Pieces of Manipur trickled down into neighbouring Mizoram through the Kukis who’d been internally displaced in Manipur. Their stories were understandably quite hostile against the Meiteis.

I landed at the Silchar airport on May 28, 2023, on my way to Aizawl. I was in a state of dilemma as Aunt Rosemary came to pick me up from the airport. Life in Mizoram seemed like a choice I made with irreversible consequences because the Manipur valley was now suddenly inaccessible to me. My maternal grandparents treated me affectionately and my grandfather was an intelligent man who seemed quite pragmatic. Some of our conversations would delve into aspects like fixing accountability for all that was happening, and I could feel a glimmer of hope. Here was someone who didn’t look at the Meiteis with blatant disgust.

Back in Manipur, my parents supported us by running a small store we had in a Kuki dominated locality in Imphal. Amid the communal violence, we too received threats of vandalism. The building that our store was in was owned by Kukis, so we had to vacate it. Now that my parents had lost their livelihoods, the responsibility to support our family was entirely on me. I took up a second job (other than the content writing one I already had) as a home tutor in Kolasib town, where I would walk kilometers between home and my student’s residence. On the streets, I’d cover my face with a mask fearing people might recognize me as a Meitei and persecute me. It was a harrowing experience to walk past posters and banners that shamed the Meiteis.

This is a daytime long shot of a scene of Aizawl city in Mizoram taken from the window of a house located at a certain height on a hillside. The left window pane, made of glass with a wooden frame, opens out into a balcony with a cement and iron grill. The photograph takes in the spread of colourful houses and buildings right from the bottom of a hill almost up to its summit. The hill is located across the house from which the photograph has been taken. Most of the houses have sloped or gabled rooftops, and are interspersed with large clusters of trees. The sky above the hill is a uniform grey. Some more hills can be seen in the background. Photo credit: Saki

A glimpse of Aizawl. Photo credit: Saki

At this time, news in Mizoram was replete with stories about the conflict in Manipur. The people here were deeply intrigued by the violence. One day, on my way to another town to visit my relatives, the taxi driver played a video of the violence in Manipur. A conversation broke out between the driver and the passengers. The driver spewed hatred against the Meiteis – how heartless, soulless and godless they were. One passenger looked me straight in the eye and said that the Meiteis are just like the Japanese Yakuza (a transnational organized crime syndicate originating in Japan), and I smirked.

The Internet ban in Manipur also meant that the news coming out from the state was inadequate, feeding into the hunger and curiosity of the people to know more. This had serious repercussions because the information was often polarized, in turn generating more animosity against the Meiteis.

After the outrageous video of two women being paraded naked by a mob in Manipur went viral in July 2023, some civil society groups in Mizoram decided to cleanse the state of any remaining Meiteis. I still remember finding this completely senseless because indeed, there were still a few Meiteis in the state, but they were mostly Meiteis from Assam, not Manipur. Then again, not all Kukis are from Myanmar, neither are all of them illegal immigrants, but here we are – insanity!

Even Grandpa was furious at the Meiteis at this point and called his younger brother who lived in Churachandpur in southern Manipur and expressed his anger. Suddenly realizing that I was right beside him, he said that I was not a Meitei but a Mizo to reinforce his love for me while finally letting me know that there was no place for a Meitei person in his household. I could not stop thinking about the prejudice that he now adamantly proclaimed. Unable to come to terms with the bigotry in a space I was calling home and reckoning that it would be impossible to look at my grandfather and feel free, I decided to leave and live alone in a rented house.

I moved to a village called Rengtekawn near the Assam border around the middle of July. I lived in my aunt’s building which was overflowing with new tenants, all Kuki conflict survivors from Manipur. We all shared the sentiment of having lost our homes. There was an instance when I heard my neighbour’s young Kuki child hum a Meitei song Meikhu. It broke my heart. It reminded me about the sad irony of the situation – none of the conflict survivors could speak Mizo, they only knew Meitei. However, I had to hide the fact that I was also from Manipur and could perfectly understand Meitei.

