By: Aribam Bishwajit and Khumanthem Dhanachandra
Imphal, Oct 7:
As conflict casts its shadow, the intimate comfort once associated with “home” in Manipur has been reshaped by fear, hope, and endurance. The state has been grappling with escalating violence for the past five months, a situation the government has found challenging to quell. Despite the prevailing unrest and the government’s struggles to restore complete peace and stability, concerted efforts are underway to return a semblance of the normal life citizens once knew just five months prior. As part of its mitigation measures, the government has intensified security arrangements, facilitating the safe return of its people to their homes. However, the harsh reality remains that many homes have been lost amidst the chaos. In a heartening development, around 550 residents recently made their way back to Phougakchao Ikhai. Thanks to the unwavering determination of those who chose not to evacuate, approximately 850 villagers are gradually finding their rhythm in leading everyday lives amidst the turbulence. While some took refuge at their relative’s homes during the tumultuous period, a considerable number found solace in relief camps scattered throughout Manipur.
Though many residents have made the journey back to their homes, a palpable undercurrent of fear persists, preventing them from finding solace even within their own walls. The looming threat of the Kuki militants’ possible nocturnal attacks keeps many awake at night, their sleep disrupted by the ever-present apprehension of impending violence. Hemam Prameshori’s tale stands as a stark testament to the threats they face. Her home bears the scars of a brutal assault by suspected Kuki militants – a gaping hole in the roof left by a bomb, accompanied by multiple bullet holes piercing the walls and the roof. Standing amidst the ruins of what was once her sanctuary, Prameshori recounted the harrowing experiences she’s faced in the ongoing conflict between the Meitei and Zo-Kuki communities. The strife, which erupted on May 3, has shown no signs of abating, further deepening the residents’ anxieties as it extends into its sixth month.
The lingering dread in Prameshori’s voice was palpable as she continued her harrowing tale. “We occupy our home during the daylight hours, but as the sun sets, we find ourselves compelled to lock up and abandon it for the night. The haunting fear of another attack by the Kuki militants is ever-present,” she explained, her eyes reflecting the weight of her ordeal. Left without a steady source of income, she and her family now rely on the kindness of good Samaritans who bring food donations to the strife-torn region. Her voice quivered as she took a painful trip down memory lane, “The assault on May 3 was particularly brutal. They rained down stones upon us, leaving me battered with bruises covering my back, bottom, and legs. The memories of that day envelop me in sorrow every time they cross my mind.” Tragedy compounded for Prameshori when the sole means of her livelihood, a quaint eatery she ran, was razed to the ground in a bombing incident.
The stories of loss and displacement seem endless. Chanam Ibohal from Phaojakhai Makha Bazar (Kangvai) is yet another poignant testament to the devastation that the ongoing conflict has wrought. He recounted the dreadful day when his house, a symbol of years of hard work and memories, was set ablaze by the Kuki community. The roaring flames left behind nothing but ash, making it impossible for him to return to the land where his home once stood proudly. Now, bereft of his once-cherished home, he finds solace in a relative’s residence in Phougakchao Ikhai.
However, the loss of his home was just the tip of the iceberg. With the destruction came the crippling loss of his livelihood. The financial burden of these twin calamities weighed heavily on Ibohal’s shoulders, forcing him to make painful decisions. “I had recently enrolled my son in Xtra Edge School in Imphal after his high school graduation, hoping for a brighter educational path for him. But with our home gone and my income sources obliterated, I had to swallow my pride and approach the school authorities, requesting a refund of the admission fee,” he shared, a veil of sadness covering his eyes. Continuing with a mix of resignation and hope, Ibohal added, “My son now attends a Government school in Moirang.”
The tales of displacement resonate with a common thread of homesickness and an indomitable will to return. Aheibam Nandababu, an octogenarian from Phougakchao Ikhai Mamang Leikai, embodies this sentiment. When violence took to the streets, endangering countless lives, Nandababu found himself sprinting away from the only home he had known, seeking refuge with his son at Takyel Khongbal in Imphal.
