It was a calm, cool evening at the Mung Lai Hkyet camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Due to the colder weather and cloudy skies, the night arrived earlier, and many women, seniors, and children living there had already retired to their beds, sleeping peacefully surrounded by the Waichyai, Tsinyu, and Shingtawm mountains, completely unaware of what would terrible fate would soon befall them.
Ko Brang Shawng (a pseudonym), aged 40, had just lain down on his bed. He was alone in his house that night after his family had traveled to visit a friend in Laiza, the headquarters for the Kachin Independence Organization/Kachin Independence Army’s (KIO/KIA) situated only two miles away. He could hear the sound of a guitar being gently strummed by some of the remaining youths still awake outside his house.
Brang Shawng distinctly remembers one of them saying that an airplane was coming, but since the State Administration Council (SAC) often flew over their camp, he ignored it. “After I closed my eyes, I heard a loud explosion, and I thought the world had been destroyed! People were crying and shouting ‘help me, help us’.” Children were sobbing in the dark. The horrific ordeal was beyond words, Brang Shawng said. His bamboo house had collapsed and the walls had fallen on top of him, yet he managed to get up and search in the dark for his mobile phone.
He ran to hide in a ravine. “At the time, I wasn’t able to rescue anybody because the Burma army was still attacking Mung Lai Hkyet with heavy weapons from unknown locations.” After the first explosion, SAC dumped at least four shells on the camp. There was no one to rescue them that long night, and there was no cellular service.
Following the 2021 coup, SAC targeted the KIO/KIA, assuming the Kachin armed group was providing resistance groups along the border between Sagaing Region and Kachin State with training and weapons.
Since July, the regime had been launching a massive offensive using ground, air, and navy forces to attack the KIO/KIA around Namsan Yang village, which is close to Laiza and only about 10 miles from the IDP camp. It also fired artillery every night at the Laiza area from its Hka Ya and Bum Re mountain camps.
The eight families who lived at Mung Lai Hkyet IDP camp had to live with the threat of shelling and airstrikes all the time. However, they could only go without sleep for so long. When they slept on that fateful night on 9 October, they didn’t know that many of them would never live to see another dawn.
Brang Shawng said when the sun finally rose behind the mountains, he and the other survivors were in shock at what they saw. Everywhere was covered in blood: it was all over the children’s school bags, their books, and the debris of what was their camp.
A powerful bomb had been dropped between two buildings in the IDP camp, close to an empty field that was used to repair and park vehicles, and it caused a 20-foot deep and 50-foot wide hole, which buried the buildings in soil. The explosion sent shrapnel and debris over a square mile, blowing the roofs and the doors off houses on a nearby mountain.
“It was hell! The velocity of the powerful bomb explosion generated an electrical and magnetic shock that affected metal and electric wires throughout the area,” said Brang Shawng. Teak trees in the lower part of the IDP camp were completely knocked down, he said, and farms about 440 yards away were totally destroyed by the large explosion.
The bombardment killed 29 people in the camp, including 11 children, and 57 sustained serious injuries while 200 homes were completely ripped apart by the explosion. Some of the survivors include children who were studying in Laiza and others who stayed on their farms the night it happened.
The next day, SAC spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun denied responsibility for the attack to its mouthpiece news channels. He blamed the KIO/KIA, saying a stockpile of 105 tons of ammonium nitrite and other explosive devices stored nearby caused the accident.
“Regarding this attack on Mung Lai Hkyet, SAC is trying to cover a dead elephant with a goat skin. They are liars!” another survivor also wishing to remain anonymous told KNG.
KIO/KIA spokesperson Col Naw Bu has told news media SAC’s accusations aren’t true, pointing out they would never keep explosives close to where civilians reside. The Kachin armed group has assembled a team to investigate the incident.
One anonymous female survivor who lost her five children last week after living in the camp for over a decade said, “I have never heard that there was a KIO/KIA landmine warehouse here. It’s fake news. They have created an untrue news story. In my opinion, they deliberately killed the IDPs.” She said that the buses used to park in the empty field where the large explosive was dropped, but they haven’t stopped here for a long time since the fighting started.
In 1980, only ethnic Lisu lived in Mung Lai Hkyet village. About seven years later, when the Burma army launched a massive offensive against the KIO/KIA, approximately 200 people from Htingnu Kawng, and Shangti Ulaw Kawng fled to Laiza and Woichyai and Mung Lai Hkyet, and 40 families settled in Mung Lai Hkyet.
When the Thein Sein government broke a 17-year-old ceasefire with the KIO/KIA and fighting resumed in 2011, villagers from Namsan Yang, Awng Ja, Madee Yang and Gara Yang fled to Laiza. After the Woichyai IDP camp in Laiza started to fill up, over 100 families moved to Mung Lai Hkyet. This time the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provided them with the materials to build huts and later the Metta Foundation also helped out. Eventually, Mung Lai Hkyet was amalgamated into the town of Laiza and renamed Quarter 6.
When the Burma army fired artillery at the area in 2017, some families fled to Woichyai for a month before returning. However, before the recent massacre, 800 IDPs were relocated to Woichyai IDP camp, churches, and schools in Laiza situated right next to the border with China.
A recent artillery strike on the KIO/KIA headquarters has raised concerns about the safety of this area as well.
The National Unity Government that was formed by former lawmakers and other groups opposed to the regime as well as Kachin civil societies have strongly condemned the massacre, demanding action from the international community against Burma army. The groups have also released condolences for the victims.
Until today, the specific details of the bombing remain somewhat of a mystery. The KIO/KIA hasn’t released information about whether a plane or a drone launched the attack.
A youth survivor said it was a junta combat aircraft. “At that time, China also cut off phone service in the area. Whatever they say, in my heart, I know it was the Burma army that killed all of the innocent people.”
For those who lost their mothers and fathers or the parents who lost their children that night, the nightmare never ends for them. They will never stop crying; their tears will never dry up for those they loved, the ones they held most dear in this world.