Displaced by Myanmar violence: "Everything was on fire"

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MEIKTILA, 25 March 2013 (IRIN) - Ma Kyi, a 30-year old widow, wonders whether she will ever be able to return home. She is among 3,600 newly displaced people staying at Basic Education High School No. 1, in the central Myanmar town of Meiktila, following deadly sectarian violence between Buddhist and Muslim residents last week.

On 22 March, Burmese President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in four townships - Meiktila, Thazi, Wandwin and Mahlaing - and ordered the military to assist in quelling the violence, the worst to shake the country since clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine State in 2012.

At least five mosques were set ablaze and scores of homes burned, and at least 20 people are reported to have been killed since the violence began, but exact figures remain unknown. According to local authorities, more than 10,000 people have been displaced and are now living in six camps, including five schools and a local football stadium.

Ma Kyi told IRIN about her ordeal.

"Never in my life could I imagine this. It all happened so fast. Everything was on fire. We barely escaped with our lives. Everything I owned and worked for is gone. I have no idea what happened. Total strangers set my home and shop ablaze, but for what?

"I have no idea how we are ever going to recover from this. My husband had died earlier, and I was already struggling to support my family and two-month-old son. Now all we have are the clothes on our backs.

"What is the worst, I lost my medicine in the fire, which I need for my blood pressure and kidney disease. I had no choice but to leave it behind to get my elderly parents to safety. Now if I fall ill, I don't know what will happen to my son. I haven't been able to breastfeed my son since becoming ill earlier and had been feeding him milk powder. Now I have nothing and he looks so weak.

"When the violence broke out, we didn't know what to do or where to go. We were afraid we would be killed by the Buddhist mobs roaming the streets. In the end, my parents, my brother and I fled to the woods with our neighbours. Altogether there were about 200 of us.

"There, we stayed hidden for three days without food and water. Although it was hot and [we] had nothing, we didn't dare return, nor could we sleep. We had to be very careful when going around.

"It was impossible to think straight as we heard a lot of rumours - threats that people were watching us and would attack us at night.

"Finally, on the fourth day the police arrived. Thanks to their help, we were able to safely leave the woods and take shelter in this school.

"We had never experienced anything like this before, and I don't even know how this started. Never before has there ever been such fighting between Muslims and Buddhists before.

"I want to return to my home, but don't even know if that's even possible. I'm shocked at what I have witnessed."