Airstrikes Epidemic (II) // “Each time I ran from place to place, I got further and further away from home.”

The artillery fire echoing around the town required serious response.  With large packs containing food for three days, Yuri Soe’s family could never have imagined how long they would be exiled from home, in the search for safety.  Thus began their harrowing journey of internal displacement.

My mother thought we would only have to flee for a week, when I asked her.  We didn’t think it would take too long, having never experienced these kinds of things before.

The eldest of four siblings, Yuri Soe had spent all her twenty-five years in Demoso, Karenni (Kayah) State, until four months after the coup, during the Battle for Demoso.  There was fierce fighting between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) and armed ethnic groups such as KA, KNDF and PDFs.  The Tatmadaw fired weapons over and into the city and public areas indiscriminately, endangering the civilian population. 

The family had not initially planned to flee, staying in a bomb shelter near their home.  However, after two days, the realization that the situation was worsening forced them into movement.  It was the 23rd of May, 2021, and the monsoons had begun, posing great challenges to movement. 

“You know how rough the roads in Kayah state (Karenni state) are.  At the beginning of this journey, the roads were in such a bad state and too muddy, so we had to exit the car and push it.  Sometimes, we had to stay at others’ huts along the road as we had no raincoats.  Sometimes, we had to stay in a single room with other refugees.  Sometimes there was no firewood for cooking.”

These are memories that Yuri Soe will never forget. 

They faced other problems in terms of livelihood.  Purchasing medicine was a challenge.  Her mother required daily medication for heart disease and hypertension. It was not easy to get access to these kinds of medications in the areas where they stayed. 

“My father couldn’t use his hand very well because it was injured.  My mother continued to suffer from those diseases, and the weather seemed always against us.” 

There was an airstrike in a village they had taken refuge.  Yuri Soe’s father took a bullet to the hand.  During the airstrike, the owner of the house where they were staying died, and many were injured.  In the aftermath, the younger members of the family had a difficult time, particularly in terms of their mental wellbeing.  These traumatic airstrikes haunted Yuri Soe and her younger sisters.  Yuri Soe’s fifteen year old sister often woke up crying during the night.

The Myanmar military frequently deploys aerial attacks, primarily due to their increasingly disadvantaged position on the ground as resistance from PDFs continues.  Airstrikes murder innocent civilians and destroy infrastructure and public buildings, such as schools and religious institutions.

“After one airstrike incident where my father and sister were almost killed, my sister would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. That incident haunts her dreams, and as a result, she can’t sleep very well.”

Yuri Soe describes the intense fear experienced by all her sisters, including the youngest. 

She becomes terrified when she hears the helicopter.  Her heart races, and she feels so lost and frightened that she can’t even cry.”

Yuri Soe herself experienced anxiety and depression after what her family went through. She believes they wouldn’t have faced such hardships if they hadn’t been forced to flee from conflict.  As internal refugees, they have endured overwhelming worry, helplessness, and despair.

These were the toughest days of my life. I had to endure heartbreaking moments and adjust to this new reality.  We wouldn’t have suffered like this if we hadn’t been forced to flee from war.”

As refugees, Yuri Soe’s family has moved five times. At one point, one of her younger sisters was separated from the rest of the family.

Currently, Yuri Soe and her family reside in a refugee camp near the border with Karen State. As time goes by, she feels better equipped for dealing with her anxiety and depression.

“After completing the course on managing mental health by the Psychological First Aid, I found myself better equipped to handle my mental state.”

The PFA course significantly helped her during challenging times, yet she is still gripped with fear when she hears Tatmadaw choppers.  It’s challenging for Yuri Soe to forget the trauma her family experienced.  They’ve been away from home for over two years, initially thinking it would be temporary.  “Each time I ran from place to place, I got further and further away from home.”

The uncertainty of when they can return painfully remains. Yuri Soe still has moments when she can’t control her own mind, and is feeling weak and worried. “This is the most painful moment in my whole life. If we didn’t have to escape conflict, we would not have faced such a situation”. 

Stop feeding the jet fighters 

The military council troops, who were deeply hurt by ground offensive attacks by Local and People Defense Forces led by the anti-junta resistance armed groups, began to counterattack by focusing mainly on airstrikes to avoid having their troops being exposed to ambushes. In order to undermine the morale of the people, they purposefully attacked and destroyed civilians houses, village schools and religious buildings.

