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Myanmar’s displaced pray and teach under deadly skies

Families pray in a makeshift church at a camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar's Kayah state
Families pray in a makeshift church at a camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar's Kayah state - Copyright AFP Myo Satt Hla Thaw
Families pray in a makeshift church at a camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar's Kayah state - Copyright AFP Myo Satt Hla Thaw

A woman rings a bell outside a makeshift church of wood and tarpaulin, calling the faithful to worship and a respite from war in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state. 

Thousands of young people fled from Myanmar’s cities to Kayah’s rugged hills and jungle as the army launched a crackdown on pro-democracy protests following its 2021 coup.

Many volunteered for military training at hidden camps run by “People’s Defence Force” groups, and have since fought the junta across the Christian-majority state.

The junta has battered Kayah with artillery and air strikes from its Russian and Chinese-built jets, and more than 100,000 people are now displaced in the state, according to the United Nations. 

A dirt path in Demoso township runs to one of the many new camps that have sprung up, where inhabitants pray, teach and eat under threat from the skies.

Mar Thi Yar, 45, says he is proud of the local church, with its roof of green tarpaulin and makeshift altar decorated with tinsel that inhabitants built last summer.

“It shows our togetherness,” he told AFP last month. “We only have God to rely on in our lives.”

Every evening the church is busy, he added.

At another camp, Daw Yit, 27, teaches at the school she helped found last December to serve 72 displaced students.

Constantly listening for the sounds of jets and shells makes it hard to teach as she would like, she said.

“There is no mental security for us and we can’t teach well,” she told AFP. 

“While we are teaching we have to be ready to run and hide if the jet fighters come.” 

Near the school, a network of trenches dug in the reddish earth provides rudimentary shelter from the military air and artillery strikes that are an ever-present threat. 

“My son jumps every time he hears a loud noise,” Daw Yit said. 

“Even a one-year-old kid knows how to react — she puts her hands over her ears whenever she hears ‘jet fighters are coming’.”

Amnesty International said last year that the junta was likely using air strikes as “collective punishment” against civilians supporting anti-coup fighters in hotspots like Kayah.

“There are no safe places nearby for all the people in the camp,” said Aung Khet, a member of the committee that runs the camp where he has lived since May 2022. 

“Usually if there is an air strike, we run into the forest to hide.”

Residents also build their shelters far apart from one another, he said. 

“If there is an attack by the military we hope it won’t hit everybody and there will be fewer casualties.”

– ‘Good citizens’ –

Inflation and a battered economy, meanwhile, are taxing relief groups’ resources. 

“Last year, 300,000 kyat ($145) was enough to feed 150 people with rice and three meat curries,” Yinn Yinn of the Karenni Support Team told AFP.

“But now that money is only enough for rice and one meat curry for 60 people. Even if there is one meat curry, we have to add potatoes to bulk it out. The prices have doubled since last year.”

“Most families can’t afford” to rebuild their houses, Aung Khet said.

And he says even if people could, many would not do so until the military has been defeated.

Fighting has flared in Kayah in recent days, with anti-coup fighters spurred on by an offensive launched by an alliance of ethnic minority groups hundreds of kilometres away in northern Shan state.

Analysts say that offensive has put the junta on the back foot. 

In Kayah state, the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) is battling the junta for control of state capital Loikaw, and earlier this month said it had shot down a military jet.

The junta said the plane had crashed as a result of engine failure.

As the fighting rages, Daw Yit keeps teaching and trusting in her faith. 

“We teach children about the Bible and worship. It’s the way we cure their trauma… I think children have got many traumas during this war,” she said.

“We are taking care of them to be good citizens and I wish they will become leaders who can rule our country well.” 

Written By

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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