First, the sound of artillery shell explosions landing nearby. Then the fires started to spread, ravaging neighbors’ homes. Next, Nuu Hta, a 57-year-old retired nurse, heard gunshots right outside her home in Thantlang, a small town in northern Chin State.
She later found out that what she had heard was junta soldiers gunning down a local pastor as he arrived to put out fires started by the shelling. Cum Biak Hum, 31, was found an hour after the shooting with two gunshot wounds to his chest.
The soldiers also cut off a finger to steal his wedding ring, a local Baptist group said, adding that they also stole his watch.
Just over a month after the bombing of Thantlang, the town is largely deserted, with the majority of its residents now spread across dozens of villages along the mountainous border with India, where they struggle to survive. .
“No one dares to live in the city anymore,” said Nuu Hta, who rents a simple wooden house in one of the villages. Although she was able to find shelter, she struggles with other basic necessities and lives on a dwindling supply of chickpeas brought from her home.
“Even water is scarce here,” she said. “We live on solar energy, so we only have electricity between 7 and 9 pm and we don’t have a lot of light. “
Nobody dares to live in the city anymore – a local from Thantlang moved
Local aid workers say the situation is becoming dire for an estimated 7,225 displaced people from Thantlang. They are appealing for donations for food supplies and for emergency medical care.
Salai Lian, an officer with the Thantlang Placement Affairs Committee (TPAC), said Chin people living abroad have donated money for relief efforts and local social service groups are also providing support. . But that’s not enough.
“We’re going to be in big trouble if we go another month without any help,” he told Myanmar Now.
As is the case with Nuu Hta, shelter is not an immediate problem for the displaced, who remain in churches, schools and other people’s homes, he said.
Another 4,500 people from other parts of Thantlang township fled the clashes and took refuge across the border in the Indian state of Mizoram, he added.
Clashes started in Thantlang early last month. On September 9, two junta soldiers were killed and four civilians were injured when the local branch of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) ambushed junta forces.
Another clash took place on September 18, just before the army began bombing the city.
Salai Lian said more than 100 internally displaced people staying in the Vailam Mountain Range in Thantlang Township have contracted Covid-19.
“Despite the strict Covid-19 rules in place in the Vailam Hills, many have contracted the virus and we still don’t know how it happened,” he said. Those infected cannot be quarantined and always stay with their families, he added.
A team of doctors participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement helps infected people but needs medicine. No one has died, but some have severe symptoms with worrying blood oxygen levels, Salai Lian added.
At the end of September, there were only about 30 civilians left in the town of Thantlang. A number of others have returned for supplies, but they do so at the risk of being killed by the soldiers of the occupying junta.
On September 30, two people were killed and two others injured when soldiers shot down a vehicle full of Thantlang residents as they returned from a meeting on aid to the town’s displaced people.
A week later, soldiers shot and wounded a man who was driving back to town on a motorbike to bring food to his sister, who is among those who remained behind and suffers from an intellectual disability.
After this incident, on October 13, community and religious leaders went to meet with military officials to try to negotiate a way for residents to return safely to Thantlang.
A number of people traveling in around 40 vehicles were then able to return to pick up supplies. Nuu Hta made the trip to collect blankets, cooking utensils and coats. But the military only authorized travel by issuing an ominous warning.
“The tactical officer said that they never told us not to come back and that we were always welcome to come back, but that they could not stop firing as long as there were resistance,” said said one of the local leaders who went to negotiate.
The situation in Northwest Burma today has some echoes of the situation in Rakhine State in 2017 before the military offensive against the Rohingya – Burma Campaign UK
While the junta has remained largely silent on the growing number of reported war crimes committed by its forces in Thantlang and the wider region, the case of the murdered pastor has attracted enough international attention to warrant denial by the party. of its spokesperson.
Zaw Min Tun said in a statement days after the murder that Cum Biak Hum was hit by a stray bullet. “We are still investigating the death of the pastor,” he said.
Resistance fighters in Chin and neighboring areas expect the junta to launch massive offensives in the coming weeks, and human rights groups fear this will involve scorched earth attacks on civilians .
“The situation in northwest Burma today has some echoes of the situation in Rakhine state in 2017 before the military offensive against the Rohingya,” said Anna Roberts, executive director of the lobby group on Wednesday. Burma Campaign UK, in a statement.
His group urges the British government to convene a meeting on the situation at the UN Security Council.
Thousands of troops have been deployed to Upper Myanmar since the start of this month. More than 80 military vehicles, including three tanks, arrived in Chin town of Mindat from Pakokku township in the Magway region on October 13. A convoy of more than 40 vehicles from Kalay in the Sagaing region arrived in Falam township the day before.
My heart sinks every time I think about when I can get home. I keep praying to God this will end – a local in Thantlang moved
The resistance fighters sought to delay the advance by targeting the convoys with guerrilla-type ambushes. Last week, they said they destroyed half of the vehicles in a convoy on its way to the state capital, Hakha.
With all the signs pointing to a serious escalation in violence, Nuu Hta wonders how she will survive. The food she brought from home is running out and her neighbors in the village who are sheltering her cannot give her as much.
“My heart sinks whenever I think about when I can get home,” she said. “I continue to pray to God that this will end. “