‘If we stay, we die’ – villagers risk perilous, days-long journeys to Yangon through Rakhine conflict zone 

A roar filled the air as a military plane swept through the clear sky above Pyi Tin’s bamboo hut in Hmawbi, north of Yangon, on a recent morning.

The 39-year-old mother of four flinched in terror, then turned her gaze to the sky and tried to calm herself with the knowledge she was safe now.   

“I’m traumatised by this noise,” she told Myanmar Now as she sat on the porch of her hut, one of a number that house dozens who fled recent fighting in Chin state.  

The plane was on a training exercise from a nearby airbase, but before she fled her native village of Mi Let Wa in Paletwa township in March, the sound of aircraft meant bombs might be about to land.  

Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army has intensified in recent months in Paletwa, which borders Rakhine state, taking a devastating toll on civilians. 

The military has launched “indiscriminate” airstrikes in the Meik Sar Wa village cluster, where Mi Let Wa sits, Amnesty International said last week. The strikes have killed at least 19 civilians, including a 7-year-old boy, and should be investigated as war crimes, the group said. 

Around 200,000 have now been forced from their homes by the fighting in Rakhine and Chin states. Many live in camps and other shelters in the region. Some, like Pyi Tin, have risked the arduous journey to Yangon along riverways, mountainous trails and roads that run directly through conflict areas.  

“We were going to die one way or another if we’d stayed. We were going to die if we got shot trying to run away,” she said. “We decided to run.” 

Temporary shelters for displaced people from Paletwa who have made it to Yangon. (Photo: Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

A quiet life

Fighting between the military and AA has flared on and off since 2015, but it intensified early last year when the AA attacked a security outpost in Buthidaung. 

Just over half of Paletwa’s population of 110,000 has since been displaced, according to the Chin state government.

Before the war came to their village, which sits between the eastern bank of the Kaladan river and a range of low, jagged hills, Pyi Tin’s family enjoyed a comfortable and quiet life.

The village is mostly home to ethnically Khumi Chin people, and borders another village called Upper Mi Let Wa that is home mostly to Rakhines.

Pyi Tin and her husband, a pastor, owned three acres of land, where they grew cucumbers, rice, and sesame. Their 16-year-old son, the second oldest of four, helped to herd and feed the family’s animals – seven goats, three pigs and eight cows. 

They managed to save money and send all the children to school. The oldest is studying in India.

Pyi Tin, 39, sits on the porch of her bamboo hut in Hmawbi township, Yangon. (Photo: Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

In January, the younger children stopped playing in the street as the sounds of gunfire, helicopters and planes became a regular feature of their lives. 

The family was trapped in the crossfire; the AA had encamped in the hills to the east of the village, while the Tatmadaw had a base to the west. 

In February, five people were injured by shells landing in the village. Pyi Tin saw one of her neighbours, a 60-year-old woman, with a severe leg injury from one of the explosions. 

The fighting also cut off transport routes, and the price of staple foods and other basics began to rise. In early March, Pyi Tin decided the family must take the risky journey to Yangon. 

But her husband didn’t want to go. If he was going to die, he told her, he wanted to be on his native land. 

Eventually, the family decided to split up. Pyi Tin would make the journey with their older son. The younger children, who are 11 and 13, would stay behind because the parents worried the journey was too dangerous for them. 

They were headed for the Khumi Evangelical Church in Shwe Pyi Thar, Yangon, which they had a connection to through the husband’s work as a pastor. The church was helping to shelter Khumi people fleeing the violence. 

The 600-mile road to safety 

Pyi Tin and her son left Paletwa by boat early on the morning of March 11. They were heading first to Kyauktaw in Rakhine state. From there, the roads were open and they could take a bus to Yangon.

The journey south along the Kaladan river to Kyauktaw was supposed to take three hours, but on the way they heard gunfire close by and military aircraft whirred overhead. 

To avoid becoming a target on the open water, they stopped at a village called Tumawa. From there, the road leading south was still blocked, and the local villagers said it wasn’t safe to hike to Kyauktaw. 

A temporary shelter in Hmawbi for those who fled clashes in Paletwa. (Photo: Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

But they couldn’t turn back, so they set off on foot for a punishing five-hour trek. It was easiest to stick to the low lying ground at the bank of the river, but that would have left them exposed, so the mother and son hiked into the forest-covered hills. 

At points the tree cover fell away, and they traversed the steep trails under the hot sun, hoping they wouldn’t be seen by soldiers. 

Aircraft kept roaring above, and artillery explosions pummeled the hills around them.

“We don’t know what they were aiming at, but it was so loud. We thought we were going to die, but we just kept walking as quickly as we could,” Pyi Tin said.

They finally reached Kyauktaw at around five in the evening and spent the night at a modest guesthouse because there were no more buses running. 

The rest of the journey should have been far simpler, but they weren’t out of danger yet. Just after their bus crossed a bridge leading into Minbya the next morning, the vehicle behind them was peppered with stray bullets, injuring several of the passengers. 

Later, they were interrogated by AA soldiers who stopped their vehicle, but they were allowed to proceed. They spent another night in a guesthouse in the town of Ann before enjoying an uneventful bus ride to the church in Yangon the next day. 

Pyi Tin is now one of just 150 displaced people from Paletwa who has made it to Yangon, according to Soe Htet, the regional development minister of the Chin state government. 

Others who came behind her had similarly difficult journeys. Yine Pa, who is also from Mi Let Wa, made the journey with his family of six and another family crammed together in one vehicle. They found a different route up through Chin state, avoiding Rakhine, but they only had enough cash for one meal for each of the two days they travelled, he said. 

More arrived alongside Yine Pa’s family, and the church quickly became too full, so they moved to the huts in Hmawbi with the help of a Chin aid group.

Children who fled recent fighting between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military in Paletwa take refuge at temporary shelters in Hmawbi. (Photo: Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)


Two days after Pyi Tin and her son left their village, while they were still on the road, her husband and two other children moved across the river to take shelter in a school in Paletwa town. The husband now wants to come and join Pyi Tin but is trapped by the fighting. 

In late May, Pyi Tin learned that 60 homes in her village, including hers, had burned to the ground. The AA and the Tatmadaw have blamed each other for the fires. Amnesty International said that the burning of several villages in the region was consistent with Tatmadaw tactics. 

On top of that, the Chin state government reports that over 100 homes from five villages around Paletwa have been destroyed by shelling.

Before the fire, a friend of the family agreed to take care of their animals. But Pyi Tin has little hope she’ll be able to return home any time soon. 

Yine Pa also lost his home in the May fire.

“We don’t know when this war is going to be over. Even when it is, it’ll be years before we can go back to living peacefully,” he said. 

(Translation by Htet Aung Lwyn. Editing by Joshua Carroll)

Related Articles

Back to top button