Every violent event in Manipur in the past seemed to die down within a week. This time, this hasn’t been the case.

“Come, look at this!” my uncle cried out. We rushed out of the house. The sky had turned crimson amid the summer haze at dusk, and all of us saw what he did. Far beyond the Loktak Lake’s south-western shores, one could see the hills ascending. The hill ranges above the town of Churachandpur were aflame with an amber lining. This spectacle was the outcome of aggressive manmade wildfires sending out a message to the people in the Manipur valley – stay away, don’t come back!

This illustration is an artwork created with pen ink and water colour on art paper. The artwork shows a small city nestled on the slopes of a range of hills, and close to the edge of a lake. The houses are interspersed with trees. Higher above the houses, the top of the hills is ablaze with the glow of a wildfire. The fire can be seen extending all along the crest of the hills like a fiery necklace. The sky above has turned an ashy grey. While the city, vegetation and the hills are sketched in black, white and shades of grey, the wildfire stands out with four layers of colour – deep red at the bottom, orange above it, followed by amber, and then light-yellow fading into dark grey. Artwork credit: Souvik RakshitIt’d been about three weeks since the conflict started on May 3, 2023. My family and I were still stranded in Thanga (my mother’s maternal home), unable to return to Imphal because of the curfews imposed alongside the fiery riots everywhere. Through the absolute Internet shutdown in the state, the radio and some of the thinnest newspapers were our only sources of news.

One of the delusions we all had during this excruciating period of crime after crime was that the conflict would end in a week or so, like all the ones in the past. My main concern was about not losing my content writing job, which was entirely dependent on the Internet. Initially, my employers in Delhi were understanding, but gradually it became clear that they wouldn’t wait for too long. It was understandable regardless of how unfair it felt. This after all wasn’t the pause presented by an event like the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdowns were faced everywhere, but Manipur’s conflict was the matter of just one state in a very large country, making us almost invisible in the national discourse.

If I didn’t act soon, I’d lose a job I had worked so hard for – to be able to support my family and sustain myself. I was distraught by all that was happening around me. It seemed inevitable that I’d have to leave Manipur.

* * *

My birth mother passed away when I was 10 years old. She was this beautiful Hmar-Mizo woman who had a lot to offer to this world. Later, my father, who’s Meitei, remarried and I started living with my father and new mother, also Meitei, in Manipur. My birth mother’s parents and siblings live in Mizoram and before the Manipur conflict, I’d visited them only a few times. We would occasionally interact online or over phone calls. It was a decade since my birth mother had died, but I was immensely grateful how her family reached out to me amid all the chaos. It provided me with hope. My Aunt Rosemary insisted that I call her so that she could understand what I needed, but I had to carefully plan for the simple act of making a phone call. I couldn’t afford to be heard speaking in Mizo by the neighbours in Thanga, and I had to row out into the lake and make the call from open water where I’d be safe. I shared my plight with my aunt and she reminded me that she’d asked me to live in Mizoram earlier as well.

In my heart, I’ve always been content being a Meitei with a Hmar-Mizo heritage through my birth mother, while also being a filial son to my loving step mother. However, the uncertainty around being Meitei / Kuki-Hmar-Mizo in current-day Manipur made everyone around me insecure. Finally, I decided to leave Manipur for Mizoram – to save my job, meet my financial responsibility towards my family in Manipur, and to ensure their safety as well.

* * *

Eventually, we could leave Thanga and return to Imphal, but things were already very different. Most Mizos had already left the city and the Manipur Valley for elsewhere; likewise, many Meiteis who used to live in the hill districts had started arriving in the valley districts where relief camps were hastily being set up to accommodate them. My younger brother studied in a pre-school run by Hmar women. They too were set to leave for Meghalaya, so they requested that we take care of their dog. The uncertainty about the future loomed larger everyday till finally the Imphal airport was not choked anymore by the rush of people leaving Manipur. It felt that possibly I was the last Hmar-Mizo person to leave the valley.

Aunt Rosemary booked me a ticket for a flight to Silchar in Assam, from where I’d go to Aizawl. There simply were no direct flights to Aizawl at that point of time, and my entry into Mizoram from Imphal would’ve been ‘too loud’ because of my Meitei surname. My father, step mother and other family members were not supportive of my decision to leave Manipur. I still remember the ache visible on my mother’s face, silently pleading me not to leave, while knowing well that if I didn’t, financial hardship would be inevitable. My father was deeply disappointed. He simply wouldn’t talk to me after we had an argument about my decision. Yet, I eventually won him over and he wished me well. But there were two people who were even more dejected than my parents – my best friend Shima, who was in tears when I informed her about my decision, and my boyfriend, who was trying to work out our reunion even before I left.

Shima organized a farewell get-together with some of our close friends at her home. It was a profound gesture that made me realize how beautiful our bond was. She made each of us Chinese lucky charms, gifted me a beautiful piece, and secretly handed me Rs.5,000. I hesitated, but she insisted and I couldn’t say no. It was my turn to be in tears. She knew my situation well and understood how difficult it was. Memories like these will remain with me forever. I could only thank her and promised to return soon.

Three days prior to my departure, my boyfriend had been staying overnight at my home. We were both trying our best to be prepared for the moment of my departure. We kept telling ourselves and each other that this wasn’t the end. As time ran out, I felt deep down why lovers want a night with each other to last forever.

* * *

There I was, at the Imphal airport, thinking through my decision again and again. Fear mixed with excitement, I constantly asked myself if I would regret my decision. But there was also the question: “Do I have a choice?”

I stood there for a moment remembering the tragedy that had befallen my state. The memory of the wildfires in the hills south of the valley, warning the Meiteis not to return to the hills, made me fearful about how my life would turn out once I left the valley. Would I be welcome back in the valley after I started living in the hills? How was I to segregate my identity which wasn’t just one or the other? How confusing and utterly tragic!

Stubbornly, I reminded myself that I’m adamant and brave. I tried to sublimate the terrifying memory of the hills lined in amber by replacing it with the thought of my birth mother’s tender amber necklace. I left knowing I would now be closer to her legacy, leaving behind another mother’s heirloom, the jewelled land, now a fragmented ornament.

To be continued.

* * *

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.

Read the first part of Saki’s story published in the October 2023 issue of Varta here – 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