Baum Myaw, 12, lives with her family at a camp for displaced people near Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, Myanmar. Kachin has been affected by conflict since 2011, following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire. The recent violence has resulted in thousands of deaths and the displacement of around 100,000 civilians, including children. Despite ongoing peace talks, a final deal has proved elusive and the fighting continues.
Soon after the conflict reignited in 2011, Myaw’s family was forced to flee their home in Sadaung Township, near the border with China, due to fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar national army).
As the fighting got closer to the village, people started to flee. Some crossed the border to China, while others headed towards Myitkyina. Myaw was 7 years old at the time. “I was terrified when we had to leave,” she recalls. “My mother was at the market and couldn’t get home, so we went with my grandmother. Even after we escaped I didn’t feel safe. I was always worried that the soldiers would come back.”
The experience was also traumatic for Myaw’s mother, Htu Lum. “I was selling vegetables at the market and I didn’t know where my daughters were,” she says. “I was terrified to be away from them. I felt like I was going crazy. It was too sudden – there wasn’t even time to pack.”
Luckily the family all escaped to the same place: Shing Jai camp for displaced people, in a KIA controlled area. Here, Htu Lum was reunited with her husband and daughters. “The girls’ clothes were torn but I was so relieved,” she says. “We hugged and cried.”
Without access to government services or international aid, Shing Jai camp was extremely basic. There was no access to health care or education. In the beginning, the family slept beneath a building in the camp. Then they found some tarpaulin and made a makeshift tent by the roadside. They lived there for seven months, surviving on rice provided by the local church.
Htu Lum was constantly worried about her daughters. “Every night when I went to sleep, I was frightened for their safety,” she says. “Even during the day, it was dangerous being beside the road. And they missed a year of education.”
Back to school
Once it was safe to travel, the family moved to another camp in the government controlled area, run by the Kachin Baptist Convention, where they remain today. The camp is hard to find, down a maze of bare earth tracks on the opposite side of the river to Myitkyina. Soldiers man barricades on the bridge out of town.
In the camp, the houses are well constructed and organised into lanes. It’s starting to look less like a camp and more like a permanent settlement. A temporary classroom for displaced children has been set up in the grounds of the nearby government school, which both Myaw and her sister Baum Lung, 13, attend.
“I’m happy here,” Myaw says. “I ride my bike to school except when it rains. I like learning history because my teacher tells us stories. I have lots of friends here. We play games like juggling with stones. When I grow up, I want to be a Myanmar blues singer.”
Htu Lum says the most important thing for the family is that they have regained their security. “It’s safer here,” she explains. “There’s space for the children to play, and I can ask the neighbours to keep an eye on them when I’m not around.”
She’s also happy that her daughters are back at school, but is concerned about the quality of their education. The temporary classroom is overcrowded and lacks the facilities of the main school. “There are too many children in class and the girls are struggling to catch up,” Htu Lum says. “Myaw failed her exam because she’d missed so many lessons. I’m trying to help by studying English and Maths books with her.”
The family are also struggling to earn a living. Back home they could grow and sell vegetables, but here they are dependent on aid distributions plus whatever Htu Lum’s husband can earn from occasional days of casual labour. Their youngest child, 3-year-old Baum Win, has spent his entire life living in camps. “I thought this was going to be temporary but we’ve been here for years,” Htu Lum says. “I long for home.”
Access to services
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Myanmar has ratified, all children have the right to access basic services, regardless of where they live – whether in government or non-government controlled (NGC) areas. This includes the right to health care, education and protection.
In Kachin State, however, it’s not a level playing field. “Basic services are much weaker in the NGC areas than in government areas,” Cesar Villar, UNICEF Myitkyina chief of Field Office, says. “Children are missing out on education, which affects their chances later in life. In the long term, this will impact on economic growth and development in these areas.”
UNICEF is facilitating talks between government and non-government authorities to ensure equal provision of services for children living on both sides of the front line. These partnerships can also contribute to peace by building consensus between both sides. “In some NGC areas, UNICEF already has programmes to improve education, health and nutrition,” Cesar says. “But there are also areas that we can’t access, where we can’t assess children’s needs or provide services for them.”
In the NGC areas where UNICEF has access, training of teachers and health workers has led to improved professional knowledge and skills, and better standards of services for children. “We are calling on all parties to provide quality basic services for children in the areas that they control,” Cesar continues. “This should happen before, during and after conflict.”
Peace and unity
While every effort should be made to help children during conflict, in the longer term they need peace and social unity in order to enjoy uninterrupted access to basic services, such as education and health, and to achieve their full potential in life.
“Conflict can erode social cohesion and create divisions between communities that previously coexisted peacefully,” UNICEF’s Cesar Villar says. “On the other hand, ethnic and religious diversity can be a strength for families, communities and the nation. It is in everyone’s interest to build understanding and tolerance of differences.”
Meanwhile, Myaw and her family are still waiting for the conflict in Kachin State to end. “The fighting is affecting my daughters’ education and slowing down our country’s development,” Htu Lum says. “Civilians like us will always have problems during war. We want peace to come as soon as possible, so that we can go home.”