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.

This mid-range photograph shows a scene from one of the trauma response centres for conflict-affected children and youth run by Matai Society in the Bishnupur district of Manipur. In a hall-like room with a high ceiling, eight children (seven of them girls), all likely less than 10 years old, are busy creating artworks on chart papers and drawing books using sketch pens and pencils. They are seated on a green tarpaulin laid down on the floor. A relief worker is sitting with them joining in with their activities. The walls of the centre are painted a light green and are covered with a plethora of colourful drawings, wall paintings and paper cutouts of animals, plants, rainbows, and fairy tale characters. More paper cutouts hang from strings attached to thin ropes strung across the room, giving the room a cheerful look. A closed window can be seen to the left of the photograph, while to the right, a partially visible flex banner pasted on the wall displays the name and administrative details of the trauma response centre, the associated relief camp, and Matai Society in English and Manipuri. The photograph is a daytime one, with the room lit up with sunlight streaming in from the right side. Photo courtesy Matai Society

A scene from one of the trauma response centres run by Matai Society in the Bishnupur district of Manipur in association with various 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.

This is a mid-range daytime shot of relief work being conducted with children, adolescents, and youth in a narrow market lane outside the Matai Society premises in Moirang town, Bishnupur district, Manipur. Around 30 individuals across genders and age groups (including a couple of tiny tots in the arms of their guardians) are gathered around a table being managed by a few volunteers. The gathering is just outside the entrance to the Matai Society drop-in centre. A large tarpaulin sheet strung above the entrance provides shelter from rain. The entrance is covered with long curtains. A small hoarding above the entrance displays the name, logo, address, and registration details of Matai Society. A partially visible notice on a pillar next to the entrance mentions the drop-in centre timings. The centre is located in a row of shop units, many of them shuttered down. At the far end of the lane in which the drop-in centre is located, a hoarding displays the name of a trauma response centre for conflict-affected children and youth. Photo courtesy Matai Society

Relief work with children and youth at the Matai Society premises in Moirang town

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.”

About Matai Society’s relief work: Matai Society has been co-running relief camps and conducting trauma response work in Bishnupur district. The organization runs trauma response centres for conflict-affected children and youth in association with various relief camps apart from carrying out general relief work that focuses on meeting the material needs of the displaced. In 2020-21, Matai Society carried out widespread COVID-19 relief in Bishnupur district, as part of which they started a skill development and livelihood generation initiative called Mahei Centre. The centre also acts as a drop-in centre for youth and marginalised persons. These facilities have proved invaluable in the ongoing crisis. Mahei Centre is currently running the School Bag Project in collaboration with Urep and Manipuri Weddings, both based in Imphal. Much of Matai Society’s relief work around provision of rations and education material is being carried out in partnership with NGO Octave Foundation. About Octave Foundation: This NGO was established to provide platforms of convergence to celebrate ethnic diversities that constitute Manipur’s cultural ethos. It was registered in Manipur in 2015. As part of its ongoing relief efforts in the state (through crowdfunding), Octave Foundation has been assisting displaced women and children find refuge in relief camps. Their goal is to reach out to as many as possible among the 18,000 people sheltered in 69 relief camps in Imphal East, Imphal West, and Bishnupur districts.

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.

Inset: About the ‘Manipur Relief’ column: This monthly 'Varta' webzine column brings you news and analysis on how transgender, queer and other civil society groups in Manipur are coping with the impact of the communal conflict which has killed and injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands since early May 2023. The column seeks to highlight the relief work being carried out by the civil society groups, and how individuals and organizations can support the relief work. The column also aims to present personal accounts of survivors of the violence and their efforts to rebuild their lives. Content published under 'Manipur Relief' is contributed by participants in the fourth edition of the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (begun August 2023). The programme also involves strategic dissemination of the published articles for community morale building, experience sharing, and advocacy to ensure that the people affected by the conflict gain access to resources for immediate survival and long-term sustenance with dignity. The VCR Programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other social markers. In the process, it also attempts to enhance the employability of the participants. The first edition of the VCR Programme was conducted in Manipur from March to August 2018, and stories generated through the pilot were published under the 'Manipur Diary' column. The second pilot, from February to July 2019, covered Assam, Manipur and West Bengal and the stories generated were published under the 'VCR Diary' column. The third edition covered Assam, Odisha and West Bengal through 2020-21 with the stories generated published under the 'Coronavirus Diary' column – Editor.

Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme – Editor.

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