Imphal, Churachandpur— History bears witness to the painful reality that conflicts often cast men into clashes while women and children bear the harshest consequences. In the wake of three months of turmoil in Manipur, the plight of women, particularly expectant mothers and nursing women, in relief camps has been a tragic tale. Both Meitei and Kuki women have borne the heaviest burdens. From the struggle to find a semblance of privacy for breastfeeding to the discomfort of changing sanitary pads frequently due to post-delivery bleeding, their experiences have been marked by hardship.
Amidst the relentless days of adversity, these women have been denied the luxury of freely sharing their thoughts, forced to coexist in cramped relief camps with unfamiliar faces. The Mooknayak's on-the-ground report from relief camps in Churachandpur and Imphal paints a somber portrait of their ordeal.
Nearly three months after the violence in India's northeastern state of Manipur, the hilly Meitei community and the Valley-based Kuki community are forced to abandon their broken, burnt-out homes and save their lives in relief camps in community-dominated areas. It has increased that the Maitei who used to live in the hills have moved to the Maitei-dominated areas or relief camps in the valley after the violence, while the people of the Kuki community who used to live with Maitei earlier have now moved to Kuki-dominated areas or hilly areas.
Churachandpur district, located in a tribal-dominated hilly region 63 km from the capital Imphal, is home to the largest number of people belonging to the Kuki tribe. Although many tribes are living here, the narrative of describing other tribes settled in the hills as Kuki can also be seen throughout Manipur since the violent clash between the majority Maitei and the minority Kuki that began on May 3rd.
Zerry, 35, a volunteer at a relief camp set up by the YVA (Young Vaiphei Association) in an old school building near IB Road District Hospital Churachandpur, told The Mooknayak that around 100 relief camps have been set up in the district. Zerry, who works at Select City Mall in Delhi, had come to his home in March this year after which the violence took place. Then he could not return to work again.
Lamvah Touthang, 33, who lives in the relief camp, gave birth to a baby girl on May 31st, the next day after she arrived at the relief camp. Somehow, she managed to save her life with her husband. Through the forests, she reached this relief camp a month later.
When Lamvah and her husband ran away from home, they had neither money nor clothes. They had nothing but the only clothes they were wearing.
"Every morning, my husband leave the relief camp in search of work to arrange for milk to feed the child, diapers to wear, medicines. But there is no work in such a situation."
"The violence started near Utangpokpi village in Chandel district. People were being shot and their houses were being burnt. Seeing this, we also left our house to save our lives and reached here through the forest. The baby was born at the Churachandpur district hospital the next day after coming to the camp. We didn't have a single piece of clothes when we ran away from home. After the daughter was born, we did not even have clothes to dress her. She is now 2 months old; she needs warm water to be bathed, clothes to wear and medicines. But there is no money. My husband has had no work since the violence began."
"My BP (blood pressure) goes down while sitting here thinking about what to feed, what to wear, what the future will be. I checked the doctor several times. After having a baby, the mother needs protein-rich food, but I have nothing. We have no remedy for these mental sufferings. We demand from the central government that we get separate administration so that we can get peace, we can return to our normal life," said Lamvah Touthang in a frustrated tone.
Lamvah alleges that the central government is providing facilities, medicines, food to the people of the Maitei community living in Maitei relief camps, but the relief camps of the Kuki community are being ignored. "The Maitei people are getting food and other necessities from the central government in relief camps. There, things are being distributed daily to the people by the government. But nothing is found here. There is a shortage of milk, medicines, food grains for the child; we demand from the central government and the state government that we should also be given medicines and food."
Lhingkhotin, 25, who is six months pregnant, arrived at the relief camp on May 17th from Utangpokpi village with two of her family members and her 3-year-old son.
As a pregnant mother, when asked about the availability of diet and medicines in the relief camp, Lhingkhotin said, "There is nothing but dal and rice in the food here. Money is needed to buy other things that are not available. What is available in the camp here, we have to eat this food to survive."
