Friday, March 1, 2024

Caught in the Crossfire: Lives on the Edge at the Borderline Amidst Conflict

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In the midst of dense bushes, you can find people sleeping in makeshift green tents, some tucked away in their cars near Nam Yann stream, and a few others gently swaying in hammocks.

At first glance, it might resemble a vacation scene, but the reality is a glimpse into the lives of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Nam Huu village and Man Je village in Kyu-kok (Pansai) area, just beyond the China border wall.

Pangsai (Kyu-kok) township is sheltering more than four thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs). Among them, approximately 200 individuals have sought shelter along the border fence, having fled or been displaced as a result of the 1027 operation initiated by the three brotherhood against the State Administration Council (SAC) regime.

After October 31, the situation escalated when SAC forces began indiscriminate shelling, including the residential areas; following the drone strike carried out by the three brotherhoods on SAC military post in Pangsai (Kyu-kok) town.

Subsequently, artillery exchanges between both sides resulted in significant damage to civilian properties and homes, along with injuries and casualties. This perilous situation prompted civilians to flee their homes, seeking refuge in safer locations.

People fleeing and hiding in conflict affected area Shan State Burma
People fleeing and hiding in conflict affected area Shan State Burma.

“In the beginning, we sought refuge only within our homes. However, as artillery and heavy weapons started to hit our houses, we found ourselves with no other option but to approach the border fences. Here, we had to improvise shelters and makeshifts in order to secure some form of refuge,” shared Sai Kyaw, a 35-year-old individual who is among the internally displaced persons (IDPs) grappling with the challenging circumstances.

In the past, whenever there were armed conflicts those communities living along the border could seek safety in China. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, China has tightened border controls by placing fences along the border line, making it increasingly difficult to cross for safety. Consequently, now when armed clashes arise, displaced people find themselves unable to access the refuge they once could. Instead, they become stranded along the border, improvising makeshift tents and camps.

“In the past, when conflict erupted, we could escape to the China side for safety. However, the current situation has changed, and crossing into China is no longer an option. We also find ourselves unable to flee to Muse. It’s disheartening because we are now trapped in the midst of the fighting, with nowhere to run,” explained Sai Kyaw with a sense of sadness.

As the conflict unfolded, residents of Pangsai initially sought refuge within their homes. However, when the forces of the State Administration Council (SAC) intensified their attacks, utilizing both drones and artillery that resulted in damage to houses and casualties, the situation became untenable. Consequently, on November 11, the people of Pangsai made the difficult decision to escape to the borderlines.

Sai Aung succinctly describes the situation: “Our situation is dire. We are unable to enter both the Chinese side and Pangsai town. Amidst the relentless shelling, ongoing fighting, and the threat of drones, all we can do is pray to God for safety”.

According to a woman who is amongst the IDPs, there has been a notable absence of assistance from any organizations for those residing along the border fence. So these IDPs are left to support themselves, construction makeshift camps, digging bunkers, and some sleeping in the cars.

“We don’t even know if we will survive. The indiscriminate shelling of artillery is in all directions; and left with no place to flee. We’re uncertain about what to do, and we also have children,” said a mother of two, expressing the harrowing reality of the situation.

“The IDPs have been enduring life in the makeshift camp for seven nights since November 18. Children are already experiencing trauma, and pregnant women and new mothers are profoundly affected by the situation. While the three brotherhoods resist the SAC regime, the safety of IDPs, especially children, women, and newborns, should be considered” expressed the concerned woman.

As the three brotherhood forces achieved success and strengthened their operation, managing to take control of several SAC posts in Pangsai, residents reported that some SAC soldiers were resorting to sneaking out in civilian clothes to evade being hunted down.

SAC soldiers who clandestinely fled in civilian clothes from their military bases have reportedly hid and mixed with the community, amongst the IDPs and some ask to stay in the civilian homes. This development has stirred worry and concern among the residents in the area, as conveyed by Sai Aung Kham (not his real name).

“SAC soldiers, in civilian clothes, arrived at the place where IDPs stayed, requesting food. People are afraid of potential repercussions if they refuse to provide assistance. These soldiers come to stay for a while and leave in the evening. Subsequently, forces from Kokang (MNDAA) also arrived to inspect the situation,” shared Sai Aung Kham.

Sai Aung Kham emphasized the perilous nature of the situation, describing it as very dangerous for the people when SAC soldiers stay among them disguised in civilian clothes. The potential for escalation is particularly severe if Kokang forces discover SAC soldiers living amidst the civilian population, and any confrontation could lead to gunfire between the two groups.

At the time being, although they have to escape from the fight between the SAC and the three Brotherhood forces, they are still able to return to their village for food and provisions to sustain themselves.

“At present, we can still return to the village during the daytime to cook and prepare food. Those who are able to cook do so, and the rest share among ourselves. Our main goal is to fill our bellies and eat whatever is available. When we hear gunshots, we retreat once more. During the night, we all come back to sleep near the Namya riverside, along the borderline,” shared Sai Aung Kham.

Amidst heightened tensions between the SAC troops and the three brotherhoods, the military persists in indiscriminate artillery shelling. This poses an immediate threat, as motors can strike at the IDPs sheltering along the border fence, as highlighted by Sai Aung Kham.
“We can’t dismiss the need to worry about security. Recently, motor shelling from the SAC post even reached the Chinese side. Thus, we can’t assume the shelling won’t fall into where we are now,” emphasized Sai Aung Kham.

[Note: This article was published in the Burmese version at the end of November 2023. There has been an announcement of a temporary ceasefire between the three brotherhoods and the State Administration Council (SAC) with coverage in Chinese media; however, fighting in the Muse area is still ongoing.]

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