A few sleepless nights passed in Daw Noe Ku as adults took turns watching the skies, leaving their doors open for children to run to bunkers that had been dug outside. Then, on July 12, a little after 1 a.m., the first of five bombs was dropped on the camp of 5,000 residents. By dawn, survivors said, the camp “was finished.”
In one of the world’s most intense conflicts, people forced from their homes are being repeatedly driven from one settlement to another by an aerial bombardment campaign that has increasingly targeted civilian sites.
In the small southeastern state of Kayah, where Daw Noe Ku was located, 60 airstrikes were carried out in the first nine months of 2023 — more than five times in all of 2022 — and at least 11 struck camps where civilians were taking refuge, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
With each attack, aid workers say, families have scattered and spread deeper into the jungles, leaving behind whatever they had been able to accumulate and becoming harder to reach and protect. The United Nations says this population is now one of the country’s most vulnerable.
Traveling on foot and on motorcycle through jagged ravines and dense forest, Washington Post journalists in October were among the first foreign visitors to reach survivors of the Daw Noe Ku airstrike at their new encampment in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand.
At sunrise, mist lifted to reveal several hundred bamboo and tarpaulin shelters clinging to muddy hillsides. Thai authorities have told the refugees they cannot stay. But many here have fled airstrikes multiple times and say that going back is a death sentence. “Not one corner of the country is safe,” said Phrey Reh, 35, a camp leader.
Myanmar’s military, which faces allegations that it carried out a genocide against the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority in 2017, has taken responsibility for attacks on displacement camps, saying they harbor resistance fighters or serve as command centers for resistance groups. But rights groups and conflict analysts say that is rarely true. “There are often no legitimate military targets,” said Manny Maung, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Even in cases in which resistance fighters are living among the displaced, the military has attacked indiscriminately, without giving civilians time to flee, Maung said. In interviews on the Thailand-Myanmar border, former personnel of the Myanmar air force said commanders routinely dismiss civilians in resistance strongholds as supporters of “terrorist” insurgents. “All they tell the pilots is that this is the enemy,” said Moe, a defector who spoke on the condition he be identified only by a nickname because of security concerns. A spokesman for the military did not respond to inquiries for this story.
When the Daw Noe Ku camp was rocked by explosions that July night, Thandar Soe said, her heart was beating so fast she thought she would vomit. After everything went quiet, she begged to leave, she said. She didn’t want to look at the mangled mess of tin, glass and bamboo, or at the man covered in cuts and lying motionless underneath it.
For the 10th time, she fled violence, holding her father’s hand as her family and others filed into the jungle. They crossed into Thailand in the dark, said Thandar Soe, and all she remembers is the smell of her camp burning.
Before the war, Thandar Soe lived in a two-story house that had a bicycle she shared with her sister and a television that played her favorite cartoon, “The Powerpuff Girls.” She was the youngest child of three — the brightest and most spoiled, said her mother, Prein Ma, a middle school teacher. Most days, after finishing her schoolwork, Thandar Soe spent the afternoon cajoling someone to take her to the snack shops in town. In March 2021, those excursions stopped.
Kayah state is home to the ethnic Karenni minority, which is distinct from the Rohingya and has fought the military for decades. Karenni armed groups signed a cease-fire agreement with the Myanmar armed forces in 2012, but after the military coup in 2021, they restarted their resistance — and the junta responded with force.
Kayah sits close to the capital, Naypyidaw, and is a vital channel connecting resistance groups in the south and the north, according to an analysis by the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Within months of the coup, as much as 80 percent of the state’s urban population was forced to flee because of clashes between resistance fighters and the military, said local aid groups.
In May 2021, Thander Soe and her family left their village in Demoso in eastern Myanmar when it was shelled. They moved around for seven months, said Prein Ma, 46, settling in 2022 at a camp tucked behind a hospital. For a while, even as the military bombed settlements elsewhere, that place seemed protected, said Prein Ma. But in February, the junta launched a new multifront offensive into Kayah. Airstrikes escalated, hitting six of the state’s seven townships.
Khun Bedu, the leader of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), a resistance group in Kayah, said the military targeted civilian camps in the belief that fighters were using them as command centers. “We weren’t,” he said, shaking his head. While the KNDF has led what analysts say is one of the most effective ground campaigns against the military, it has struggled to establish safe zones for civilians because of unrelenting airstrikes. “We do not have the ability,” acknowledged Khun Bedu, 39, “to defend against such things.”
In March, when the hospital next to their camp was blown up, Prein Ma told her husband they had to go south, farther than they’d ever gone. Some of their old neighbors had made it to a camp near the border with Thailand, five or six days away on foot. It was safe there, she had heard.
The first group of displaced people set up camp at Daw Noe Ku just after the coup. As violence raged up north, word spread that the settlement was so close to the Thai border that the military would not risk an airstrike there. Families, then entire villages, came in waves. By the time Prein Ma’s family arrived, Daw Noe Ku had a quarantine center, two schools and a church with a tall green spire. Her children started attending school for the first time since they had left home 22 months earlier, Prein Ma said. Her son, 17, resumed playing soccer.
“This was where we were protected. That’s how we felt,” said Ba Blue, 25, a Protestant pastor who had led Sunday services in Daw Noe Ku. But they were mistaken, Ba Blue murmured, lowering his eyes. “It was an illusion.”
When Daw Noe Ku was struck, most residents crossed into Thailand. Many do not want to return to Myanmar. But Thai authorities have made this clear: They cannot stay.
Thai officials have set up checkpoints that have isolated the new settlement from an older Karenni refugee camp and Thai communities. There is no internet access or cellphone service, and only a few aid groups that deliver supplies are allowed in or out.
Officials also have barred the refugees from setting up schools, churches or shops, said camp leaders. So after food was distributed one recent morning, people mostly loitered around their shelters. When they were sure Thai officials had finished their patrols, some volunteers held small, secretive classes for children, who took turns attending lessons. More than half the residents are younger than 20, according to camp records.
Ba Blue, the pastor, spends his days counseling families to keep their faith in God, although he’d been struggling with that himself, he said. As a pastor, he explained, he’d made his peace with dying some time ago. But having to run with nowhere to go — this felt worse than death, he said.
Pray Mar, 13, Thander Soe’s older sister, returned to her shelter with two bowls half-filled with curry and rice. It wasn’t enough, but it was what they had been given, said Prein Ma. As the children ate, she talked to her husband about what to do next.
Thai officials said the camp would be cleared as soon as November. A trickle of people had returned to Daw Noe Ku back in Myanmar, but Prein Ma knew that her children would never feel safe there. Some others had left for home, but Prein Ma had not considered that, either. It was a long way back to Demoso. And aid groups had warned that the jungles of Kayah were now littered with unexploded ordnance.
Prein Ma looked at her younger daughter, slumped on the wooden platform where they slept as a family. Thandar Soe had lost interest in studying since the last attack, becoming listless and quiet. Prein Ma slid a writing worksheet on fireflies toward her. Thandar Soe scrunched her nose. She hated fireflies, she whispered. Try, her mother said. They would run out of daylight soon.
“A firefly only goes around at night,” Thandar Soe scrawled in Karenni, her fringe of bangs falling over her eyes. “Dogs see the light of fireflies and they start howling.”
Her family would stay as long as possible in Thailand, Prein Ma said. They weren’t free here, but at least they were protected from the jets.
That night, as she and her family slept, Myanmar’s air force struck a camp in the northern state of Kachin. Human rights groups said at least 29 people were killed, 11 of them children.