In an unprecedented communal conflict in Manipur, villages were burnt, scores of people were killed, and thousands displaced overnight on May 3, 2023. Loss of life, destruction of homes and displacement continue even after more than four months. The death toll has crossed 200. Villages remain inhabitable, leaving no possibility of people returning to their homes, many of which do not exist any longer. Children, youth, women, old people alike are living in extreme conditions in cramped relief camps.
Manipur, a state in the north-eastern corner of India, is replete with immense natural beauty, while also tagged as an infamous ‘disturbed’ region. The state shares an international border with Myanmar on its entire eastern frontier, and trade has always flourished in the region, connecting South Asia to South-East Asia. The precincts of this region have been home to immense social and cultural diversity. At the same time, it has been plagued with social tensions, armed conflict, substance abuse, drug cartels, unemployment, poverty, and widespread inequalities. This has made the region susceptible to disputes and violence, and often exploited by different stakeholders to serve their narrow interests.
When the state was barely recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic while enduring years of social crises, the current conflict has come as a severe blow, particularly for the working class, leaving them again dependent on the goodwill of society and institutional / governmental interventions.
The Moirang Assembly constituency in the Bishnupur district has received very high numbers of displaced people after the riots that occurred in early May. The violence and destruction were most rampant in Churachandpur town (Lamka) and several villages like Torbung Bangla, Kangvai, Kwakta, Phougakchao, and Terakhongsangbi, which lie in the border areas of Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts. Bishnupur serves like a ‘buffer zone’ between the Churachandpur district and the rest of the Imphal Valley, and has witnessed intense conflicts among different groups. Some of these areas have become hostile and no one can enter or leave them, barring perhaps people from outside Manipur state.
Narratives of losses, pain, and human kindness from Bishnupur
In the Santhong Awang Leikai Relief Camp in Kwakta, Ahongsangbam Ahanbi, 55, and Ahongsangbam Ibochouba, 60, are trying to come to terms with their losses because of the conflict. Ahanbi talks about their plot of land in Bishnupur district: “I’m a farmer and I work in a plot of land that serves as a paddy field. I tend to it throughout the year. The field belongs to my cousin sister. These days it involves a lot of risk in going to the paddy field because of unpredictable firing in the area.”
Another riot victim at the Khoyol Relief Camp in Moirang town, who preferred to remain anonymous, recounts, “On May 3, our leikai [locality] was attacked by certain armed mobs. A few of us acted as guards around the vicinity of our village, trying to prevent miscreants from entering, though it seemed imminent that they would soon take over. The men prioritised a plan to evacuate our children, women, and the elderly first, with us guarding the area till everyone had left. During this ordeal, I was shot in the leg and had injuries that could’ve been fatal. I was the only earning member in the family. Ever since then we’ve been in the relief camp, and I haven’t managed to find any work yet.”
The conflict has lasted beyond four months now. During these excruciating days, many local clubs, youth groups, and NGOs have been running relief camps to host the masses that have become homeless. Most of the displaced hail from the hill-valley buffer area. Despite the goodwill and support from various government and non-government agencies and donors, these camps are struggling to make ends meet because of the sheer numbers of people affected. So many have lost their homes, many others their close ones.
Local resources are depleting fast. Blockades imposed on the highways are affecting relief work. The overall situation is one of desperation. Much of the relief work has been a local response with minimal resources. Local clubs and youth groups have donated everything they had and yet it has not been enough to meet the staple needs of over 60,000 displaced people all across the state and over 10,000 in Bishnupur district itself. There is extensive relief work required going forward to ensure that the displaced can begin a process of recovery and live a life with dignity.
Amid all the relief efforts underway, there is also the issue of the well-being of the relief workers and caregivers. Kumam Davidson, Founder, Matai Society, a Moirang-based registered youth welfare society, says, “Volunteers and relief workers are now experiencing intense fatigue and a fear of the uncertainty ahead. They have struggled to provide a glimpse of hope for the displaced people, but all these efforts may come to a stop. Their resilience needs no strengthening but requires a push in the form of providing them the resources that can help them achieve their aspirations of helping those in need. I’m personally going through this state of mind. Resources and mental health support are urgently needed so that we can continue the relief work.”
What is urgently needed to support the relief initiatives
Without any immediate rehabilitation and livelihood opportunities in sight, the displaced persons at the relief camps are surviving on a bare minimum. There is a lack of toilets, sanitation concerns, and scarcity of food and potable water in the camps. This is leading to an outbreak of illnesses, and people with chronic diseases are unable to get medication on time. The impact on people’s mental health is hardly getting the attention it deserves. Children and adolescents are facing malnourishment.
Based on its work in the relief camps, Matai Society has assessed the urgent requirements in the different camps. Apart from potable water and nutritious food (pulses and rice are the only foods available in the camps), there is a need for medical and mental health support. Chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and asthma are not getting the attention they deserve. Concerns around substance abuse are on the rise. The winter season is round the corner, and the need for woollens and blankets is imminent.
Matai Society, through its trauma response work among young people, has identified four priorities – school bags, uniforms, and shoes; books and stationery; travel support (many of them walk on foot to school, which may be miles away); and recreational material like footballs and soft toys.
There are also challenges specific to women, transgender and queer persons, persons with disabilities, and the elderly. Besides the need for sanitary pads, other specific needs remain unaddressed. The fatigue and burnout among the volunteers and relief workers is an equally crucial concern.
How to extend support for relief work in Bishnupur and adjoining districts
Monetary donations can be sent to Matai Society via Octave Foundation. Donations in kind can be couriered or dropped off at the Matai Society premises in Moirang. Matai Society is also in touch with other civil society groups carrying out relief work in different districts of Manipur, and can connect interested donors to these groups. For more details on how to send your contributions, please contact Kumam Davidson, Founder, Matai Society at 0091 70054 15573.
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About the main photo: Drawings created by children at one of the trauma response centres for conflict-affected children and youth run by Matai Society in association with various relief camps. All photos courtesy Matai Society