LAIZA, Kachin State—At a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) checkpoint three or so miles up a hill behind Laiza, the rebel group’s headquarters, 13 women share what looks like a cramped two-room quarters, taking turns to keep watch on traffic winding up and down the road to the town below.
Seng Mai, a 20-year-old from the government-run Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, joined the KIA three years ago, first working in the quartermaster department before moving to this checkpoint.
“It’s better here, I have more friends,” she says, laughing and waving off the banter from six colleagues sitting nearby.
With five brothers and one sister, Seng Mai was the sole member of her family to join the KIA.
Tensions are high in these hills, with the Burma Army deploying fighter jets and helicopter gunships to attack KIA positions on Friday and Saturday, 18 months into the renewed war in the northern region.
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Seng Mai points up toward where Burma Army positions have shelled KIA outposts several miles away in recent weeks, and where they launched helicopter gunship strikes on Friday as fighter jets flew over Laiza and nearby refugee camps.
“When we hear the explosions, we head for the bunkers,” she says, pointing now to the rock face behind the checkpoint.
Lu Tawng’s story is somewhat different. Also 20 years old and from Putao, in the northernmost reaches of this northernmost region of Burma, she joined the KIA six years ago, serving first in the northern region of Kachin State before moving to Laiza to work in the militia’s propaganda unit.
The KIA and several other ethnic minority militias in the country have been accused in the past of recruiting child soldiers. The KIA says it takes in children who are younger than 18 from troubled families, educates them and trains them, but, as with female KIA members, does not send them to fight.
That stands in contrast to the Burma Army, which has sent child soldiers to the frontlines, including several who were captured by the KIA in recent months.
Now Lu Tawng works on duty at the all-female checkpoint, which looks out across a valley to mountains that are not in Burma, but China.
Most of the troops passing through the checkpoint are men.
“Sometimes the soldiers are stubborn,” she says, when asked if they show her disrespect.
For Kachin women who encounter the Burma Army, the outcome can be much worse.
In October 2011, Sumlut Roi Ja was arrested by Burma Army soldiers while farming near her village at Hkai Bang, close to the China border. Last spotted through binoculars by the KIA and family members inside a Burma Army camp soon after the abduction, she has not been seen since. She is now presumed dead after being held captive by a Burma Army unit.
In May 2012, a 48-year-old Kachin woman was gang-raped inside a church by Burmese soldiers near the fighting flashpoint around Pangwa.
And women are casualties of the war in Kachin in other ways. On Thursday, two women were injured—one severely—by Burma Army shelling near Lajayang, where the KIA and an allied rebel militia known as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) have outposts and where the rebels overran a Burma Army position on Dec. 14.
Treating the wounded is a job for Mwi Hpu Lubu, a 20-year-old student nurse at Laiza’s hospital. Shyer than soldiers her age, she says interning at the hospital has shown her the sharp end of war.
“I have treated several people injured by shooting and bombing, people blown up by mines, soldiers all covered in blood,” she says.
In the past, the KIA has also been accused of funding its operations partly via opium cultivation, though the militia says it ended the practice and tries to destroy the crop when farmers grow it in rebel-held territory.
Drug abuse remains a serious problem in the region, Kachin officers say. At Myitkyina University, the KIA says 60-70 percent of students are drug addicts, with conspiratorial whispers of some dark Burmese military plot to destroy Kachin youth using drugs.
Burma is the world’s second-biggest opium source after Afghanistan, and although the government says it wants to eradicate this drug problem by 2014, rising demand from China has spurred an increase in growth throughout the country, with land given over to opium cultivation up 17 percent since 2011, according to the UN drugs unit.
In KIA-held territory, drug use seems common, despite warning posters with jeremiads on the walls of houses and offices all over Laiza.
Mto Doi Ra was caught taking methamphetamine and sent to the KIA drug rehabilitation center in Laiza.
“I’m not a regular user, I just wanted to have fun,” says the 30-year-old, speaking while a KIA official listens intently.
“We grow ginger and mustard here,” she says, discussing how the KIA puts the male and female inmates to work as part of their rehabilitation during their six-month stay at the facility.
She says she won’t take any drugs after finishing her term in three months.
“If I’m caught again, I might have to come back here for two years,” she says, grimacing.
Back at Laiza hospital, 28-year-old Kaw Mai looks understandably tired, but happy, while cradling her day-old baby.
“We don’t have a name for her yet,” she says, looking down at the infant swathed in a blue blanket, the folds tightly fastened with some string to protect against the nighttime winter cold.
Kaw Mai has spent the past 18 months in Wai Chyai camp, after fleeing a Burma Army advance on her home village, Mai Sat Pa, which is 45 minutes away by motorcycle on the Laiza-Myitkyina road.
“The child is doing well,” she says. “Just some crying at night, but otherwise OK.”
It will be tough to nurse a baby back at the camp, she says, after she leaves the hospital in four to five days. “Life has to go on as best we can,” she says with a shrug.
But for other women, personal lives are secondary to the Kachin cause.
“I want to spend at least three more years with the KIA before I try to get married,” says still-single soldier Seng Mai.
As for Lu Tawng, there are other sacrifices: She misses her family.
“In the six years since I joined the KIA, I have never gone back home once,” she says, smiling.