One of the longest running conflicts in the world, Myanmar's Kachin conflict remains largely forgotten. I visited camps where over 100,000 people have fled fighting.
Arriving in Palana camp in Kachin State, northern Myanmar, the first thing that struck me was the children. Babies were strapped to the backs of their mothers or older siblings. Groups of boys sat on their hunkers intently concentrating on a game involving small stones. Toddlers chased each other around barefoot. Two girls walked past with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders. There were so many children.
The 60 or so families in Palana camp are here as a result of the conflict in Kachin state. This is one of several ongoing conflicts between the Myanmar government and various ethnic groups. All of these conflicts have long and complex histories. The conflict in Kachin State is one of the longest running civil conflicts in the world.
There are over 106,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) living in camps like Palana camp across Kachin State. Many of the people in this camp have lived here for over 7 years, having fled their homes and their land due to the conflict that re-erupted in Kachin in 2011. The camp consists of long houses, with entire families living in one room, only separated from the neighbouring family with a thin reed wall. There is little privacy and hardly any space.
For the families here, the prospect of returning to their land and their homes diminishes every day. Many of their villages have been destroyed. The land is littered with landmines or has been taken over. Even if they do have land to return to, they are fearful of the risk and danger of returning and the violence that could await them.
I found it hard to put words on the feeling I got in the camp. In many ways, it was like any other community, with people caring for their families, doing their best to make a living, supporting each other and taking strength from their faith. But under the surface there is trauma, uncertainty, and fear. It feels like a place where people are stuck.
All over Kachin State and all over Myanmar, families are displaced due to conflict. They have lost homes, land and livelihoods. They have also lost their sense of safety and of hope. They are being pushed out onto the margins with no control over their lives or their futures. Their lives are completely on hold.
I watched a little girl of about 4 climb into her mother’s lap and giggle while clasping her face in her hands. I watched a mother distract her baby with an old deflated balloon. Children were crying and laughing and playing and growing and being loved. Just like children all over the world.
But in so many ways they are different. Their future is at best uncertain, at worst unsafe. So many of those children had been born in that camp, they don’t know any other life.
Trócaire works through our local church partner KMSS to support people in this and other camps throughout Kachin State. We are providing shelter, food and cash, livelihood development and psychological support. We offer support to the people who have been pushed out to the margins.
Across Myanmar, Trócaire and our partners support communities to gain access and rights to their land, including for communities who are rebuilding their lives after displacement and conflict. As women are particularly impacted by conflict and displacement, Trócaire also supports partners in the delivery of a gender based violence programme to respond and to prevent future incidents. Trócaire is also working to involve women and youth in peace-building, making their voices and their hopes for peace heard.
In the slow simmering despair of Palana camp, I could still see rays of hope in the resilience of the human spirit, in the shared humanity of love and community, and in the commitment and dedication of our partners. They continue to stand with and support people caught up in one of the world’s longest and most forgotten conflicts.
It was humbling and inspiring to witness, and reaffirmed my belief that we must never stop working for a fairer world for everyone, and we must always seek to raise the voices of those who are being silenced.
Mary Coogan is Trócaire's Church and Volunteer Manager.
We are asking for your help this Christmas - to offer support by providing food, water, shelter and safety to those affected by conflict in countries like Myanmar.