‘Anything Can Happen’. Why Kuki Women In Assam’s Camps Fear Returning To Manipur

Resources are sparse at this refugee camp in Silchar but women from Manipur who have sheltered here with their families do not want to return home yet

On an overcast August afternoon, Hoikholing Lhingboi sits on a bamboo plank at a relief camp in Hmarkhawlien village. An hour from Silchar, a crowded town in southern Assam, the camp has been home to Lhingboi and her family, Kukis from Mongbung village in Manipur’s Jiribam district, for the last three months.

The camp, which looks like a run-down warehouse, has three large rooms with small spaces allocated to each family. Outside, the Indian flag stands on a wall, fluttering in the breeze. 

The camp, administered by district authorities of Cachar, now mostly has women and children because many men have returned home to guard their properties.

A refugee camp for displaced people from the Kuki tribe in Cachar district of Assam / Sanskrita Bharadwaj

The rations come from the state government, philanthropists and well-wishers. Families occupy small spaces where they keep their sparse belongings – clothes, food, bags. Everyone sleeps on the floor on blue tarpaulin sheets. The days are scorching hot and the few ceiling fans inside offer little respite, also because there are frequent power cuts. Children run around or hide behind their elders. 

Lhingboi and her family fled home with just a few clothes. Meitei and Kuki representatives had held a peace meeting the day before they left acknowledging that both sides would protect the other, she says. “But by night, we realised that it was a fake agreement,” she recalls, adding that even though army personnel reached the village, Kuki families decided to leave because there was no assurance there would be no violence after the army left. “We were afraid and anxious, that’s why we decided to leave,” said Lhingboi, a petite, grey-haired woman in her 50s. 

A refugee camp for displaced people from the Kuki tribe in Cachar district of Assam / Sanskrita Bharadwaj

On May 6, Lhingboi, along with her husband and her third child – a 10-year-old daughter – left home. There was talk that some Kuki homes had been burnt down in nearby areas. Though Lhingboi had not witnessed any of this violence and arson herself, it had seemed safer to seek refuge someplace outside Manipur.

The family set out on a tiring, two-hour journey to Assam, first a ride on a rickety wooden boat across the Jiri river and then a long walk the rest of the distance.

Jiribam district has a mixed population of Meiteis, Kukis, Hmars, and also Bengalis. Instances of violence were not reported here – it is far from the troubled districts of Imphal and Churachandpur – and curfew has been relaxed. But women, children and elderly remain at the camps, afraid to return.

“Jiribam is fairly safe and itna garbar nahin hai abhi wahaan pey (there is no tension there now). But what if something happens to our children and the elderly? We feel safe here in Assam,” Lhingboi said.

On May 3,  ethnic violence broke out in Manipur between the Meitei people, a majority that lives in the Imphal valley, and the Kuki-Zo community from the surrounding hills. As of July 29, 181 people have been killed in the violence. More than 300 have been wounded and tens of thousands of people have been displaced

Violence erupted after the Kuki-Zo community protested against the Meiteis’ demands for reservation in jobs and educational institutions. There were also fears that Meiteis would be allowed to acquire land in areas currently reserved for tribal groups. 

On April 14, 2023, acting on a writ petition by the Meitei Tribe Union that demanded the Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community, the Manipur High Court ordered the state government to send a recommendation to the central government. To protest the High Court order, the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur, called for a peaceful protest on May 3. After one of these rallies, clashes between Kuki and Meitei groups began near the border between the Churachandpur and Bishnupur districts of Manipur.

Men Have Returned, Women And Children Remain

A few days after violence broke out in Manipur, around 1,200 men, women and children took shelter in around 12 camps in Assam’s Cachar district, as per news reports.

Most men who accompanied their family members to the relief camp in Assam, have returned to their villages in Jiribam, Lhingboi said. “They are guarding and looking after our houses now,” she said. “We want to go back but the ones who are back home tell us: ‘Mat aao (don’t come), what if violence starts again?’” 

The largest room in the camp houses around 150 persons, the other two have 60 and 20. An area behind one of the large rooms has been converted into a make-shift kitchen where women sit chopping vegetables, washing rice and cooking for the camp’s residents.

Kimneichoy Singson, 18, from Phaitol village in Jiribam district, had moved to Silchar to join a “better” high school. But she has joined her mother, grandmother and four-year-old nephew at the camp. “Before this incident, everyone was staying together. Now my uncle and aunty are back in our village,” she says. With schools closed for vacation, Singson has time to help her family.

It is not safe yet for vulnerable refugees to return, Singson says. “What if something happened to our grandmother? We won’t be able to carry her around. Even my nephew is very young, so it was also for his safety,” she says. “Especially at night, it’s not safe. We can’t say anything [about what might happen].” She also added that some people from their village fled to the other neighbouring state of Mizoram.

18-year-old Kimneichoy Singson from Phaitol village in Jiribam district is living in a relief camp in Hmarkhawlien village in Cachar district of Assam / Sanskrita Bharadwaj

Lhingboi recalls reading on Facebook that Kuki-dominated areas such as Churachandpur and Kangpokpi in Manipur were hit by extreme violence. “That pained us a lot,” she says. Lhingboi also has two older sons, the elder one is guarding their home and village while her younger son is at a relief camp in Kangpokpi in Manipur. “He fled Imphal where he was studying science in college. Now he is with his aunty at a relief camp in Kangpokpi,” she says.

