Civilians bear the brunt of conflict in Karen State
We were all woken from our sleep by the loud noises from vehicles that were reverberating in our ears. They sounded like heavy vehicles on caterpillar tracks.
I reached for my shoulder bag, in which I packed the necessities I would need if I had to run. I initially thought it was the despotic Myanmar army, ready with all their land forces, tanks and other weapons to attack Mutraw district in Karen State and reduce everything to rubble.
"It's just bulldozers constructing a road. Nothing else," our guide said to reassure us.
We were at Day Bu Noh, in territory held by the Karen National Union's Fifth Brigade to survey damage caused by airstrikes by the Myanmar army, which has been dropping bombs on KNU military bases, and civilian houses and schools since March 27.
One of the targets was an area next to the Salween River, on the Thai-Myanmar border just opposite Mae Hong Son's Mae Sariang district.
The air attacks have badly affected many people from over 45 villages in Karen State. At least 8,500 have had to flee their homes and hide in the forests.
Some 2,500 have sought refuge across the Salween in Thailand, but these refugees, who include elderly people, newborns and the sick, were pushed back earlier this month by Thai authorities.
The next day, we walked to survey the damage in Day Bu Noh. Ten minutes after we first heard the sound of drones in the distance, explosions were heard.
Everyone ran to the nearest bunker, keeping low while occasionally looking up to see where the drones or jets were. An exchange was heard over military radio, and after a while, we were told it was safe to leave our bunkers.
Saw Tender, the Mutraw district governor and President of the Salween Peace Park, said it is civilians bearing the brunt of the attacks. The targets of the bombing were not KNU military bases, but civilian houses and schools, and that casualties included civilians.
"If the Myanmar army wants to attack, they should just target KNU military bases. Don't bomb civilians. The catastrophic attack in Day Bu Noh claimed the lives of at least four children and villagers. The damaged buildings were schools attended by Karen children, who are the future of the Karen people," he said.
"The despotic Myanmar army's operations on Karen ancestral land is so inhumane. Villagers are so terrified they cannot live a normal life. They are hiding in the forest, they are trying to seek refuge by crossing over into Thai territory and stay there temporarily," Saw Tender said.
Karen militiamen say the conflict this time around, is probably the most violent in recent history. What is inhumane about the conflict, they said, is that this isn't a military battle.
Rather, the Myanmar army is sending their jets and drones to strike civilians.
People are fearful of more airstrikes. Villagers can hear the sound of Myanmar military reconnaissance aircraft almost every day, if not, several times a day. As a result, many have decided to leave Day Bu Noh for the time being.
Early that evening on our inspection tour, we decided to stay overnight in a deserted building. After a quick wash, we prepared our beds but were mindful we might have to run for it at a moment's notice.
We dared not turn a light on or make any loud noises and kept listening out for the sound of approaching aircraft.
All our necessities, our phones, cameras were stuffed into our shoulder bags. We kept our shoes close by, ready to slip them on and run. We were so scared we thought about keeping our shoes on as we were going to bed, thinking this could help us escape to safety faster.
Initially, the Karen soldiers planned to let us camp by the Yunzalin River, far from buildings that could be targeted by the Myanmar army's air raids.
There is a cliff near there, they told us, under which we could protect ourselves in case of emergency.
"Don't worry too much. Go to sleep. We will keep watch for you," The commanding officer of the unit that looked after us said with a soft voice. In the building, although five Karen soldiers were keeping watch, we weren't able to get much sleep.
We could get injured, or worse, we could die. No one can help us now, we thought. We kept this in mind, although we appreciated all the efforts made by the Karen soldiers to protect us.
"I hear that Thais are showing sympathy toward the Karen fleeing from war. They are donating many things. I really appreciate the kindness of Thais who understand the suffering, the agonies of the Karen people suffering at the hands of the Myanmar army. I really appreciate their understanding," Saw Tender said.
If anything happens, where could we run to? The closest hospital was across the Salween River in Mae Hong Son's Mae Sariang district. News reports said it took almost two days to take those injured during the March 27 attack to the pier in Ban Mae Sam Lap and onwards to hospitals in Sob Moei and Mae Sariang.
All the villagers we talked to were very scared. They didn't feel safe there. They have had to leave their houses behind and stay in the forests, along rivers, or in the mountains. They have to finish their cooking before dark, fearing any light would draw Myanmar military drones.
We laid down but were on edge all the time. We sat bolt upright several times after hearing strange noises or seeing lights in the sky. In the end, we resorted to praying to try and calm our nerves.
Never has a rooster crowing early in the morning sounded so sweet. At least the darkness had gone.
It felt like one of the darkest and longest nights I and the rest of us had ever experienced. But for those having to live with the conflict in Karen State, every night now must be like that. The Myanmar army has invaded their motherland and slaughtered their people. They sought refuge in Thailand, but were pushed out and sent back to face danger.
The gushing Salween continues to flow as it has since time immemorial. Similarly, the generosity of human beings to help fellow human beings continues to flow like before. For the villagers, the Salween was never a line that divided people into two nations.
Rather the Salween is the "mother" who has nurtured many of her descendants -- all of us, who are related by blood from the past to present.
But all of a sudden, someone is treating descendants of the Salween as if they were the "others", and these people are claiming ownership over the Salween, leading to the misery we are experiencing now.
Saw Kha Pay Mu Nu is an environmental and human rights defender working on the Salween.