The year 2023 seemed to be auspicious for Manipur after a tourism boom and the economy recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Major tourist initiatives were taken up in 2022, and the amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 added to aspirations for a lucrative year. We could see a visibly cheerful nightlife in the capital city of Imphal, my home. Happier times seemed to be replacing the once grim realm and things seemed to be livelier.

In the end of April 2023, I travelled to Guwahati with my maternal grandparents for my grandfather’s medical checkup. On May 4, we were to return to Imphal, but the night before, I could see social media being inundated with videos of houses burning in Manipur. This was just the start of the bigotry that was to follow, as the violence continued to swell.

Internet services were shut down in Manipur, though many Manipuris outside the state (including me) had access to it. I would’ve certainly appreciated accurate and measured reporting on the violence from the traditional media sources. Instead, the news that I received was from highly charged and emotional posts made by netizens squabbling with each other, and most of them were outside Manipur. They in turn had received information, most likely incomplete, from their relatives in the state. It was perplexing and worrying to say the least.

My grandparents and I decided to return to Manipur despite the events unfolding in the state, because in a way they seemed rather familiar, quite Manipuri in essence. We were mentally prepared to face the curfews and roadblocks. After all, Manipur, even just a few years back was considered a ‘disturbed region’.

I got an inkling of how serious the situation was when my parents came to the airport to receive us. My mother, who I rarely saw dressed in traditional garments, was fully clothed in Meitei attire, with chandan on her forehead. Once out of the airport area, instead of heading towards home in Imphal, we travelled to Thanga, where my grandparents lived. Thanga seemed to be calmer than the violence-consumed Imphal.

However, it proved to be a major risk since only a kilometre ahead we encountered a set of torched vehicles and an agitated throng of rioters. My father, who was driving the car, was forced to stop. I was awestruck at the sight as my mother showed some of the rioters our flight tickets and medical documents, explained our situation, and reasoned with them. Eventually, they let us go, but the panic that gripped me was overwhelming because our destination was another 50 km away.

These scenes repeated themselves – every time we encountered a crowd of rioters, my father had to stop and my mother had to explain everything all over again. At some places, the negotiations took longer. My eyes remained transfixed.

As one moves along Teddim Road, there’s a surreal spot between the villages of Keinou and Ngaikhong Khullen in Bishnupur district. Here, open fields of paddy climb up to the threshold where the mountain forests begin. The scene is replete with hues of gold, green and blue. In the middle of the fields, is a tiny church surrounded only by the wind. I’ve passed by this spot many times since childhood. It was a ritual for me to turn my head and gaze at the church for the few minutes it’d be visible from the car window. Today, there was nothing but smoke adorning the church.

An hour into the journey, my eyes blinked to let go the misery they were withholding. It finally dawned upon me that Manipur had meandered away from the one I’d known in my lifetime of around two decades.

We eventually reached Thanga, with my family continuing the political and cultural chatter regarding their perceptions of the violence. I was exhausted and quiet. The recollection of the throngs of rioters and the torched and overturned vehicles on the highways made me wonder about the people who would’ve been in the vehicles. What would’ve happened to them? Where did they go?

In one of the encounters with the rioters, the men gawked into the vehicle to make sure what we were saying was true. The kind of questions they asked made me nauseous. One of the rioters locked his eyes with mine – that look will remain imprinted on my mind forever. He seemed to see right through me! It felt as if everyone in the vehicle was honest except me. I had so much more to share.

I tremble at the thought of the images that flash through my mind; my soul weeps. Is all the talk about Manipur changing an illusion? Are these the values and sentiments of her children? Maybe, I don’t know Manipur at all.

To be continued.

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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.

The author is engaged in relief work being carried out by NGO Matai Society in the Bishnupur district of Manipur (see inset above). Matai Society is a woman, queer and trans-led registered society based in Moirang town in Bishnupur district, and works with youth on SOGIESC, education, health, livelihood, and environmental issues.

If you want to support Matai Society’s relief work, monetary donations can be sent to them 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 illustration: Souvik Rakshit’s visualization of the scenes described by the author using pen ink and water colour on art paper – with inputs from Pawan Dhall