* * *

This is a dusk time long shot of a scene of Moirang town in Manipur. The photograph shows a T-junction with light vehicular and pedestrian traffic. While the roads are lit with a few street lights, the shops and buildings along the roads are almost all in darkness. One of the street lamps shines brightly through an empty hoarding frame, with the lamp’s beam spread diagonally across a part of the photograph. In the background, right behind the junction, is a small hillock covered with trees which appear like a dark overhanging mass in the fading sunlight. The open sky above is a mix of blue and violet, interspersed with light clouds. Photo credit: Saki

A scene of Moirang. Photo credit: Saki

It was already August, and I was facing immense financial difficulties because I’d lost my job as a home tutor. I had to find a way to sustain myself. I would overbearingly tell my parents to focus on themselves and that I’d continue sending them money because my father had a minor stroke and was hospitalized. My boyfriend took care of my parents during this excruciating period, and I felt immensely relieved. I was also elated to know that Internet access through Wi-Fi was now restored in Manipur. I wished to return as soon as possible, but there was a catch – we didn’t have a Wi-Fi connection at home, and I needed uninterrupted Internet access to continue my writing job. I tried to buy a Wi-Fi system before returning to Manipur, but there was a supply shortage because of huge demand and the installation was extremely overpriced. I still agreed to pay whatever the sum was and began saving for my return flight.

Since I couldn’t find work as a tutor where I now lived, I started working in a nearby stone quarry chipping boulders for nine hours a day for nearly a month. To make ends meet, I put my cooking prowess to the test by also selling cooked meals for labourers along a highway. A part of me still feels that same uncertainty I felt then. Sadness maybe? Embarrassment? Or maybe it’s the fact that sometimes my hands would swell, and blisters would appear on my palms. Either way, I had to survive and so I did what I had to. My plight though was not worse than that of the Kuki families who also toiled away at chipping the stones – sometimes even their young children would join in. At night, I’d go back to my room and just cry.

I finally saved up a good sum and planned to return to Manipur directly from Aizawl. There was so much heartbreak as I looked back at my stay in Mizoram – there had been much beauty amid the chaos. Before I left, I offered a small sum of money to my Kuki neighbours. They too were from Imphal, and their mother was battling cancer. The old woman thanked me and said, “God be with you till we meet again.” This moment made everything that I’d been through worth it for I was filled with purpose and love.

On my last day in Mizoram, I walked through the lanes and by-lanes of Aizawl. I imagined my birth mother walking through the same lanes and climbing the same stairs. She had once lived in the city as a young girl. How I missed her!

I returned to Manipur after four months at the end of September. When I landed at Imphal, my boyfriend and little brother were waiting to receive me. Everything seemed so promising again. I reached home and after I’d offered everyone gifts and souvenirs which I’d bought for them, I headed down south to Moirang where my friend Kumam Davidson was waiting for me. We’d spoken over the phone a few days earlier regarding what we could do when we met again.

We envisioned assisting the people living in the relief camps set up for the internally displaced. Matai Society had already initiated relief work, but still required a lot of assistance. Davidson believed in my ability to write. I hold his faith very dear to me and I’m eternally grateful to him.

One would think I needed a break after all that I’d been through, but I felt right at home in the relief camps. The time spent in the relief camps was possibly the most special in my life. I began working as a volunteer and then as part of Matai Society’s trauma response team. There was so much friendship that blossomed during this time and faith in myself too.

Manipur’s fate might be tragic, but the solidarity I found through the relief work uplifted me. It stopped me from questioning my worth. Now, I realize that not only am I valid as an individual but I’m also valuable. So is all human life, and the sentiments we feel to make this world a better place. I am right where I should be.


* * *

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 and second parts of Saki’s story published in the October and December 2023 issues of Varta here and here – Editor.

About the main photo: Aizawl seen through the author’s eyes before he left the city to return to Imphal. Photo credit: Saki