“The most painful moment in my life”: Airstrikes causing mass trauma and displacement
Amidst the sound of fire falling from the sky, families packed three to four days’ worth of food and some clothes and headed for a place in the outskirts of Demoso, Karenni state. That departure from their house, that occurred a few months after the February 1st, 2021 coup d’Etat, was the beginning of Yuri Soe’s family’s journey to escape the war.
“I asked my mother how many days we would have to escape, and she said ‘about a week, daughter’. We haven’t had the experience of running away from war yet, so we ran to a place a little further away from Demoso because we thought it would only take that long.”
As the People Defence Forces (PDF) armed resistance started to fight back in May 2021, the military council forces fired ammunition directly in the city neighbourhoods inhabited by civilians, without even pretending to avoid those areas. When the shooting started, people did not escape immediately. They hid for days inside underground shelters near their houses. They then decided to travel out, as the rainy season started in full force.
It was a rough trip. When the wheels of the car got stuck in the mud, the driver asked Yuri Soe’s family members to push it out themselves. Surviving and finding enough food also proved to be difficult tasks.
“When the rainy season started, I was drowning in mud. There was no place to sit and we had to push the cars. I didn’t have a rain cover, so I had to stick inside other people’s tents. I had to live together with other war refugees. There was no firewood to cook.” said Yuri Soe. To this day, she still has difficulties finding and buying heart medicine for her mother, who needs to take daily medication.
“My father’s hands are now constantly shaking. And it wasn’t long before my mother, after escaping from the war, developed heart diseases such as high blood pressure. It is very hard to find medicine every day as we are on the run”
Yuri Soe’s family had to move from place to place to avoid conflict as the frontline kept shifting. At one point they were living in a guesthouse in a village, when Naw, the owner of the place, was killed by an airstrike and many other people were injured.
After experiencing such airstrikes, Yuri Soe and her younger sisters are psychologically haunted. Yuri Soe’s third younger sister, who is 15 years old, cries in her sleep. “One of my younger sisters was with my father when she went through the incident. She wakes up and screams that she was scared. She doesn’t sleep very well at night.”
Her youngest sister, who is 10 years old, is also severely distressed. “When she hears the sound of a plane, her heartbeat and breathing are fast and irregular and she gets very afraid. During the airstrike, she was so scared that she couldn’t cry anymore. It seems like she didn’t even know who she was anymore.”
Yuri Soe is currently living with four family members as a refugee in a conflict-free area on the border of Karen State. They had to flee to more than five places. During that escape journey, her second sister did not come with them and fled to a different place. Yuri Soe experienced panic attacks after this harrowing experience though she is now slowly able to reduce her anxiety.
“I was able to control my own mind after attending a mental health course by Psychological First Aid (PFA) on how to control the damage to our psyche.” While she was on the run, she attended this course given by the PFA team, which helped her a lot. However, she is still a little scared when she hears the sound of a plane.
It remains difficult for Yuri Soe to forget what she experienced. It’s been more than two years since she turned her back on the idea that her escape was only for a short time. Until now, thousands of families have not been able to return home and don’t know how long this situation will last. “As we ran and ran, we went further and further away from home.”
Stop feeding the jet fighters
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.
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.
➽ 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
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.
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.”
Back in Karenni state, 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”.
* Name has been changed for safety reasons