She adds, "Sometimes paracetamol, vitamin medicines are available from the relief camp when there is a fever, but the relief camp does not have enough money to give us enough medicines. The road between Imphal and Churachandpur are blocked. Nothing is coming from outside. Whatever little is being received here, is coming from Mizoram. The things that are available here are also expensive. Things for a balanced diet are available from the market, but you need money to buy! Who will give us? ...We have no choice. should we die of bullet or of hunger!"
"The media is saying it was ethnic violence, but we believe it was state-sponsored violence on tribal people," Lhingkhotin told The Mooknayak in her local dialect. Our houses were burnt, we ran into the forest to save our lives, then escaped to the relief camp."
Christy, aged 30 and hailing from the YVA relief camp, sheds light on the pivotal support offered by the church, contributing 90 percent of funds to sustain camp operations. Expressing concern, Christy laments the absence of government assistance, questioning the sustainability of their current situation.
Turning to another relief camp in Churachandpur district, The Mooknayak delves into the Rengkai Relief Camp housed within a converted high school complex. This haven accommodates 378 refugees, encompassing 191 male victims and 187 female victims. Among them, 72 families have sought refuge from the violence, alongside 99 boys aged 17 and above, and 87 individuals within various relief camps. Furthermore, the camp shelters 30 boys and 27 girls aged above 5 years, reflecting the varied demographics of those seeking solace.
Fleeing the confines of Sugunu village in Churachandpur district following a dispute in May, Boithem, 23, and her husband Lalminthang, 30, left their home immediately after facing an attack. Lalminthang, Boithem's husband, shared with The Mooknayak the ordeal they encountered regarding medical support following the birth of their child. "After the childbirth, the district hospital provided some medication. Yet, subsequently, we were informed of the unavailability of necessary medicines," he conveyed, expressing his remorse for being unable to provide his wife with the vital nutritious sustenance she requires as a new mother.
Voicing her apprehension over nurturing her child in the confines of the relief camp, Boithem divulged her heartache to The Mooknayak, revealing, "When the echoes of sobbing reverberate in this room, my child's cries resonate even more. Yet, our hands are tied – we have no alternatives. The future remains uncertain, veiled in ambiguity."
In an attempt to grasp the government's stance on the ordeal within the relief camps grappling with the scarcity of medicines and ration deficits in Churachandpur district, The Mooknayak team sought an audience with Deputy Commissioner (DC) Dharun Kumar and asked about the inadequacy of medical provisions for the health-related concerns faced by the displaced inhabitants.
He said in such a situation people may be facing various health issues, although the government is making best efforts to provide food supplies in these camps. Moreover, Churachandpur DC offered insights into the comprehensive list outlining relief camp names and the corresponding materials slated for distribution, unveiling the administration's approach to address these pressing concerns.
Nestled 45 kilometers from the capital Imphal, the Khoyol Keithel Camp in the Moirang area shelters a total of 269 refugees, predominantly hailing from the Maitei community. Among them, 36 children and 32 girls, aged between 1 and 12, have sought refuge since the outbreak of ethnic violence.
Tamphasana Loima, a 24-year-old, fled her home when the conflict between the Kuki and Maitei communities ignited. Taking refuge in a makeshift camp in Moirang, she arrived on May 3 with her five-month-old child. With a voice laden with tears, she confided in The Mooknayak, "Both my child and I are unwell. The community members managing this camp are offering support. We were attacked by the Kuki people, compelling us to seek safety here." Her voice quivering, she continued, "Every day since my arrival, I've shed tears. I long to escape this situation, to reunite my family and regain a sense of normalcy through work."
Residing in the relief camp alongside her husband and other family members, Tamphasana has spent months grappling with insecurities, health challenges, and familial distress. She shared, "The Kuki people razed our homes to the ground. Where can we possibly find shelter now? They're inflicting harm and occupying our spaces. The turmoil they ignited continues unabated. Why subject innocent lives to such havoc? Fear has gripped all of us here, a fear that defies articulation. We're trapped in an indescribable existence."
