant and Tanai, said Seng Nu, program director of Karuna Mission Social Solidarity, a civil society organization helping displaced persons in Kachin State.

Residents of Awng Lawt first fled en masse into the forest after artillery shells landed near their village on April 11. Among them were pregnant women, elderly and disabled persons, and young children.

They moved around the forest on foot for about three weeks before finally being taken to safety in groups starting in late April.

“Some of the displaced persons said that some people are still trapped in the forest. Some of these might have opted to go to the houses of relatives, rather than the camps. For the time being, our list only includes those taking shelter in the camps,” Seng Nu said.

Naw Tawng, vice chairman of a Tanai-based Christian committee to help displaced persons, told The Irrawaddy that he could not independently confirm the reports that some displaced persons are still trapped in the forests.

Larger groups have reached camps, but smaller groups might have gone to the houses of their relatives, he suggested.

“We don’t know about the latest developments. But no one is thinking of going back to their homes. They feel it is safer to stay at temporary shelters in churches,” Naw Tawng said.

The clashes continued into the last week of April. At that time, the Tatmadaw distributed leaflets to displaced persons urging them to go back to their homes, and saying that it would provide food supplies for them. However, the IDPs dared not return for fear of being trapped in the forest again.

The Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) launched attacks in Tanai in June last year, targeting illegal gold and amber mines that are an important source of funds for the KIA.

Clashes in April displaced around 6,000 people in Tanai, Mogaung, Injangyang and Hpakant townships. More than 100,000 people have been displaced since the collapse of a ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the KIA in 2011.

Though camps for internally displaced persons have been opened in other townships in Kachin State, Tanai authorities have refused to permit such camps, saying they negatively affect the image of the town. Displaced persons have therefore been forced to seek temporary shelter in church compounds.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.