Assam, she says, is peaceful, and perfect strangers have stepped in to help them here, especially with food and ration. “We have been getting relief material from lots of places – places that I haven’t been able to keep a track of. People have also come to visit us from outside. But we are worried about our children and their future,” she says.

Scarred By Viral Video

In July, a video of two women being paraded naked by an unruly mob in Manipur had sparked outrage across the country. The  women who belong to the Kuki-Zo tribe were dragged around and groped by a mob of men who then proceeded to push them into a field where at least one of them is believed to have been gangraped. As has been documented in the past, women’s bodies are often used as battlefields to fight wars of different kinds.

A middle-aged woman living in the camp who has three daughters and has seen the video spoke to Behanbox of her concerns. “In Manipur, girls are getting raped and killed. I am terrified of keeping my daughters there. But I feel comparatively safe here in Assam, and that’s why I’m here with all my daughters,” says the woman who chooses to remain anonymous.

According to Mary Grace Zou, convener of the Kuki-Zo Women’s Forum, Delhi, most Kuki refugees do not want to return  home because they fear for their lives. “In Imphal valley, the violence was sudden, forcing everyone to flee. I can recall a woman telling me how she broke a leg as she jumped a fence to escape violence. People didn’t even know what to carry with them, they just ran to save their lives,” says Zou. “One of the women who was paraded naked, her father and brother were killed, and the police didn’t do anything. The police have been a silent spectator and let the mob do whatever they wanted to.” 

Though there were no incidents of sexual assault in her district, the assault video shook everyone, says  Lhingboi. “It happened to our community members which was difficult for us to watch. It destroyed our peace,” she says.  

Kapa, a man in his 40’s, who wished to be referred to by his first name, fled from his village in Pherzawl district of Manipur along with his pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. With them was also his 95-year-old mother. “Gondogul (something fishy) happened about 10-15 km away from my village and I wanted to save the women of my family, so we reached here,” he says. “Meel hoga toh jayega Manipur but nahin hoga toh nahin jayega (If there is some kind of truce, we will go back to Manipur, else we won’t).”

Meanwhile, ethnic violence has erupted again in Manipur – three Kuki men were killed in the Tangkhul Naga-dominated Ukhrul area on August 18. According to The Indian Express, the three victims had been designated as village guards by the locals. 

Zou points to the prejudicial statements made by the state and the Centre about Kukis that paint them as poppy cultivators and narco terrorists. “The home minister’s statements also appeared to tread the line of the Manipur government, indicating that the Kukis are illegal immigrants from Myanmar,” she says.

“Our Children Are Falling Sick”

Most mothers Behanbox spoke to at the camp said their children have been falling ill with the flu, and often complained of headaches. 

Nengboi, who also wanted to be referred to by her first name, left her village Phaitol in Jiribam district and crossed over to Assam in May. She speaks very little Hindi and English but managed to convey that she remained at the camp with her four children while her husband was back in their village. 

All her children are unwell, she says. “For now, the food is free but there is a shortage of money for medicines. What can I do?” she asks. Zairem Hmar, who belongs to the Hmar tribe and lives in Hmarkhawlien village itself where the relief camp is situated, told Behanbox that there are a few pregnant women at the camp. “Some gave birth here at the nearest health centre about five minutes away,” she says, confirming that many children at the camp are sick.

Nengboi left her village Phaitol in Jiribam district and crossed over to Assam in May / Sanskrita Bharadwaj

But, in the midst of all the gloom, there is reason for hope: the Union High School in Hmarkhawlien has arranged for children from the camp who study in Class 1-7 to be taught at the school between 6am to 8.30am. “There is no other place for them to study,” says 42-year-old Kholnei Chongloi, a refugee from Pangot village in Jiribam, adding that the elders at the camp have taken the responsibility of teaching the children.

Meitei Exodus From Mizoram

While Kuki refugees from Jiribam stay on at the Silchar shelter, several members of the Meitei community from Manipur who were living in neighbouring Mizoram too  have reached Silchar.

Reports said that around the last week of July, more than 1000 Meites fled Mizoram a day after a Mizo organisation known as Peace Accord MNF Returnees’ Association (PAMRA) – a former underground armed wing – asked them to leave for their “own safety” citing “anger among Mizo youths” over the viral video. Mizos and Kukis are ethnically related, as are the Chins of Myanmar and the Chin-Kukis of Bangladesh.

In a guest house in Lakhipur area of Cachar district, not too far away from the relief camp for displaced Kukis, a few Meitei people had been taking shelter.  

Behanbox met a 42-year-old Meitei woman who did not wish to be identified because she said she was tired of talking to the media. She along with her family members had left Lunglei town in Mizoram where they had been living for the past 18 years.

At a guest house in Lakhipur in Cachar district of Assam where a few Meiteis have taken shelter after they left their homes in Mizoram / Sanskrita Bharadwaj

“We didn’t feel secure so we left,” the refugee woman told Behanbox. Earlier they had stayed at a relief camp at Sonai, not far from where they are now, she says. There were around 80 Meiteis here initially but now the numbers are down to 40 after many left for Imphal via Guwahati. “If the condition becomes normal and there are negotiations between the Centre and the chief ministers of Mizoram and Manipur, we would like to go back,” says the woman. “My daughter couldn’t finish her exams because of the crisis.”

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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