Assisting the distressed as a volunteer at the Khoyol Keithel Camp, Kumam, aged 35, shared with The Mooknayak that the majority of those seeking refuge at the relief camp belong to the Maitei community.
Among them is Sumila's (24) entire family, who have resided in the same relief camp since May 3. Six months pregnant, Sumila navigates her circumstances alongside her first child, one-year-old Denson. While governmental hospitals offer complimentary check-ups and medicines, some prescriptions remain unfulfilled, necessitating purchases from external medical sources. The financial constraint poses challenges in securing the required medications, although the compassionate individuals within the relief camp provide monetary assistance for this purpose.
Crucially, the relief camp's location is over 45 kilometers away from Imphal. This geographical reality accentuates concerns, particularly for pregnant women who must navigate such distances in precarious circumstances. The specter of violence looms, rendering these journeys even more unsettling. This worry is further compounded by the presence of Kuki people in several areas of Imphal, where the Maitei community resides amidst potential unrest.
Sumila clarified that her house remained unscathed by the flames, yet her family fled the premises driven by fear upon witnessing the violence unfold in close proximity.
Laisham Priya, 29, who lives in a relief camp with her two children and husband, has a 7-month-old baby girl in her lap. She has been living here for three months and said that the relief camp provides rice, salt, lentils, oil, vegetables, which have to be made on their own.
Responding to The Mooknayak's question on what she thinks about her future concerns, she says, "I'm nervous about what to say? There is a lack of everything. There is a greater need for support and attention from the government and leaders, because there is no money in hand, no work."
Sanatombi Chanu, 23, a first-year BA student, also lives with her family in the relief camp. The Mooknayak asked Chanu how she sees the situation. On the current situation, she says, "Right now our house has been burnt. We have small children with us in the relief camp. Where will we go? What was the fault of us that the Kuki people attacked us, burnt our houses, if a thief steals, only a few items are lost, but if your house is burnt, everything is gone."
Santombi Chanu further says, "There are many people in our family. But at the moment our mother is somewhere else, our father is somewhere else, the whole family is scattered in different relief camps, we can't even see each other's suffering."
Responding to The Mooknayak's question about the health concerns of pregnant women living in the camp, Chanu said, "There is no arrangement for the delivery of pregnant women who are here right now. The circumstances, the difficulties that the pregnant mother is facing, the limited food arrangements that are in place will have a direct impact on her child."
A relocation has occurred for a relief camp in Konjengbam, which previously housed 350 victims. This group has been resettled into another relief camp, now accommodating 13 boys aged 12 and 12 girls. Inquiring about the availability of necessary health facilities, medicines, and nutritious sustenance typically essential for expectant mothers, The Mooknayak was met with uncertainty. A daunting journey of 61 kilometers to Imphal is required for medical check-ups. Currently, medications are accessible, along with complimentary health assessments. Nevertheless, the unpredictability of the future looms, leaving one interviewee in a state of limbo. Despite feeling in good health at the moment and receiving meals, the essentials tailored to pregnant women remain elusive.
K. Anand Singh, the director overseeing the Konjengbam Community Hall's operations, shared with The Mooknayak that the onset of the relief camp witnessed the unfortunate demise of a single individual. Notably, this passing was not attributed to any ailment. Rather, the woman's advanced age of 72 led to her natural passing, devoid of any underlying health concerns, as Anand Singh clarified.
Upon The Mooknayak's team's arrival at the Konjengbam Community Hall, a poignant sight unfolded – more than a dozen women and girls engrossed in training sessions organized by a local institution, aimed at equipping them with the skills to craft women's makeup products. This initiative harbours a dual purpose: facilitating employment opportunities for these women while enabling them to generate income. Upon completing their training, participants will be provided with the necessary raw materials, compensated for their efforts in producing the items. Presently, their creative endeavours are focused on crafting products related to women's makeup.
