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Myanmar villagers pick through rubble of homes devastated by war

Swathes of Nam Hpat Kar village in northern Shan state were reduced to rubble in conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, which says it captured the village in late January
Swathes of Nam Hpat Kar village in northern Shan state were reduced to rubble in conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, which says it captured the village in late January - Copyright AFP STR
Swathes of Nam Hpat Kar village in northern Shan state were reduced to rubble in conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, which says it captured the village in late January - Copyright AFP STR

A towering golden Buddha watches over families sifting through the wreckage of their homes in a northern Myanmar village as they grieve for all they have lost in heavy artillery and air strikes. 

The Buddha’s right palm is raised in a gesture meant to dispel fear and offer protection.

But swathes of Nam Hpat Kar in northern Shan state were reduced to rubble in conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which says it captured the village in late January after more than a month of fighting.  

With military aircraft closing in, Nann May and her family fled the house they had recently built.

“From where I was hiding I heard the sounds of fighter jets flying overhead and I thought our village… will be destroyed completely,” Nann May, who earns a living selling daily goods, told AFP last week.

After KIA fighters seized the village and the fighting ended, Nann May returned to Nam Hpat Kar — which sits on Myanmar’s main highway to China — to find her home and many others damaged or destroyed.

Most people from her neighbourhood now “have nowhere to live,” she said, requesting a pseudonym for security reasons.

“Residents can’t do any work. There are no jobs and no homes here for us. We are grieving for our losses.”

The loss of Nam Hpat Kar is one of many suffered by Myanmar’s ruling junta in recent months.

An offensive launched in October by an alliance of ethnic minority armed groups has seized chunks of territory along the China border, as well as control of lucrative trade crossings.

The successes have also inspired so-called “People’s Defence Forces” — dedicated to reversing the 2021 coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government — to launch attacks of their own across the country. 

Analysts say the onslaught has put the embattled junta in its most vulnerable position since seizing power.

Last week it announced it would begin conscripting young men and women into its ranks due to the “current situation”.

– Downed jet –

Remnants of the military’s retreat from Nam Hpat Kar were scattered across the village, AFP footage showed.

Combat boots and uniforms were strewn inside a concrete hut pockmarked with bullet holes.

Near a network of empty trenches, dozens of shell casings littered the ground around a destroyed communications aerial.

Atop the local military unit’s flagpole, the KIA’s green and red banner hung in the still air.

Outside the village, locals took pictures of the wreckage of a jet the KIA says it shot down recently. 

The downing of the plane would be a rare victory against the junta’s overwhelming air power, which it has used to shore up its embattled ground troops.

The junta’s use of air strikes against civilian areas has drawn heavy condemnation, including from the United Nations and the United States, which last year imposed further sanctions on jet fuel imports.  

The KIA has fought the military for decades for autonomy and control of the lucrative trade in jade and timber in the far north.

It has clashed regularly with the military since the coup and has given training and equipment to newer People’s Defence Forces. 

Its fighters in Nam Hpat Kar were unavailable for interview.

For villagers returning home to houses obliterated by air and artillery strikes, talk of victory rings hollow.

– Rubble –

One family sat cooking rice on a makeshift stove a stone’s throw from the ruins of their house.

A nearby building had been reduced to a pile of concrete chunks, its electric wiring and steel supports exposed.

A Chinese calligraphy print extolling the importance of maintaining peace within one’s family hung on one interior wall that was still standing. 

Aye Aye Tin — also a pseudonym — has not heard from her nephew or niece since they fled the village for a city on the border with China when the fighting broke out.

“I heard from my friend that my nephew and niece were shot dead (by the military) while they tried to flee,” she told AFP. 

“Another niece who was wounded in the arm has been sent to hospital.” 

“I never thought I would face this fate.”

Maung Soe, another resident, said he knew a man who had been killed by a shell during the fighting.

Thousands have been killed and around 2 million displaced by conflict since the 2021 coup, according to the United Nations. 

For many in Nam Hpat Kar who survived the fight over their village, the next struggle will be surviving day to day, said Maung Soe.

“We have faced trouble getting meals, clothes and shelter,” he said.

“The price of rice is going higher and we can’t afford to buy.”

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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