As thousands flocked to vote in Burma’s by-election on April 1, United to End Genocide’s president, Tom Andrews, and I were in Kachin State. Instead of watching lines at polling stations, we went to the front line where bullets — not ballots — are taking center stage.
We hopped in a pick-up truck and traveled a short distance north of the town of Laiza where hundreds of Burmese troops were massing. On a small mountain overlooking a beautiful valley, the Burmese army had stationed 300 troops with reinforcements filling in from behind.
We had hoped to visit a village that had been destroyed recently by the Burmese army, but were told that it would be too dangerous. In the days preceding our arrival, mortar attacks had bombarded the valley, making us a likely target if we were to venture further. We were taken as close as we could get to the Burmese army’s position without putting ourselves — or our driver and translator — at risk.
We were about to head back to town when a pick-up truck came speeding toward us with two older women in the back. As it turned out, Yi Ma Sa and Waw Ma Lay were in the process of fleeing their village after raids by the army had left them without any livestock or livelihoods.
The women told us about how they had hidden in the jungle surrounding their village overnight, not daring to enter their homes until the next day when they were sure the army had left. They now carried with them all the belongings that they could fit on their backs as they made their way toward the safety of Laiza town.
In her parting words, Yi Ma Sa thanked us for coming. She said that she had prayed that the international community would learn about what was happening to the Kachin people and send help. Several days later we heard reports that four Burmese army tanks had been seen near where we had first met the women. Thankfully, Yi Ma Sa and Waw Ma Lay are safe for now, but the shadow of the Burmese army continues to grow in the mountains north of Laiza.