18 Months into War, Life's a Struggle in Kachin Camps

Simon Roughneen Contributor

JEYANG CAMP, Kachin State—Scissors in hand, Nlam Bok Mai sets about gutting a few cardboard boxes, trimming them down to function as makeshift frames dividing up the eggs, onions, chili and tomatoes she has for sale in her roadside shop.

A year-and-a-half ago, this 24-year-old mother-of-one was a farmer and housewife in Ban Saw, a village 25 miles (40 km) west of where Burma meets China.

But after the 1994 ceasefire between the Burmese government and ethnic rebels from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in June 2011, war resumed in the jade and hydropower-rich northern region. The fighting has forced around 100,000 civilians from their homes, including Nlam Bok Mai, her husband and their infant son.

“We arrived here in June last year, right at the start of the fighting,” says Nlam Bok Mai. “We heard that the [Burma] Army was coming, and everyone in the village left before the soldiers got there.”

Eighteen months in, Jeyang Camp makes for hard living, she says. “Here everyone lives side-by-side. In our village we could move freely, privately. We had our own space.”

Her shop keeps her busy, but she cannot make much money. “People in the camp don’t have a lot in their pocket, so I sell on credit to people here.”

As of Christmas Day this year, Jeyang was home to 7,237 people, according to a whiteboard notice in the middle of the camp.

After preaching at the camp’s Christmas Day service, Baptist pastor Rev. Zau Awng settled down nearby to a lunch of rice and beef intestines, served hot and intricately wrapped inside foot-long arrowroot leaves.

“We have to work hard to try to meet people’s needs in this camp,” said the pastor, himself displaced by the fighting.

When this correspondent last visited Jeyang in early 2012, solar-powered street lights ran along the main thoroughfare running through the camp. There have been some improvements since then.

“Three months ago, the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA] brought electricity,” says Zau Awng, pointing to the shiny steel pylons supporting the overhead cables that supply the power diverted from the main Laiza supply.

Conditions at Jeyang—a 20-minute drive from the KIA’s current headquarters in Laiza—are better than in other camps, some of which are wind-seared outposts on the side of of Kachin’s mountains.

Better is, of course, a relative term. “We can supply basic food like rice, oil and salt, but people cannot get much supply of other things. Only sometimes,” says the pastor, lifting his purple and black plaid punghkaw, a hat-like Kachin headdress, from his crown and rubbing his brow, as if stressed.

La Rip, director of Kachin Development Group, a local NGO, says one in five children between the ages of three and five are malnourished, highlighting the health and nutrition difficulties for families in Kachin State’s camps.

“Getting enough food to the camps is a major headache for us,” he says, lamenting that international organizations and NGOs do not work in KIA-held areas of the state, with access denied by the Burmese government.

With daily clashes between government troops and the KIA—fighting that is coming closer to Laiza— the prospect of more civilians fleeing the fighting is something La Rip says his organization could not handle.

“We are almost empty-handed as it is,” he says.

Shelter is another challenge in the camps. “During the last rainy season, the plastic sheets used in some shelters were not much use, and people suffered,” says Zau Awng.

In the meantime, plywood sheets supplied by the country’s wing of the Caritas, the Catholic Church’s international aid organization, have been mounted onto bamboo frames to make shelters, giving some of the camp’s residents a better buffer against the current winter cold and the coming rains.

But these more durable shelters are nonetheless cramped. Nkum Awng, 42, shares one of the six-by-12-foot rooms with nine other people.

“I came from Ban Dawng Village in August 2011,” he said. “It’s been a long time here already, and we don’t know if or when we can go back because of the fighting.”

With clothes and blankets piled inside, it is difficult to imagine how and where all 10 occupants sleep. “We have to persevere and manage,” Nkum Awng says. “We are more concerned about our lungs—everyone is coughing a lot.”

Nkum Awng also sputters between sentences, and a weak chest means he cannot work.

“Many in the camps go work in banana plantations,” he says. “But for me, the pesticides sprayed on the crop affects my breathing.”