A query arises: Is this training exclusively confined to the Victims Relief Camp of the Maitei community, or does it extend to include the Kuki community's affected members? Rimson Wangjam, a trainer queried by The Mooknayak, responded with a mixture of trepidation and a tentative smile, "For now, our efforts are solely directed towards the Maitei camps, where we are training women. Venturing into the Kuki camps poses a risk to our safety. That's why we refrain from extending our activities there," he stated candidly.
K. Anand Singh, aged 49, the administrator behind the Konjengbam Community Hall, which commenced operations 5-6 days after the outbreak of caste-based violence in the region, recounted the camp's inception. In those early days, it was the benevolent contributions of neighbours, friends, and community members that extended vital aid in the form of sustenance and shelter to those in need.
In a heartwarming display of solidarity, social organizations within Manipur also stepped forward. These altruistic gestures yielded donations of rice, oil, clothing, and other essentials, all of which were meticulously disseminated amongst the camp's inhabitants. Acknowledging the ongoing financial constraints, given the protracted duration of this endeavour spanning more than three months, Anand Singh emphasized the camp's unrelenting commitment to securing food and lodging for the afflicted. However, the duration of this support remains uncertain, and he earnestly appealed to the government for a timely resolution.
His plea also carried a vision of harmony, calling for the coexistence of the two communities, united under their shared Indian identity. "We are Indians; we aspire to live as Indians," K. Anand Singh said to The Mooknayak, encapsulating the camp's noble aspiration.
Directly facing the Konjengbam community hall, an improvised facility has been set up using a plastic sack to serve as a makeshift bathing and changing area for women residing in the relief camp. However, this makeshift arrangement falls short in terms of ensuring women's safety and privacy, particularly given the significant number of women in need.
The temporary Konjengbam Community Hall relies on a solitary pond as its source of clean and potable water, essential for various purposes including washing. Regrettably, the pond's condition is far from ideal, with a significant portion marred by dirt and contamination. On one side, wooden planks have been assembled, enabling the women in the relief camp to draw water from the pond. Nonetheless, the insufficient state of this water source poses challenges for maintaining hygiene and cleanliness.
Unraveling the intricate tapestry of factors that ignited the flames of ethnic violence proves to be a perplexing endeavor. Multiple layers of causality shroud the true origins of the conflict that has gripped Manipur. Among the myriad rationales put forth, a prominent thread concerns the yearning for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, a demand championed by the Meitei community. Simultaneously, the Kuki populace contends with the constraints imposed upon their rights. This intricate interplay forms the initial strand.
A second strand finds its roots in the actions of Manipur's governmental administration, led by N. Viren Singh. An initiative undertaken to stem the tide of drug cultivation among the Kuki people has inadvertently sowed seeds of discontent and dissonance within their ranks. The Kuki community perceives these measures as stifling impositions, thus triggering a reaction akin to a symphony in discord.
A third facet is entwined with claims over territorial rights, a dimension equally vital in this complex narrative. Concurrently, a fourth factor emerges from the shadow of whispers and speculations. The catalyst for the eruption of violence on both fronts is attributed to a rumor, as elusive as smoke, which permeated the air in May 2023. This rumor suggested the alleged rape of a Meitei woman by a Kuki individual.
These factors, woven together, form a tapestry of tension and strife that shrouds Manipur in uncertainty.
In the wake of these events, a relentless clash unfolded between the Kuki and Maitei communities, resulting in an unsettling dichotomy. The very areas that were once shared by these communities, fostering unity in times of both joy and sorrow, have now metamorphosed into contested buffer zones. A divide now prevails, with Kuki individuals prohibited from entering Maitei-dominated regions and vice versa.
The aftermath paints a grim picture, with casualty counts standing at a staggering 130 fatalities and over 400 wounded individuals, primarily from the Kuki minority and the Maitei majority. Authorities have intervened, deploying security forces to mitigate the escalating violence. Tragically, over 60,000 residents have been uprooted from their homes, forced to seek refuge in unfamiliar locations, a testament to the far-reaching consequences of this ethnically-fuelled conflict.