MAI JA YANG, Kachin State — It has been almost three years since Bawk Kwan last saw her mom and dad.
“I want to meet my parents, but I have no idea where they are now,” said the primary school student at Pa Kahtawng camp near Mai Ja Yang, a town on the Sino-Burmese border that shelters thousands of people displaced by war in Kachin and northern Shan states.
Bawk Kwan is not alone. There are about 200 students boarding at the camp who are—for the time being, at least—effectively orphans of the conflict.
Many have been separated from their parents since a ceasefire between Burma’s central government and ethnic Kachin rebels broke down in June 2011, unleashing on-again, off-again fighting that has displaced more than 100,000 people in northern Burma. While some have been able to contact their parents, others, like Bawk Kwan, are in the dark as to where—or even if—their parents are living.
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A group of more than 40 children found themselves at the camp after fleeing their school in a village outside of Shan State’s Muse Township.
“We started to run when there was a battle about an hour’s walk from our school,” explained Nu Tawng, who is now in charge of the makeshift boarding school.
Nu Tawng and her fellow teachers took the children on a two-day trek through the jungle to the nearest village, Mone Paw in Muse Township. From there, they made their way to Mai Ja Yang with the help of the camp head, Zaw Bawk.
“The children couldn’t really walk, but [motivated by] fear of the gunshots, they were able to run,” Nu Tawng said.
The local NGO Wunpawng Ninghtoi has taken the lead in helping the boarding school children, all of whom are under 10 years old, to settle into their new lives at the IDP camp.
According to camp leaders, Pa Kahtawng consists of 3,279 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living among 523 households at the camp. Of the total population, nearly 1,400 are children under 15 years old who attend school in the camp.
A toilet separates the girls’ boarding house from the boys’ structure, both of which are made of flimsy plywood that does little to buffer their inhabitants from the stench of the commode. A lack of personal hygiene adds to the smell of misery in and around the housing compound.
“We aren’t able to look after the children well at the boarding house,” concedes Zaw Bawk.
Living conditions are not unlike the barracks that house the soldiers to whom the children owe their current existence. Dozens of children live in a 25-feet-by-25-feet room of bunk beds that sleep up to three bodies per mattress. The accommodation is hardly spacious, but not too small to prevent some from engaging in recreational diversions like skipping rope.
Other scenes not in keeping with the barracks analogy include girls combing each others’ hair, and boys playing football on the grounds outside the plywood walls.
Most of the children suffer from malnutrition. Their daily meal consists mostly of two meager portions, one of fried mustard and the other soup. “We are only able to feed them meat like pork, chicken or fish twice a month,” Nu Tawng said, adding that the most urgent needs for the children were “meals” and “firewood.”
“We are looking for donors for lunches, so that we can have wood to cook and feed the children,” said Mary Tawm, co-founder of the relief agency Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN).
During a recent visit to Pa Kahtawng by The Irrawaddy, a UN truck arrived at the camp, unloading school textbooks, mosquito nets and solar panels, the last item intended to add a small bit of light to a camp otherwise without electricity. Some children eyed the textbooks with interest, but few here find camp life to be conducive to furthering their education.
“I am not happy to be here. I don’t have any contact with my parents. I want to see them,” said Yawl Dint with tears in her eyes. A Grade 3 student at the boarding house, Yawl Dint said the scene of her teachers and classmates fleeing the schoolhouse near Muse, punctuated by gunshots in the distance, remains with her nearly three years later.
“I am afraid of soldiers,” she says, while at the same time, “I want to go back to my village and attend school.”
Naw San, a security guard at Pa Kahtawng, said camp administrators were mindful of the young IDPs’ trauma.
“We do not allow soldiers with uniform and equipment. Children are really afraid of the uniform,” he said.
Mary Tawm said WPN is helping the children to contact their parents, but not always with success.
“Since children have sometimes run away from very far places, it’s hard to reconnect,” she said, adding that others had been able to get in touch with parents but had not yet reunited with them.
Meanwhile, amid the uncertainty of the present arrangement, Nu Tawng said effectively teaching the students is a struggle.
“Students think they are out for a picnic. They just think they are studying here for fun,” she said. “They think they will be going back [to their homes] to study.”
Though IDPs have benefited from aid provided by a handful of groups including the UN, WPN, the Shalom Foundation and Karuna Myanmar Social Service, basic education supplies are still lacking,
“It was quite cold in the winter too,” said camp head Zaw Bawk.
With the warmer days of summer now upon them, camp dwellers hope that tensions cool between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). A new ceasefire, which is expected to be discussed by Kachin rebels, the government and more than a dozen other ethnic armed groups in the coming months, would go a small way toward bringing some semblance of normalcy to the lives of children like Yawl Dint.
“I don’t know when I can go back,” she said. “I miss my parents, my siblings and my home so much.”