Dire conditions for IDPs in Kachin as tension mounts

A group of villagers travels along a muddy mountain path in northern Myanmar with food, clothing and any belongings they can carry in bamboo baskets on their backs; babies are strapped to young children's chests as they try to keep up with their parents.

"We are afraid the Burmese soldiers will be attacking our village at any time," says Lum Hong, leading the group of 15 families from the village of Ng Eng, in central Kachin state. "We had to leave everything behind. Our cows, our oxen, our farmland. Everything. We don't know when it will be safe to go back."

The group was en route to a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in central Kachin's Dam Bung District after hearing of a government troop build-up near their village on the edge of territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The latest fighting between the two groups erupted on 9 June, when government forces broke a 17-year ceasefire agreement with the KIO near the Taping River.

The total number of  IDPs who have arrived in the Kachin capital of Laiza is estimated at 10,000, according to the Kachin Relief Development Committee (KRDC), a Laiza-based organization. The KRDC was formed by the KIO following Myanmar's demand that all ethnic groups lay down their arms and form a Border Guard Force in 2010. The KIA, along with several other ethnic groups, refused and a government build-up of forces began.

The number of IDPs in Laiza now matches the usual population of the city, home to KIO headquarters. Four temporary camps house the IDPs, but a permanent government-funded camp is near completion, just outside Laiza.

In the camp

Craftsmen are building another 500 bamboo huts on the banks of the Chayan river.

A makeshift school has been built to accommodate the growing number of displaced children, but reading material is scarce and a handful of teachers make do with a chalk board.

At the food supply tent, KRDC chief Doi Pi Sa La Bang oversees the latest distribution of rations to the new arrivals. Food and medicine have been largely donated by churches and individuals.

"In terms of food, we are giving one tin of rice for every two people per day," the former KIA captain explains. Doi Pi Sa La Bang is hoping for international mediators to help solve the problem and bring back peace.

At the medical tent, one of the biggest problems facing the new arrivals is the unsanitary water supply.

Torrential rains during the monsoon season have created dirty living conditions for IDPs who have been sleeping in the jungle.

"Right now we are trying to prevent disease from spreading, but it doesn't help when there are so many people crammed into small shelters," says Naw Sang La Sang, a young doctor.

KIO spokesperson Lah Nan said in the short term, the IDPs should be able to survive - but with many farmers unable to work their fields and donations running short, the future looks grim.

"We need medication, more shelters, and ultimately - we must have a long-term solution for the IDPs," Lah Nan said. A renewed ceasefire seems a long way off.

Elsewhere in the KIO-controlled areas, approximately 10,000 IDPs are in temporary camps scattered along the China border. The KRDC estimates 6,000 have crossed into China seeking safety with relatives. The figures do not include IDPs in Myitkyina, an area of Kachin controlled by the government.