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Displaced Kachin face grim Christmas

A scene at the Warabung displaced persons camp in Kachin State, northern Myanmar December 2011

As the winter winds sweep across Myanmar's northern Kachin State, there is little to celebrate this Christmas for the estimated 45,000 civilians in some 30 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) along the Burmese-Chinese border.

A 17-year ceasefire between Myanmar government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was broken in June, and the number of IDPs is rising.

Biting winds, low temperatures and depleted food resources are taking their toll on the young and elderly in this rugged mountainous terrain.

Just this week, in central Kachin's Bhamo District, two village women, aged 64 and 63, died from respiratory infections brought on by the cold. A one-year-old baby in the same camp died from exposure, local aid workers say.

The normally bustling border town of Mai Ja Yang, controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political arm of the KIA, is eerily quiet: Many of the Chinese businesses have shut up shop and crossed back over the border, worried the conflict will escalate.

However, in one corner of the city, a group of volunteers is busy loading food parcels onto motorcycles for delivery to IDPs outside the city in KIO-controlled areas of Kachin State. The parcels contain rice, corn and cooking oil as well as cough medicines and antibiotics.

"The cold weather is taking its toll on the people and there is a need for more nutritional food," said May Li Aung, director of WunPawng Ninghtoi (WPN - "Light of Kachin"), a volunteer group.

For residents in the camps, bamboo structures with plastic sheeting for a roof provide only limited protection; straw is spread over the cold hard ground.

"As soon as a child gets sick, it spreads quickly. because there are so many people in small cramped quarters and the ground is getting very cold."

May Li Aung, 40, heads a collective of eight humanitarian organizations set up on 14 June, just five days after the ceasefire collapsed.

Currently more than 50 WPN volunteers are delivering aid to the camps.

More than 3,000 displaced have turned up at government-run camps in eastern Kachin State over the past two weeks, putting a strain on limited food supplies, mostly from local donors. 

UN efforts

According to the Office of the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, a UN inter-agency mission to Laiza - comprised of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) - managed to bring in about six truckloads of essential household items to IDPs from 12 to 14 December, as well as carry out an initial assessment.

More help is needed. It is hoped this initial visit will lead to greater access and assistance.

"The UN and its humanitarian partners look forward to being able to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to all those in need," said a UN statement on 15 December.

One KIA soldier's family, which recently arrived in Warabung IDP camp in Kachin State's Bhamo District, has a new mouth to feed - a baby boy - but the father, KIA doctor Seng Myu, is worried: "It's difficult trying to find a balance between a new mouth to feed and returning to the front lines where the wounded need to be treated."

In the past month Seng Myu has treated three amputees for landmine injuries.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is currently assisting 10,000 IDPs in Burmese government-controlled areas.

"For further distributions we will need to complete an assessment to independently evaluate food needs and prepare the most appropriate response," said spokesman Marcus Prior.

On 21 December, Human Rights Watch (HRW) commended the Myanmar government's decision to allow initial access, but says more is needed.

"That Burmese authorities granted UN aid agencies access to displaced people in Kachin State is an important step, but it demands a long-term commitment from the government and foreign donors alike," said Elaine Pearson, HRW's deputy Asia director, adding: "The government and Kachin forces should ensure that the tens of thousands of displaced people in remote camps get the food and shelter they need."




This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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