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Five Days of Terror in Imphal: How State-Sponsored Pogroms Made Us Refugees in Our Country

Five Days of Terror in Imphal: How State-Sponsored Pogroms Made Us Refugees in Our Country

  • This is the story as told to me by my sister in Manipur of how rabid mobs of Meitei people went on a violent rampage, terrorizing and traumatizing tribal communities.

My family lived in a locality called PaiteVeng, a suburb in Imphal, Manipur, in India. On May 3, 2023, all of a sudden, after 60 years of peaceful co-existence, rabid mobs of Meitei people, including their neighbors, burned their churches, homes and vehicles. Fortunately for my family, the police and the Indian Army moved them to makeshift ill-equipped camps, where they stayed for three days with insufficient food and water. They moved camps twice as the first one at Singjamei, was about to be breached by local mobs.

Twenty members of my family, including my 86-year-old mother, disabled sister and four children under the age of five, evacuated safely to Delhi and Guwahati. They spent four nights and three harrowing days in the camp. Forever scarred and traumatized — heck, even I am traumatized. They are now in temporary housing, living as refugees with no plan B, waiting for normalcy to return. There is nothing left of the family compound but ashes and detritus of past lives.

The question is why were they attacked and driven away? It was not random; it was state-sponsored. Some patterns began years ago and events that started months back. The Zomi Student Federation, Lamka has documented these in “The inevitable Spilt, Documents on state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, 2023” or you can read an in-depth article in The Wire

My short version is simply a land grab attempt by Meities. Tribal lands are protected by Article 371C of the Indian Constitution. They want to remove us by every means and take our land. On May 3rd, thousands of tribal families were attacked and displaced from their homes. Some were brutally killed and some were injured. My family was the lucky one. This is their story.

Day 1, May 3, 2023, 8 pm

Three Gypsy jeeps full of police personnel were on duty at Tiddim Road in front of our house. We felt safe, and protected. Clank, clank, clank, the abrasive sound of metal against metal, an iron rod hitting an electric pole, disturbed the air. Shortly after, we heard the mob screaming, and barging into our neighborhood. “Hao hatsek,” “kill tribals.” Our lights were off, and we huddled in the dark in mama’s room, crouching — Biak, Junia, Julie’s brother, toddler Muanthang, mum, Michael, and his two dogs, and I, praying fervently. 

The mob started pelting stones, windowpanes shattered and the incessant thud of stones hitting our concrete roof assaulted our ears. YPA called and said our church was burning. Rosie, the neighbor, called and said her house was on fire. There was chaos outside and we were scared in that one room. We heard the boom of tear gas and the crowd left toward Sangaiprou.

Thinking we were safe, Biak and I crept out, and we saw Khaimeng’s shops burning. We knew then this was no ordinary agitation and we were no longer safe. We heard the crowd return, and Biak and I rushed back inside. They pushed and shook the gate. 

We had to get out. We called U Lian and he told us to come to Lalpu’s house. His house is in the compound behind ours and the Meitei man, who rented it, ran it as a hotel. We called and found out U Lian’s family was already there.

When trouble struck, we were about to retire for the night and were in our night clothes. Mum had become witless and could not wear her shoes. She repeatedly struggled to wear her shoes, I forcibly shoved her feet in and dragged her and Junia, both empty-handed, through grounds littered with broken glass to the connecting door between U Lian and Lalpu’s house. Three men pulled mummy and Junia through. I did not have time to grab anything but my purse. We were so terrified, we couldn’t even find the keys to the almirah to grab passports or valuables.  

At the hotel, we watched the crowd on CCTV. The police personnel were outnumbered by the mob. The hotel proprietor (angel #1) said he won’t be able to save us all and he’ll find us safe passage. He and his employees also wanted to leave. He went to the gate and negotiated with the police, who agreed to take us to the police station. God was looking out for us and provided us with angels to help us along the way.

Our ragtag party left the hotel — 86-year-old mum with her walking stick, Junia (down syndrome sister) stumbling on unsteady legs, and three children carried by their mother, grandmother, and father. Many in the mob were from Konjel and Thongnaujam Leikai, they recognized us and allowed us to leave. We lived in Paite Veng for nearly 60 years and our neighbors, most of whom were delivered by my mother, drove us out of our homes. In the melee, Biak’s wife Julie and her brother were taken away by the mob.

To our surprise, there were many women in the mob, and they were worse than the men. They were protesting and objecting when we were let off without harm. At one point they were so unruly, the Meitei woman Police officer (angel#2) held them back, as they hurled abuses and asked repeatedly: “Kari jati no? (which tribe are you?).” The officer stopped at our neighbor Dr. Ibomcha’s house and asked if they could shelter us for a bit. His son answered the door and refused. He closed the door on us. I will not forget that for the rest of my life. We were frightened and couldn’t think straight.  

We rested at the shop, near Thoumnu’s house and realized Siam (nephew) was not with us. Frantic, Minthang (nephew) called, and we found out he was protected by Meiteil (Siam’s story is a separate series). Mummy had lost one of her shoes and I found out I was wearing different colored slippers.

The police took us to the police station at the secretariat. They gave us tea, and Michael left with his mum without a word to us. The CO said we could not stay with the police. I called a Meitei family friend, but he could not help as we were too many. He was already sheltering people from Paite Veng. Finally, the police took us to a Kuki lady’s house in old Lambulane. Old Lambulane was not attacked, the Kuki lady (Emo’s aunt by marriage) told me it was Emo’s constituency and he ordered it untouched. By then, it was midnight. We were too tired and frightened to sleep.