As a result of those military airstrikes, many civilians lost their lives and countless buildings were damaged. In order to put an end to those terrorist actions, the National Unity Government (NUG) and other civil rights organisations active in Myanmar have issued statements demanding that weapons, war planes and jet fuel do not reach the Myanmar military.

During the G20 Summit held in New Delhi, India in September 2023, the NUG Ministry of Foreign affairs requested member states to carefully consider four key points: 

  • Demand that the Myanmar Army end all violence against the Myanmar people immediately 
  • End the sale and supply of arms and jet fuels to the Myanmar army 
  • Cut the revenue streams of the terrorist army and entities that play a significant role in providing financial resources for the terrorist acts of the junta 
  • Provide technical support and capacity building to the NUG and it’s partners in addressing transnational crime

Burma Campaign UK, a British-based campaign group that is advocating for democracy in Myanmar, has called on five British insurance companies that provide insurance cover for deliveries of aviation fuel to Burma: UK P&I, Steamship Mutual, Britannia P&I, North Standard, and Shipowners Club. 

READ our features on the destruction of the oldest Burmese catholic Church and the killing of a dozen children in their school in Let Yat Kone, Sagaing, as well as the Hpakant massacre in Kachin state

Courtesy of OHCHR

According to the latest report of the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) Myanmar, military use of airstrikes has significantly increased from April 2022 to July 2023 with some 687 attacks carried out compared to 301 between 1 February 2021 and 31 March 2022. 

The deaths of at least 300 people could be verified across the country. “While previously the north-east and south-east, particularly in Kachin, Kayah, and Kayin, were the most targeted areas, the report notes a 330 % increase in airstrikes in the central regions with figures raising from 79 to 344. Sagaing alone accounts for 258 of the 344 airstrikes and 36 % of the total nationwide. Of further concern is that airstrikes have repeatedly been combined with measures that systemically deny the ability of those injured to access medical care.” 

Nyan Linn Htit Analytica team estimates that the number of airstrikes is higher, with 1,427 air attacks by the Myanmar military from February 1st, 2021 to April 2023. This total includes 184 attacks in Karenni State, which ranks as the third highest province hit by those war crimes perpetrated from the air. Karen State is the first highest hit with 322 attacks, and Sagaing Division is the second with 295 attacks.

No borders for fear and trauma

The rumbles of war follow people even as they flee Myanmar through rivers and mountains to shelter in neighbouring countries. Dozens of thousands live in Mae Sot, a border town in Tak province that is the most important trading point between Myanmar and Thailand. When the Burmese army is bombing the hills of Kaw Thoo Lei, the eastern state officially known as Karen / Kayin state, people can feel their houses being shaken. They can only watch in despair the smoke emanating from burned villages and settlements. 

They also have to bear the fact that the Bangkok government regularly allows Myanmar troops to trespass Thai territory by air or by land. The latest incident occurred early September when close to a hundred Burmese soldiers crossed the border after they were repulsed by an attack by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), on their Htee Kalae Pae camp, Kyainseikgyi township, Kawkareik district, Karen / Kayin state. Local residents informed nearby Thai soldiers about the presence of Myanmar soldiers in Le Tong Khu village, though no action was taken, according to the Bangkok Post.

➽ READ our features on the tragedies unfolding on the banks of the Moei River at the Thai-Myanmar border
and the passing of a MIG-29 aircraft above a village in Pob Phra District, Tak province.  

Shine* is a 21 year-old man who dropped his studies in the aftermath of the coup to undertake guerilla training and run a revolutionary high-school in the jungle of Karen / Kayin state. In September, he made a short trip to Thailand to seek guidance from education experts regarding his school’s curriculum. 

“Even if I know that I am physically safe as long as I am here in the city, I still freeze when I hear planes passing on top of Nimman”. The posh touristy area of Chiang Mai, Thailand is on the path of most flights taking off from the northern capital’s airport. 

“We run a school in Karen National Union (KNU) territory with more than a hundred high school students from 16 to 25 years old. For months we couldn’t sleep because every night around 1 or 2 AM, jets passed above the school. We cannot fall asleep because in case of an alert we need to wake up and move all students to a trench we dug at the base of the mountain. We all have a little bag with basic necessities to grab next to our bed in case we have to run fast. The other most important thing is to take our laptops as all information is stored there and can’t be left to the Myanmar military.” 

* Name has been changed for safety reasons