Reimagining a better future in Kachin
The impacts of COVID-19 in IDP camps in Myanmar
One night in April 2018, Lahtaw Seng Hkawn was sleeping with her three children inside their village home in Injangyang, Myanmar when they heard gunfire close by. “We had to run immediately, there was no time to take anything but just the clothes on us,” she says.
Since that outbreak of violence they, like many thousands of other families, have spent most of their time living in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in Kachin State. Living in cramped conditions in wooden huts covered in corrugated metal and tarpaulin to protect families from the elements, it’s a long way from home for children like 9-year-old Mai Ra. And the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity to the vulnerable situation of the many lives in IDP camps in Kachin, and elsewhere.
A fragile balance: praying for a vaccine
Since the lockdown, Mai Ra has been unable to attend her regular summer school and has spent her time helping her family with household chores. On any given day she can be found cleaning their small kitchen or sweeping the path outside their home between monsoon showers.
For her mother, it has been a testing time. She and her children depend mainly on the camp’s provisions – 15,000 Kyats per person per month which means only 500 Kyats (or a mere $0.35) per person per day for a day’s meals. However sometimes that is not enough for her family and she would occasionally work as a laborer in farms, or on construction site to earn a little extra money to buy food and pay for her children’s education. Since strict lockdowns came into force in March however, it wasn’t possible to leave for such jobs.
Still, she worries about her children’s education and that they will be stuck inside the camps for a very long time. “Sometimes they seemed to be down and sad. I don’t know how long this will go on. Since I don’t have a TV, or access to the news and I don’t use Facebook, I feel disconnected,” she says, “I pray every day that they will find a vaccine quickly.”
She is worried for Mai Ra and her other children. “I need to find work, I have to earn more to help my children,” she says.
Despite the testing times, Mai Ra – the eldest of three – still has a positive outlook on her future. She talks about her love of dancing, and when she grows up. “I want to become a doctor one day,” she says.
When the gates of Maina IDP camp closed in April, the family of 9-year-old Kachin internally displaced girl Lu Aung was not prepared to face the challenges to come, both financially and mentally.
Her mother weaved traditional dresses – longgyis – and her father was a labourer. But with the gates closing it became nearly impossible to work.
Despite receiving some money each month, the family struggled to make ends meet to even afford the basics. “It was not enough but we tried to save on our meals,” says Lu Aung’s mother, Maran Htu. “These days, we just cook more vegetables, potatoes or sometimes eggs but could rarely eat meat," she says.
During lockdowns, young Lu Aung spent her time practicing weaving in a common area for a weaving workshop. She already knows how to weave a longgyi and often ask her mother to buy her a handloom so she can start making them herself.
"One day, I want to make my own longgyi with many colors and wear it," says 9-year-old Lu Aung. But Maran Htu prefers that her daughter spends more time focusing on her studies than work. Lu Aung however wants to make time for both: “I want to be a doctor or a teacher,” she says then adding, “or a clothing designer”.
“Suffocation and isolation”
Ze Naw, 36yr, is an ethnic Kachin woman and a mother of 5 children located in Maina IDP camp. As she speaks, she tends to her baby born less than 3 weeks ago.
“When we first heard of the news, we decided to stock food,” she says. “We bought rice, oil, salt, dried fish and potatoes and then soon came the lockdown. The gates of the camp closed down, there was no more income except for the provisions, children couldn’t play, we couldn’t gather at church to pray, everything went quiet. I was worried and prayed that it won’t get worse.”
This is the story of thousands of people in camps throughout Kachin and beyond.
“I am especially sad for the children as I think they suffer a bigger impact than adults, like mentally, they seemed depressed for some time,” she says. “The lockdown felt suffocating. I wished the doors at the gates be open at least so we won’t feel isolated.
Despite the hardships, there has been some small positives she says. The family has had more time together to bond and sees restrictions relaxing now, allowing children like her 13-year-old daughter to play with friends again.
“I want to go to school”
Seng Hkawn, a 15-year-old ethnic Kachin girl lives in Pa La Na IDP camp with her parents and two siblings. June 2020 should have been an exciting time for her: she passed Grade-9 and was preparing to step into Grade 10. She bought the Grade-10 textbooks with her allowance savings and her mother sold a pig for her summer-tuition.
To support the family, her parents - U Zaw Hkun, 43 and Daw Kaw Ra, 42 - work in the farms 3-hours away by motorbike. During the lockdown, there were days when her parents couldn’t return before the gates to the camp were closed. This meant she had to cook for her two younger siblings and look after them.
Seng Hkwarn worries about when she can return to school: “I want to go to school already. I’m afraid that my time would be wasted.”
Because of COVID-19 crisis, she says that her parents also worry they won’t be able to afford to pay for her education.
“I want to become a nurse,” Seng Hkawn says when asked about her dreams. “I want to treat sick and poor people and work in hospitals far away outside the camps. I think the uniform of a nurse is beautiful and I want to wear it one day.”