KACHIN STATE — Nine thousand feet above sea level, in the Himalayan foothills along the Burma-Chinese border, hundreds of ethnic Kachin people live in makeshift shelters at a camp known as Border Post 6, where the weather, they say, is always cold.
This camp is one of about 22 camps that were established in 2011, when fighting resumed between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burma Army. Due to its remote location in KIA territory, it has never been visited by a foreign aid convoy and in many ways remains cut off from the rest of Kachin State. Government troops stand guard nearby, so most visitors arrive from the Chinese side of the border, on a road built to transport wood into Yunnan Province from Burma. The nearest Chinese village is two hours away by car, in Yingjiang district.
“It’s not comfortable here,” says Ja Taung, a 52-year old with six children. “It’s freezing in the rainy season. Even pigs die here due to the cold.”
About 600 people live in makeshift homes which remain dark throughout the day. They lack windows, which would let in the chill. Families huddle around a fire inside, which they use to cook and keep warm, despite the lack of ventilation.
“We can’t breathe well with the smoke in the winter. We have to melt snow for water,” the mother adds. “We want to go home but do not dare leave. There may be land mines on the road.”
She says she struggles to grow vegetables, compared with those who live at IDP camps near Laiza town, where the weather is warmer. A local NGO helps her and others at Border Post 6 to buy produce for curry, with each person receiving 6,000 kyats (US$6) per month, and some families supplement their diets by growing mustard leaves when the weather allows. The camp also receives support from international donors, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
During a visit in March, several families interviewed by The Irrawaddy complained about harsh living conditions in the inhospitable climate. The skin on most of the children’s cheeks had become pink and chapped from the constant exposure to cold.
When they fled from their homes in Kachin State, their education was interrupted. A primary school has been set up at the camp, with adult residents volunteering to teach. The camp also has a medical clinic with midwives but no doctors, with some medicine supplied by outside donors.
Many of the families find relief through religion. Most are Christian, like the majority of Kachin people, and they attend services on Sunday. Children gather to pray early in the morning, while the elders come together some hours later for prayer and song.
Dauk Taung, a 41-year-old mother of seven, says her husband went to China to seek employment. She abandoned her village in Kachin State two years ago when she was pregnant. “I really, really want to go home,” she says. “I have no idea how my home is now.”
Marang Kawnt, a grandmother who previously lived at Sai Awng camp, also along the border, traveled to Border Post 6 to meet her daughter and family. She remembers when fighting first broke out between the KIA and the Burma Army decades ago, as well as the ceasefire in 1994 and the resumption of hostilities in 2011. “My life started with war,” the 65-year-old says, “and now it will end with war.”