Far From Home and Fearing for Their Lives, Burma’s Kachin Celebrate a Grim Christmas

Around 100,000 people currently inhabit ramshackle displacement camps in freezing northernmost Burma, victims of a two-and-a-half-year struggle between ethnic rebels and central government

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Khin Maung Win / AP

A girl at a refugee camp at the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army in Laiza, in Kachin state, Burma, on Oct. 29, 2013

Christmas used to be a special time for the Kachin people of northern Burma. Festivities traditionally last throughout December and move from village to village — featuring songs, sermons, cultural dances and bonfires — with one area picked for the main Christmas celebration, to where these devout Christians would flock from across the craggy emerald terrain.

Recently, however, seasonal cheer has been in short supply. Around 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently inhabit ramshackle tents amid the freezing climbs of the Himalayan foothills, victims of a resumption of hostilities between ethnic rebels and the central government. “The situation in the camps is critical,” Pierre Péron, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Rangoon, tells TIME. “Simple things such as warm clothes are needed very quickly.”

(PHOTOSOn the Front Lines With the Kachin Independence Army)

In 2011, the military junta that ruled Burma, officially known as Myanmar, ceded power to a quasi-civilian administration largely staffed by former generals. Political prisoners were released, media restrictions eased and elections held that saw Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi voted into parliament. In response, Western powers eased the stringent economic sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy for decades.

But ever since independence from British colonial rule was achieved in 1948, Burma’s myriad ethnic minorities have sought greater autonomy from central government. The half-century of bloody conflict that followed remains the world’s longest-running civil war and continues to be waged despite a raft of fragile peace deals, including a tentative agreement between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a major rebel group, and the Naypyidaw government in October.

These agreements have not stopped the fighting, though, and terrified civilians are still forced to flee their homes. Late last month, clashes flared near the city of Mansi, in Kachin state, leading to the further displacement of around 3,000 people, including a large number of children. Fighting continued sporadically even this week. “They have no hope and are crying all the time,” says Mary Tawm, head of the Wunpawng Ninghtoi relief NGO, which works in the IDP camps. Harvest season was at full tilt when the Burmese military arrived, she says, and so the young men had to flee straight from their fields without their families or belongings. “Some are not wearing slippers. They had to run to save their lives.” One elderly woman had to walk four days by herself as her family was forced to leave her behind. “It’s a tragedy,” adds Mary Tawm. “We are planning to trace her family.”

(MORE: Is the World’s Longest-Running Civil War About to End?)

The camps were dire even before the latest arrivals, with scarce warm clothes, meager rice rations and woeful sanitation. “There are not enough tents, and some must sleep under just tarpaulin,” says Mary Tawm. “Every morning there is snow on the ground and their blankets are wet.” Just over half of the displaced are located in rebel-held territory, meaning that international aid organizations have only sporadic access, as they must either negotiate battle lines or cross the border from China. This means “health care is a big need in these camps,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of the Fortify Rights NGO, who recently returned from six weeks documenting human-rights violations in Kachin state. Aside from a lack of medical equipment, drugs and vaccinations, some camps still do not have enough latrines for the displaced population. “This is unacceptable two and a half years into the conflict,” he adds.

Sadly for the Kachin, violence over Christmas is nothing new. Last December, the Burmese military launched a blistering dry-season offensive using jet fighters and helicopter gunships against Lajayang, a strategically coveted outpost just 7 miles from the KIA stronghold of Laiza. “Every Christmas time we have to forget all the people lost and the reality we have to face,” Mary Tawm says. “Last year the fighting happened and so we feel sad.” Little wonder, “psychosocial support is desperately needed,” says Smith. Those caught up in the conflict suffer horrific abuses. “Two women were raped that we know for sure, two men killed and two men were captured, tortured but later escaped,” says David Eubank, of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian-support group that works in conflict zones, regarding the latest clashes around Mansi. “We went to many IDP camps in June, but all these people have now fled. It’s just wrong.”

But no matter how desperate their situation, returning home risks much more. “There are still large areas with land mines,” says Péron. “Every month we are getting reports of people being injured or killed by them.” For those who take the risk, survival is often tougher than the camps — with fields strewn with explosives and no job prospects, there is precious little opportunity to earn a living, especially as the main breadwinner has often been imprisoned. “A large number of men have been rounded up under the Unlawful Associations Act,” says Smith. “There is a ripple effect to all these human-rights violations.”

Burma’s civil conflicts are rooted in ethnoreligious animosity. The country’s Bamar majority is almost exclusively Buddhist, while many minorities of the border regions, like the Kachin, are Christian, a product of American missionaries in the mid-19th century. “Anti-Christian sentiment tends to come up when Kachin men are being tortured,” says Smith, adding that “scores” of churches have been destroyed by marauding troops. “In some cases soldiers have opened fire on churches while civilians have been sheltering inside.”

(MOREInside Burma’s War)

While atrocities sometimes take sectarian overtones, and the Burmese military’s age-old justification for its ironfisted rule is to prevent widespread Balkanization, the latest fighting appears financially motivated. Kachin state has vast mineral deposits including gold and jade, as well as teak forests and huge hydropower potential. The canard of development riches swayed the KIA into signing a cease-fire with Burma’s military regime in 1994, but 17 years of dams, opencast mining and illegal logging soon devastated the environment and local livelihoods, prompting a return to arms. Now the Burmese government wants to ensure that it retains control of these lucrative assets, claims Brang Hkangda, an editor for Kachinland News. “[Burmese President] Thein Sein has full knowledge of military’s advance in Kachin region,” he says. “He declared a unilateral cease-fire in January 2013 only after the Burmese military secured strategic positions.”

Despite their hardships, the Kachin are still celebrating Christmas in the camps. For want of glitzy decorations, flowers adorn communal areas and hymns are caroled with great gusto. A Rangoon-based NGO is bringing humble gifts for the camp’s wretched children. “They really are quite amazing,” says Eubank, who has spent almost every Christmas over the past two decades in Burma. “These people are in big trouble, they don’t have a lot, but they choose to be thankful that they are alive.”

Last November, President Barack Obama visited Burma in the wake of easing punitive economic measures, and vowed to support the Southeast Asian nation’s embattled people to mark a new era of engagement. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must be strengthened,” said the U.S. Commander in Chief. But for 100,000 Kachin, any flickers died a long time ago.

PHOTOSBurma Unbound: Photos from a Waking Nation by Adam Ferguson