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Thousands, mostly Christians, flee besieged Myanmar town

Loikaw town is left with only about 20 percent of its people, including its Bishop Celso Ba Shwe and a few priests
In this photo taken on Nov. 23, people rest in a monastery that has turned into a temporary shelter for internally displaced people (IDPs) at a village in Pauktaw township in Myanmar's western Rakhine State

In this photo taken on Nov. 23, people rest in a monastery that has turned into a temporary shelter for internally displaced people (IDPs) at a village in Pauktaw township in Myanmar's western Rakhine State. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 24, 2023 11:47 AM GMT
Updated: November 27, 2023 07:08 AM GMT

Sylvester and his family had no time to think before fleeing their home amid non-stop aerial bombardment and artillery shelling in the civil war-hit eastern Myanmar.

The 65-year-old quickly packed some clothes and important documents like the national registration card and left Loikaw along with his wife, son, and 91-year-old mother in a car on Nov. 14.

“We realized we can no longer stay safe, especially due to our concern for my elderly mother," Sylvester, who goes by a single name, told UCA News on Nov. 22.

Sylvester’s family is among an estimated 40,000 people, mostly Christians, who are said to have fled Loikaw, a town of some 51,349 residents as per the 2014 census.

Ever since the junta took power in February 2021, armed resistance has been developing against it. The junta targets Christian churches and villages, reportedly suspecting them to be hiding grounds of resistance forces.

The shelling since then destroyed several churches in eastern Kayah state (formerly Karenni) and the recent offensive also damaged the Christ King Cathedral in Loikaw.

The latest exodus began as fighting intensified between ruling junta forces and armed rebel groups, including the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, over the control of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state.

Loikaw, which serves as a nerve center of the junta administration in the region, became a war zone as the junta retaliated with indiscriminate air strikes and artillery shelling to keep the rebel forces, which included Christians, at bay.

The fight for Loikow 

The Karenni rebel forces launched an operation codenamed ‘11.11’ on Nov.11, soon after the major offensive in the northern Shan state by the so-called three brothers alliance — Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army — which launched a campaign codenamed “Operation 1027.”

Sylvester’s family had earlier fled their home soon after the coup. But they returned after two months.

This time, the situation is different as fighting has reached their town.

“My mother was terrified when she learned we had to flee again. We told her not to be terrified and keep praying,” recalled Sylvester.

It took the family 10 hours to cover the 181 kilometers to reach Taunggyi town in northern Shan state.

“I hope we will be able to return home this time also,” Sylvester said.

Sylvester is really lucky to have escaped with his family.

After they left Loikaw, he learned about the death of a neighbor after his house was hit by an artillery shell. The neighbor's son also sustained injuries.

Shattered families 

Catherine (full name withheld), another resident of Loikaw, said she had decided to stay put but was pressured to leave by her sons who live in Yangon, the commercial city of Myanmar.

“There were 50 of us living in a house. We dare not sleep the whole night amid the air strikes and shelling,” the 60-year-old mother of two told UCA News.

Catherine and three relatives left the town by car on Nov. 16, while other relatives took motorcycles to reach a safe place in Shan state.

A day later, Catherine left for Yangon to stay with her sons.

However, Bishop Celso Ba Shwe of Loikaw, a few priests and around 50 internally displaced persons (IDPs) continue to stay at the cathedral.

“Two shells fell on the Bishop’s House last week. One caused minor damages while another remained unexploded,” said a Church source who did not want to be named.

Since the offensive began on Nov. 11 some 1,300 people have sought refuge in the cathedral complex, the source said.

Athai, who goes by one name, said he has taken refuge in Christ the King Cathedral along with his seven-member family.

“We now have food but it may get difficult for us in the longer term,” the 53-year-old father of four told UCA News on Nov.22.

'No food, no shelter'

Volunteers helped to evacuate people from the cathedral compound “group by group with the help of other civil society organizations… to the nearest safest parish” in Shan State’s Pekhon diocese, the source said.

Church officials were concerned at the possibility of the junta soldiers taking over the church compound, they added.

“We don’t want deployment of troops inside Catholic churches and other religious buildings in Loikaw diocese for whatever reasons,” Bishop Shwe said in a short message on Facebook on Nov. 13.

Aid groups say the predominantly Christian Kayah state has around 250,000 displaced persons sheltered in 200 camps. Some 80,000 among them are housed in Church-run camps.

Christians make up 46 percent of the state’s 350,000 people. About 90,000 among them are Catholics.

Lynn, a Church social worker from the Pekhon diocese, confirmed many people from Loikaw are sheltered inside churches and villages.

“Around 30,000 people are currently taking shelter in Pekhon who are in urgent need of food, shelter and sweaters as the cold season starts,” she said.

Abandoned parishes 

The junta forces tried hard to stop the people from fleeing Loikaw by establishing road blockades.

Between Nov. 11 and 19, at least 68 civilians, including 10 children and two Buddhist monks, were killed in air strikes in Loikaw and Pekhon township, claimed the Karenni Humanitarian Aid Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Kayah state, bordering Thailand.

Nearly 26 of 41 parishes in the Loikaw diocese have been abandoned.

The priests, nuns and volunteers at parishes in places like Demos and Phruso townships, which were spared the military attacks, are trying to help the displaced people.

The United Nations said the current escalation is now "the largest in scale and most extensive geographically since the early 2021 military takeover."

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