On a stormy night in June, Rosemary lay in the darkness of her home in a deserted village in Myanmar’s Mindat township, gripped by labour contractions as Mai Nightingale, a 25-year-old midwife, tried to stifle her cries.
Rosemary’s contractions had begun the previous night, but with soldiers approaching her village in southern Chin State, she and the other villagers fled into the forest. But there was no proper shelter from the unrelenting rain, so Rosemary and Mai Nightingale decided to take the risk of encountering soldiers and return the next morning.
“The situation didn’t favour delivering a baby,” said Mai Nightingale. “We saw Burmese soldiers walking towards our village but we couldn’t turn back because [Rosemary] was already exhausted.”
Rosemary’s husband did not dare accompany her for fear that, if seen, soldiers would mistake him for a member of a local armed group. Since a February 1 military coup, civilian defence forces, armed largely with hunting rifles and homemade weapons, have sprung up across the country to fight against the regime, and Mindat has been a hotspot of resistance since May.
In line with tactics the military has used for decades to quash an armed rebellion and terrorise the people, soldiers launched disproportionate attacks on Mindat including firing artillery, rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns into residential areas while imposing martial law, causing the town to empty, according to local media reports. Young men are particularly likely to be targeted.
Rosemary delivered her baby shortly after the sound of soldiers had faded, and Mai Nightingale cut and tied the umbilical cord with a razor blade and some thread which, lacking other means of sterilisation, she boiled in water. Although Rosemary and her baby are healthy and unharmed, the circumstances of the birth highlight the increasing risks which mothers and newborns face amid an escalating humanitarian crisis.
Mai Nightingale and two other nurses interviewed by Al Jazeera, who are providing maternal and newborn healthcare to those displaced by armed conflict, say they are severely limited in their ability to safely deliver babies, and that physical insecurity further imperils pregnant women and newborns amid the continuing violence.
“The main health risks for pregnant women and newborn babies are their lives. They can die during labour or after because they have to run whenever soldiers get closer to where they are hiding,” said a nurse in Loikaw township, Kayah State who goes by the nickname Smile. “There is not enough medical equipment or medicine … Babies cannot get vaccinations or adequate shelter.”
Collapsing health system
Some 230,000 people have been newly displaced since the coup, according to United Nations estimates.
The military has not only attacked civilians but has also cut off food and water supplies to people affected by conflict, shelled displacement camps and churches of refuge, shot displaced people attempting to fetch rice from their villages, and burned food and medical relief supplies along with an ambulance.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s health system has all but collapsed, leaving few options even for those women prepared to risk returning to their town or village to give birth or seek vaccinations or treatment for their babies.
Ongoing medical worker strikes amid a broader Civil Disobedience Movement have left government hospitals threadbare, while some health facilities have shut down altogether. The military has also repeatedly attacked healthcare professionals and facilities and occupied hospitals.