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Kachin State – Myanmar’s long-simmering conflicts, which remain largely hidden from the outside world, have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee since the country declared independence from Britain in 1948.
The ongoing violence in Kachin and Shan states northern Myanmar continues to displace populations and disrupt livelihoods, leaving entire villages in ruins.
In 2015, Myanmar’s government and eight rebel groups signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement, in the hopes of ending what some have called “the world’s longest-running civil conflict”. However, the largest insurgent forces were absent from the ceremony.
In September 2016, a new conflict erupted, causing thousands of villagers to flee their homes in Karen State.
Not until the soldiers started shooting into her kitchen did Labang Lu, 73, flee her home. All her friends were gone, the family had left and her husband had long since died.
Labang Lu now lives in one of the camps for internally displaced people in Bhamo city, Kachin State. In 2011, after 19 years of ceasefire between the national army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), fighting once again broke out in the region.
Two years ago, she had to leave the place she loves the most – the village where she had raised her children, and where she buried her husband 16 years ago.
“I realised I had to flee. I didn’t even have the time to take the bag I had prepared,” she says.
She left everything behind and ran, alone.
“I don’t want to die here in Bhamo. I want to go home as soon as possible. I want to be buried alongside my husband.”
In Myanmar’s northeastern Kachin State, Daw Aye Shwe, a 34-year-old widow and mother, lives in Robert Camp for internally displaced people in the city of Bhamo.
Born in Gut Hkaing village in Shan State, close to the border with China, Daw Aye Shwe is of Chinese descent and belongs to one of the 135 officially recognised national ethnic groups in Myanmar. Eight years ago, she left her home village with her husband and children.
The family travelled north to Maing Khong village in Kachin State, where working opportunities would be better. They stayed there for almost two years, renting a farm and working on the land until 2011, when fighting erupted in the village.
Heavily pregnant, Daw Aye Shwe fled together with her husband and four children into the forest.
“The forest felt unsafe. I didn’t eat or sleep and I was afraid we were going to die,” she recalls. For several months, they went back and forth between the forest and the village. In January 2012, they came to Robert Camp for internally displaced people.
“I am extremely worried for my children. My biggest dream is that my children will have an education. And I want Myanmar to be peaceful in the future,” she says.
At the age of 12, Nyein was displaced for the first time. Twenty years later, the Karen woman has finally returned home.
Nyein’s young face does not reveal the hardships she has been through. She still remembers the first time she had to leave her home.
“The whole village had to flee to the forest every time the fighting drew closer.”
The fighting between the government army and the Karen National Liberation Army forced them to flee over and over again. At the height of the violence, all of the 60 families in the village had to hide in the forest for three months.
In 2005, Nyein left her village and headed to Thailand.
Last summer, she returned back to her home village. “I heard that the new government had signed a peace agreement with the Karen National Union, and trusted that it would be safe to return,” she says.
“I wish for peace. I want freedom of movement and for the suspicion that has existed between people for so many years to go away.”
U Than Maung is now 67. When he was a young man, he was a farmer and tradesman. Now he is internally displaced in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State.
In 2011, fighting broke out between government forces and the KIA.
“I do not have much hope for the future, but I want to return to my village and work independently, so that I can save money for the days I’m not able to work any longer.”
Aung Latt, eight, and his little Brother Naw Aung, three, live together with their mother and big sister in Mansi camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar’s Kachin State.
Their mother, Lashi Roi Ja, 30, says she used to work and live on a farm with the children. Her husband was a soldier in the Kachin army.
“He was in the army for five years and would be away for three to six months at a time.”
In November 2011, they had to flee the farm.
“I was out in the farmland harvesting when I heard gunshots across the river. I packed some clothes and food and fled to the mountains. The entire village escaped at the same time.”
They lived in the mountains for three years before moving on to Mansi camp. Two years ago, Lashi Roi Ja received a devastating message that her husband had died in a battle.
“I miss him, but I cannot do anything about it. I miss him the most when I have some sort of problem, because he was the one who always supported me.”
She is not sure that she’ll ever be able to go back home.
“I will start hoping that I can go back when there is peace and we hear no more gunshots. Only then will I start hoping.”
Text and photos provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council