A landmine explosion. Clashes. Homes destroyed.
This is an all too familiar story in Myanmar, where many have lost their homes during clashes. Some have been unable to return to their villages for years.
“We faced many challenges before we came back to our village,” says Aung Saw Tun from his home in Rakhine State in Myanmar. “Being displaced, I am worried about where we will run for safety, as the risk of fighting remains.”
Aung Saw Tun was among hundreds who were forced to flee their homes as clashes led to crackdowns and the destruction of civilian houses across central Myanmar in 2020.
Now, he and his family have returned to their village. But starting life from scratch brings with it new challenges, how to earn a living being one among many.
Being forcibly displaced can mean relying on the goodwill of relatives, other families or humanitarian assistance. But such assistance rarely provides long-term solutions. For those who want to return home, to rebuild or restart their lives, the decision is often tied to whether they will be able to support themselves financially.
“At the moment, we receive a subsidy and we run our own business,” says Aung Saw Tun. “If possible, I would like to open a small shop at home while raising chickens.”
Aung Saw Tun and his family are part of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) project that helps displaced communities returning home to support themselves by creating livelihood opportunities. The project engages with communities to identify the ways in which they can support themselves and then provides them with financial assistance through cash grants to get them started.
With the money he received through the project, Aung Saw Tun started a business making and selling traditional bamboo hats, and is now looking to expand into selling chickens.
About 90 families, or more than 400 people, across Pha Yar Paung and Taung Pauk villages of Rakhine’s Kyauktaw Township were supported through the project in late 2021 and early 2022.
“I ran a pig farm in the past,” says Hla Saw Khaing, who was also part of the cash grant project. “Because of the conflict, I could not afford to raise pigs myself, but now it is possible.”
As the primary carer for her mother, Hla Saw Khaing needs to work from home and has started raising pigs again from her yard.
Hla Saw Khaing was forced to live in a displacement camp with her mother after her house was set on fire amidst clashes. “When I came back home from the camp, I was very sad because there was nothing left in my house,” she says. “There was no food to eat. It was not good for our health. This was no place to live. I didn’t even have 50 kyats left. It was very sad to lose everything.”
Not everyone who is forcibly displaced ends up staying in a temporary camp for shelter. Some stay with friends, or in monasteries or churches. Others, like Aye Yoin Thar, find shelter with relatives.
When Aye Yoin Thar first returned to her village a year ago, emergency assistance from aid organisations helped to some extent, but it was no substitute for a safe and sustainable source of income. “We were unable to make ends meet,” she says. “So, I brought vegetables from my garden and sold them for four or five months, but I haven’t been able to do that since I have been sick.”
With the help of the ICRC, Aye Yoin Thar has been able to open a small grocery store, and already has plans to expand the family business.
“Before the fire, our family made dough and ran a tea shop,” she says. “We are thinking of doing the same again.”
In Rakhine, following the waves of displacement caused by clashes in 2012, 2017 and 2019, some families who were displaced are slowly starting to return home. Often facing ongoing safety concerns as well as the challenges of rebuilding a life and thinking of the future, the decision is a difficult one. Above all else, returning home should be a decision solely for those who are displaced. Opportunities for a safe and sustainable future, with health and dignity, need to be minimum conditions.
No matter whether families stay or return after a conflict, planning for the future is vital.