Monday, July 10, 2017

School provides displaced families with sense of hope

Bhamo, Kachin State

28 October 2013 was the day Kachin State’s long-running conflict finally reached the village of Mong Dein Pa. It was also a day the head teacher at the local school, Mr La Nu, 54, would never forget.

Since fleeing conflict in their region of Kachin Sate two years ago, Taung Mi Mi and her brother live in Lisu Camp for internally displaceed persons near the town of Bhamo.

Their family is a day labourer who travels frequently; the family work a small plot of rented land outside the camp to grow vegetables and raise pigs to supplement their meagre income.

“Suddenly the shooting was all around us. I gathered my wife and son and two nephews, and we ran into the forest,” La Nu recalled. It took two terrifying days and nights before the family managed to reach safety in the town of Bhamo.

In Kachin, the forced – and often-repeated − displacement of civilians has been a familiar but painful consequence of the clashes between the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Like other border areas of Myanmar, Kachin State has suffered from ongoing, low-intensity conflict almost since the country gained its independence in the late 1940s.

Little noticed by the outside world, these ethnic conflicts have scarred the nation and undermined its hopes of progress, while continuing to frustrate efforts to bring about conciliation between the Government and numerous EAOs.

For La Nu, the consequences have been even more direct, and painful. Today, he and his family, together with most of the other inhabitants of Mong Dein Pa, live in a camp for internally displaced persons, built on land provided by a church in the town of Bhamo. The camp is about 50 kilometres away from the inhabitants’ former homes.

His one consolation is that he is still able to teach approximately 100 students who accompanied him from Mong Dein Pa, and who now attend the camp school. “I feel satisfied to be working for the children,” he says. “But life here in town is different from
the village, and I worry about the effect it has on them.”

Camps shelter 87,000 IDPs reliant on delivery of rations and services

Long-term displacement from their home communities presents challenges for adults, too. Jobs are hard to come by and most families are reliant on food rations distributed by aid agencies. 

Although most people fled empty-handed, recovering their possessions (or checking on their abandoned properties) is almost impossible due to the proximity of the shifting front line between the opposing forces.

In Kachin State, there are currently about 87,000 displaced people living in 142 separate camps or sites.i Most camps are located in towns held by government forces. The rest are situated in more remote KIA-held areas close to the border with China. 

An upsurge in fighting that began in late 2016 displaced approximately 7,000 people and left tension high across the region.ii Evidence of this can be seen along the meandering single-lane road that runs for some 190 kilometres between Bhamo and the state capital of Myitkyina to the north. Troops man checkpoints in ‘ghost villages’ that have been emptied of their inhabitants and are steadily being reclaimed by the surrounding jungle vegetation.

Some of the buildings carry warning signs about the presence of landmines. Figures from the Mine Risk Working Group show that Kachin State and its neighbour, Shan State, accounted for 85 per cent of landmine accidents in Myanmar in 2016.

Humanitarian agencies face challenge of reaching remote areas

The fragile security situation has had a serious impact on the access needed by UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations, particularly in areas that are under KIA control.

“These ongoing conflicts – especially in Kachin and Shan States – are making it very difficult and sometimes impossible for us to provide children with a range of essential services,” says Cesar Villar, Chief of UNICEF field office in Myitkyina.

“UNICEF is doing what it can to facilitate coordination between the Government and non-state actors to ensure that health, nutrition, education and other services are available to all children equally.”

The long years of strife have impacted children in other ways, too. Three EAOs in Kachin and Shan States are listed by the United Nations Secretary-General for grave violations against children, including recruiting them as soldiers or using them as guides or to
carry weapons.

The violence has put an additional brake on social and economic progress in the region. Thirty-six per cent of households in Kachin State and 43 per cent in Shan State live below the poverty line.iv In the two states, almost 5 out of 10 children under age 5 are stunted.

With a presence in Kachin State since 2001, and programmes dating back to the 1960s, UNICEF is working in different ways to improve the situation of all children regardless of where they live. This includes helping in the reintegration of child survivors of
rights violations, in both government and EAO-controlled areas.

Education has been a particular priority: in Phan Khar Kone camp, UNICEF’s intervention led the local education authorities to recognize the school and to allocate teachers and learning materials. UNICEF supported the construction of the school buildings in 2014.

Even so, La Nu still keeps photos of the large school where he used to work on his mobile phone. “No one goes there now,” he says, shaking his head sadly. “The grass is growing all around it.”

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