Far from the beaten track - reaching displaced children in the outlying mountains of Kachin State, Burma
The tragedy facing the Kachin people in Burma is rarely cited in the international media and runs counter to the popular narrative that the country is steadily transforming into a democracy. In truth, the scale and nature of the needs for internally displaced Kachin children is vast, urgent and critical. At present, Children on the Edge is the only international organisation reaching these isolated children, in the hard to reach areas of the state.
While conflict in Kachin State dates back decades, the past three years have seen the most intense and brutal fighting. Camps for over 120,000 people displaced by the war continue to grow in both size and number, and those seeking refuge are increasingly downcast about how unlikely the prospect of returning home has become.
On his visits there, John Littleton, our Asia Regional Manager has witnessed first-hand the indiscriminate bombing of civilian villages by central government forces and spoken with dozens of victims who have been forced to flee their homes. He describes how “Those I’ve spoken to speak of wide-spread burning of villages, rape, maiming and executions. As the central government appears determined to crush this last remaining pocket of wide-spread armed resistance in Burma, their tactics have been increasingly harsh”.
Reaching the unreachable
While there is broad recognition of the pressing humanitarian need in northern Kachin State, it seems that the prevailing opinion is that there are simply too many logistical obstacles to providing support there. Most of the roads are little more than crude, unpaved logging routes, cut through dense forest and steep terrain. In order to reach the most remote Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps, it is necessary to criss-cross the Chinese and Burmese borders sometimes more than once. Consequently, Children on the Edge finds itself alone in providing assistance to these outlying communities.
Despite access and supply issues proving challenging, they are not insurmountable. Children on the Edge has therefore been providing support to displaced children in Kachin State since 2012. We have been focussing on seven, northern (IDP) camps, which are situated in high-altitude locations. These settlements have been ignored by the larger organisations who have concentrated their efforts on the easier to reach locations around Laiza.
Because of the high altitude of these camps, temperatures regularly plunge well below freezing. Given that many of the IDP residents fled their villages with only a handful of belongings, winter supplies to survive these conditions are scarce and there is a particular lack of warm clothing. During our first site visit to Kachin in January 2012, we visited a village where a young child had recently perished due to hypothermia. In response, our first action in Kachin state was to purchase hundreds of sets of warm clothing for children.
Education and traumatised children
The next step was to create some activities that would build sustainable change. Together with our local partners Kachin Development Group (KDG) and Kachin Women’s Association (KWA), our full Early Childhood Development Programme was launched in November of 2014. This programme consists of 12 Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres in the seven remote IDP camps, reaching 554 displaced Kachin children.
While some community buildings already existed in the camps, most were unsuitable for use as an ECD space and extensive renovation work was needed. Complicating these efforts, the purchase and movement of building materials in such remote areas is difficult due to poor roads and arbitrary security checks. The most outlying IDP camps take more than 11 hours to reach from the nearest supply points. Thankfully, all 12 centres received the needed materials, and the structures were ready before the arrival of severe winter weather.The centres have become real child friendly spaces which provide play, early years education, creative expression and training in health and hygiene.
Through these centres we are working with communities who have faced very real and sudden trauma. Children in the camps have experienced the shock of being forced from their homes under a wave of brutal violence and many of the personal accounts collected in the field are too graphic to publish.
In the knowledge that many of the children carry significant, residual trauma, the 10 teachers in the centres have not only been trained in child friendly curriculum development, child protection issues, and managing logistics but are highly focussed on providing a safe space in which the children can feel secure to express themselves. The aim of the programme is to help the children regain a sense of security and self-worth while facilitating their long-term recovery and well-being.
Each centre is supported by a committee comprised of parents and community leaders. These committees help organise support for the centres and deal with any problems that arise. The group also assists with providing labour for construction and maintenance of centres, as well as arranging for volunteer cooks and cleaners.
At monthly meetings, the committees talk with teachers and staff about issues related to the centre and broader community. These round-table discussions strongly connect the project with the community and enable valuable insight into the ongoing issues faced by the IDPs.
How you can help
Donate to the project - Funding is surprisingly hard to find as many donors simply aren’t aware of the scale of this situation.
Contact your MP on behalf of the Kachin people - While there have been measurable strides taken towards progress in Burma, the atrocities and violations of human rights taking place in Kachin state and surrounding areas is evidence that the old regime has yet to fully reform. It is time for the international community to take notice.
'Their villages burned and their families attacked, the Kachin People have been physically pushed to the edge of their country and given no help'
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