Biak was frantic with worry about his wife Julie. He could not reach her on the phone.We had no idea what happened to her and her brother. At about 2 am, we got a call from Julie. She told us to come to an army camp where she was being sheltered. When the mob separated them from us, a woman snatched her bag that contained diapers, her phone and her certificates. They slapped her, pulled her hair, and beat up her brother. The police rescued them and took them to the police station at Kwakeithel. The crowd demanded their release but the police kept them safe until the army came. Her brother had his phone and they had called a cousin, a Lt. Colonel in the army. He sent the army to pick them up. 

The Army came to pick us up too. But before we could set off, they found out the tire was flat. We waited in the cold, shivering. Mom was shoeless by then and the lady gave her a pair of slippers. Another truck came shortly after. Mum and Junia needed help getting in. The soldiers pushed from behind and our brother pulled them in. They drove very fast and in a matter of twenty minutes, we arrived at the small army base at the hIll in Singjamei. 

The army gave us one room, with an attached bath and four blankets for eighteen of us. Apart from our family, five Paite Veng neighbors were also rescued. There was a bed without a mattress and mama slept on it. We lay down on the blankets, facing the walls, and the door, tucked against each other. 

May 4, 5, and 6

We stayed at the camp for three nights and two days. The next day, four more people joined us in the room. These were Kuki people on the way to Moreh in an ambulance, with the dead body of their father who had passed. The mob stopped the ambulance, threw the corpse on the road, dragged them out and beat them. Fortunately, the army was patrolling and saved them. The dead body was taken to the morgue. More people arrived, the newcomers were given a second room.

The camp was surrounded by Meitei homes, so we were told to stay quiet. The people were hostile, and all riled up. If they found out the army was harboring us, they could breach the small camp. However, staying quiet was impossible with little kids. Vunglom (1-year-old in April) would cry and yell suddenly, Khanhoih, 4, would scream for no reason and Muanthang, 2, would suddenly sing in his squeaky, shrill voice “Eya eya oh, old MacDonald had a farm, eya, eya oh.” It was chaotic. I kept getting calls and U Muan would hush me. She was agitated, as did not have her BP pills.

Minthang’s Meitei friend (angel#3) sent cartons of snacks, biscuits and soft drinks. Junia became sick, she slept all day. We received the care package you arranged through a Naga officer — two phaneks for mama, diapers, ORS and medicine. On the third day, the army moved us to the Manipur Rifle Camp camp at Mantripukhri. They got word the locals were suspicious and could attack the camp. Once again, we were herded into trucks for our safety and moved camp.

May 6, Manipur Rifle Camp, Mantripukhri

See Also

At the MR Camp, we were taken aback by the number of people, packed like sardines. We were told to sit on the lawn outside while they tried to find a place for us in the indoor recreation hall. There were over ~4000 people and no room for us. Many had luggage, and blankets and some even had mosquito nets while we had nothing, not even a toothbrush. We realized how blessed we were at the other camp. There was no running water, so they put a simtec, water tank, outside. No drinking water either, just that one tank. They served dal and rice. We didn’t even have plates, besides, nobody wanted to eat. 

They found us a place in the corner, next to the dustbin. We scrounged some plastic bags and lined the floor. I called the camp coordinator, who happened to be my friend’s brother, and asked for blankets. He sent his men to buy and they came back with four thin, new brightly colored blankets. Here are pictures of some members of the Hangzo family, including the ex-member of the Schedule Tribe commission and interim Chairman.

The toilet was filthy and we held back from going to the bathroom. Except for poor Junia, who started to have diarrhea. She crapped in her pants. It was awful, I ran back and forth for water. Threw her underwear and washed her pants. Luckily, we had the extra phanek, which she changed into. That night, it rained. I took Junia outside and made her do her business at the drain, two, or three times. Mama also peed twice. The rain would wash it away. That night, Michael came to the camp with Diana and their daughter. 

May 7, Escape From Manipur

At 7 am the next morning, we finally left for the airport on a bus arranged by the army. Other people also joined us but not all could get in as the bus was small. We were a sorry lot, the Meitei Press took many pictures of Junia and mama as we disembarked at the airport. We were dirty and we stank; Junia was sick, dehydrated and looked awful. Mama could barely walk.

Though Junia and mama didn’t have their Aadhar card, I had the copies on my phone but the phone battery was dying. A Kuki man gave me his charger and I used it until I had about 20%. I showed the copies of our ID from my phone and requested Security to let us in. Perhaps, seeing the pathetic state of Junia and mummy, the good man (angel #4) let us in. 

The Indigo staff were all Meitei and they were very rude and short with us. The man at the counter had such a disgusted face while he printed our tickets. No basic courtesy for paying customers, who paid dearly for overpriced tickets.

We washed our faces and used the toilet. Even the toilet cleaner bullied us. Told us to use the Indian pot. I was incensed. I raised my voice, told her mama cannot squat and she used the western toilet at home. We had a two-story home with seven rooms, three baths, and western toilets, a home you people destroyed, looted, and drove us out from. She looked chastened for a moment, ”Ishing wat pagi hai babanida” (I was just saying because we are short of water.)

I bought coffee at the cost of Rs.100 a cup for mama to have her medicine.

Until we boarded the plane, we were afraid we would be stopped and transferred back to camp or attacked by the mob. It was a great relief to be on the plane. Even the kids were calm.

Niang Hangzo works in the Semiconductor Industry in San Jose, California. was born in Manipur, India. She comes from a large family of ten and is the fifth child of Vungkham Hangzo and Madhumati Devi. Their family compound in Paite Veng, Imphal was destroyed by Meitie mob during the carnage on May 3, 2023. She lives in Aptos, California with her husband Bapcha Murty, and three cats.

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