However, even after months of relative safety and the comforts of a sturdy building in Takyel Khongbal, Nandababu’s heart yearned for his familiar abode, no matter its condition. The modern confines of the city could never replace the nostalgia and attachment he felt for his ancestral home.
After a four-month stay away, Nandababu recently made the journey back. The resilience evident in his stance and the fire still burning in his aged eyes, he declared with unyielding determination, “Even if a thousand guns were aimed at my doorstep, I would not be driven away again.” Emphasizing his deep-rooted love for his homeland, he continued, “No matter the grandeur of the city buildings, my heart always ached for my humble home in Phougakchao Ikhai.” Now, back on the familiar soil of his homeland, every heartbeat of Nandababu’s aged chest reverberates with a promise – a promise to protect, cherish, and never leave his beloved home, come what may.
Namoijam Sanajaobi, a survivor of the harrowing communal conflict, has sought refuge at the Sandong relief camp, her temporary abode now shared with approximately 12 family members and many other families. The return to her ancestral home became an impossibility after it was reduced to ashes by Kuki militants during the height of the confrontations. These journalists encountered a heartbroken Sanajaobi, who briefly stopped at Phaogakchao Ikhai Bazar as she returning to relief camp.
Even though she lives in a relief camp in the Sandong area, she had made the painful decision to witness the remnants of her home before returning to the relief camp. A voice heavy with emotion, she recounted, “The moment my eyes fell upon the ruins of what was once my home, a surge of tears blurred my vision. All that remained were ashes, now slowly being claimed by nature, with various plants enveloping the desolate spot. Five months have elapsed, yet the sight remains as fresh and painful as that dreadful day.”
Sanajaobi’s stay at the relief camp is tainted with its own set of challenges. The dense crowds and the perpetual hustle and bustle render the environment far from peaceful. But what exacerbates her plight is the stark absence of a steady source of income, making each day a strenuous battle for survival.
Khangembam Basantakumar, an advisor of the Torbung GP Area Peace and Protection Committee, has held firm to his homeland, unwavering in his determination to stay despite the escalating conflict. But this tenacity does not imply carelessness. In the shadows, his car remains on standby, ever ready to carry him to safety at the slightest sign of danger. On multiple occasions, he’s found solace in the confined space of his vehicle, driving it to the relatively safer terrain of Kwakta, spending numerous nights enveloped in its embrace.
But Basantakumar’s concerns extend beyond his own safety. In a commendable display of community spirit, he has teamed up with fellow residents, striving to ease the painful transition for those displaced, aiding them as they attempt to navigate their way back home, assisting with resources and emotional support.
With a somber tone, he shared, “The scars of this conflict are everywhere. Homes have been reduced to charred skeletons, families have watched their possessions consumed by flames, and for those fortunate enough to have their abodes intact, their hearts bear the brunt of the trauma. A tentative calm has settled over the area in recent days, with the haunting echo of gunshots fading into memory. A few brave souls have chosen to return, but their eyes betray a lingering anxiety. We’re far from reclaiming the sense of normalcy we once took for granted.”
Within the jurisdiction of the Torbung Gram Panchayat, a somber reality unfolds. While a notable number of families have cautiously retraced their steps to areas like Phougakchao Ikhai Mamang Leikai, Phougakchao Ikhai Awang Leikai, and Phaougakchao Ikhai Bazar, the ghostly quiet of Torbung Sabal Mamang stands as a testament to the scars of conflict. Except for a handful of 12 souls, this place remains an echo of its former vibrancy.
The families that have returned to their homes wear a mantle of unease. Nightfall no longer heralds a peaceful slumber but instead brings memories of tragic events. For many, a roof overhead is now a distant memory, and the ruins of their properties serve as a daily reminder of all that was lost. Anxiously, they await a meaningful response from the government, a solution that promises a return to the tranquil days before the turmoil of May 3rd.
And while trust in official avenues has been shaken, hope still flickers in their hearts. They yearn for the day when their smiles reflect not just resilience but genuine happiness and peace, a day when the echoes of conflict are drowned out by the sounds of joy and normalcy.