Displaced Kachin residents cross the Malikha River on a ferry on April 26 to escape fighting in Injanyan village near Myitkyina between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar's military. (Photo by Zau Ring Hpara/AFP)
Seng Jar believes she had no choice other than to flee into the jungle when Myanmar's military fighter jets started bombing near her village in Kachin State.
Her group of 300 women, children and elderly fled from Awng Lawt village of Tanai township, an amber and gold mining region, on April 11. The displaced included people who were ill and pregnant women.
"We didn't dare to flee to the nearby town as we feared we might encounter troops on the way," Seng Jar said.
Frantic phone calls seeking help from Baptist leaders were in vain.
"Later we learned that the military didn't allow a rescue mission, so we had to spend days and nights in the jungle," recalled Seng Jar, a 33-year-old mother of two.
The villagers shared rice and collected edible wild plants.
Seng Jar's group on May 8 finally reached a Kachin Baptist church in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State bordering China, where about 600 people had taken refuge.
However, Seng Jar estimated that several hundred more people remained trapped in the jungle area.
Christian churches in Tanai and Latwa townships were also sheltering displaced people.
One of the longest-running civil wars in the world intensified dramatically in April when Myanmar's military stepped up dry-season offensives using helicopter gunships and heavy artillery against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is yet to sign a national peace agreement with the government.
More than 7,400 people — newly displaced amid widespread fighting in eight townships including Tanai, Ingyanyang and Hpakant — have been sheltering at both Catholic and Baptist churches, according to the United Nations.
The Kachin have fought for self-determination and autonomy in the Buddhist-majority country since 1961.
Renewed fighting erupted in 2011 following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire.
More than 120,000 people have remained in 179 internally displaced person camps in Kachin and neighboring Shan State.
Most of the state's 1.7 million Kachins are Christians, including 116,000 Catholics.
Nang Moon, who is eight months pregnant, fled her home in Injangyang township on April 25 when she heard Myanmar's military fighter jets bombing near her village.
"We were trembling with fear, so we decided to leave immediately," said Nang Moon, who was driven from her home for the first time.
Twenty-five women and children trekked into a forested area, eating only rice and sleeping on the ground, before being able to reach an old village where there were still a few dwellings.
On May 15, they joined nearly 750 people already taking refuge at the Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Myitkyina.
"As we had to walk for some days, we suffered from body and leg pain," said one 23-year-old mother.
A largely ignored civil war has been raging in Christian stronghold Kachin while the world's focus has been on 700,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing a military crackdown in western Rakhine State since August, 2017.
Thirty-two Kachin organizations have urged the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for military violations against civilians and denial of humanitarian assistance.
Manam Tu Ja, former leader of the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA, described the fighting as widespread.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi had been unable so far to exert control over the military, said Tu Ja, who is also chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party.
Members of Myanmar's powerful military retain a key role in politics, holding the important portfolios of defense, border security and home affairs, with 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for them.
The government has pledged to bring an end to various decades-long civil wars, but renewed clashes have undermined peace initiatives.
Fighting in Kachin State spilled into northern Shan State on May 12, leaving 19 people dead and 27 injured.
There is little prospect for displaced people to quickly return to their homes.
Joseph Inkhan Tanjar was recently displaced for the first time.
"In the current situation, we can't go back to our homes as Myanmar's military has reinforced its troops in Kachin," said Tanjar, who has taken refuge at the Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Tangphre village, near Myitkyina, together with 1,200 other people.