Burma: Elephants come to the rescue of sick, elderly fleeing Kachin fighting

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People riding on elephants to cross a river as they make their way looking for a shelter in Danai. Working elephants are widely used in the rough terrain of Kachin state. Source: AFP

AS the decades-long civil war continues to rage on in Burma’s northern Kachin state, mahouts and their elephants are doing what they can to help the displaced sick, young and elderly villagers fleeing the fighting.

While sporadic fighting has continued in the region since the breakdown of a ceasefire between the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebel group and Burma’s army seven years ago, rights groups say the army has stepped up its campaign while global attention focuses on the Rohingya crisis, which has seen almost 700,000 people flee to Bangladesh. The fighting in Kachin escalated significantly in mid-January.

The United Nations says more than 6,800 people have fled since April and many civilians remain trapped in conflict zones, unable to escape.

People fleeing the fighting are now sheltering in local churches, existing displacement sites, or staying with host families where they have received initial humanitarian assistance from the government and local organisations.

Travelling through dense jungle and across treacherous rivers is a sad necessity for those hoping to escape, as the people of Awng Lawt found when they were forced to flee.

For three days, the group of villagers took shelter in their paddy fields as the sound of gunfire and fighter jets came ever closer.

But as shells started to fall among their homes, village leaders ordered an evacuation to IDP camps dozens of kilometres away.

The slowest and most vulnerable could only manage to hack through the jungle undergrowth for three or four hours a day.

On May 2, after nearly a month and with food running out, they reached the river where some local elephant owners came to their aid.

Remarkable footage shows Kachin villagers in bright traditional headdresses hoisting youngsters onto the backs of several of the giant creatures to cross the waterway.

“We had some elderly, sick and blind people,” said one villager, preferring not to give his name. “So we asked the mahouts for help to carry those people.”

Working elephants are widely used in the rough terrain of Kachin state, including by rebel groups fighting Burma’s army, which is equipped with helicopters and fighter jets.

Most of the villagers are now in camps but, as the fighting rages, they do not know how long it will be before they can return home.

Burma has been mired in almost continuous conflict with ethnic insurgent groups for more than 70 years.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced by the violence in and around Kachin state, according to the latest UN figures.

Source: Burma: Elephants come to the rescue of sick, elderly fleeing Kachin fighting

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