Monday, April 15, 2024
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Silent slaughter

KANGVAI, INDIA (AP) – Zuan Vaiphei is armed and prepared to kill. He is also ready to die.

Vaiphei spends most of his days behind the sandbag walls of a makeshift bunker, his fingers resting on the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun. Some 1,000 yards ahead of him, between a field of tall green grass and wildflowers, is the enemy, peering from parapets of similar sandbag fortifications, armed and ready.

“The only thing that crosses our mind is will they approach us; will they come and kill us? So, if they happen to come with weapons, we have to forget everything and protect ourselves,” the 32-year-old said, his voice barely audible amid an earsplitting drone of cicadas in Kangvai village that rests along the foothills of India’s remote northeastern Manipur state.

Dozens of such sandbag fortifications mark one of the many front lines that don’t exist on any map and yet dissect Manipur in two ethnic zones – between people from hill tribes and those from the plains below.

Two months ago, Vaiphei was teaching economics to students when the simmering tensions between the two communities exploded in a bloodletting so horrific that thousands of Indian troops who were sent to quell the unrest remain near paralysed by it.

Ethnic clashes between different groups have occasionally erupted in the past, mostly pitting the minority Kukis against mostly Meiteis, who form a narrow majority in the state. But no one was prepared for the killings, arson and a rampage of hate that followed in May, after Meiteis had demanded a special status that would allow them to buy land in the hills populated by Kukis and other tribal groups, as well as a share of government jobs.

Dozens of houses vandalised and burnt following ethnic clashes and rioting in Sugnu, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. PHOTO: AP
Volunteers from the Kuki community guard a checkpoint at a defacto frontline. PHOTO: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Zuan Vaiphei keeps a watch on rival Meitei community bunkers; and Meira Paibis members try to march toward a site of a gunfight. PHOTO: AP

Witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press described how angry mobs and armed gangs swept into villages and towns, burning down houses, massacring civilians, and driving tens of thousands from their homes. More than 50,000 people have fled to packed relief camps.

Those who fought back were killed, sometimes bludgeoned to death or beheaded, and the injured tossed into raging fires, according to witnesses and others with first-hand knowledge of the events.

The deadly clashes, which have left at least 120 dead by the authorities’ conservative estimates, persist despite the army’s presence. Wide swathes have turned into ghost towns, scorched by fire so fierce that it left tin roofs melted and twisted.

“It is as close to civil war as any state in independent India has ever been,” said senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India and an Indian army veteran Sushant Singh.

The unrest has been met with nearly two months of silence from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party rules Manipur. Modi’s powerful Home Minister, Amit Shah, visited the state in May and tried to make peace between the two sides. Since then, state lawmakers – many of whom escaped after their homes were torched by mobs – have huddled in New Delhi to try to find a solution.

The state government, nonetheless, has assured Manipur is returning to normalcy. On June 25, Chief Minister N Biren Singh said that the government and armed forces had been “able to control the violence to a great extent in the past week. However, Singh’s visit on Sunday to a front line coincided with fresh clashes that left three people dead, officials said.

Meiteis have long blamed minority Kukis for the state’s rampant drug problems and accused them of harbouring migrants from Myanmar. The administration, mostly made up of Meiteis, also appears to be coming down heavily on Kukis after Singh alleged that some of those involved in the latest clashes were “terrorists”.

Trouble reached A Ramesh Singh’s home on May 4 in Phayeng, a predominantly Meitei village some 17 kilometres from the state capital Imphal. The previous day, Singh had kept a vigil outside his village whose residents, more than 200 of them, were expecting mobs of Kukis to descend from an adjacent hill. A former soldier, Singh carried a licenced gun with him, his son, Robert Singh, said.

The night of the raid, Singh fired shots, some in the air and some at the mobs, but was hit in his leg. Wounded and unable to walk, he watched his village being ransacked, before he was abducted with four other people and dragged up the hills, his son said.

The next day, Robert was told his father’s body was found in a grove. He was shot in the head.

The anguish of victims also resonates quietly through hundreds of relief camps where displaced Kukis – who have suffered most deaths and destruction of homes and synagogue – are taking shelter.

Kim Neineng, 43, and her husband had enjoyed years of peace in Lailampat village. He farmed the fields. She sold the produce in the market.

On the afternoon of May 5, Neineng went outside her house to check on noise. Out of breath, she rushed inside and told her husband what she had seen: a Meitei mob, many of them armed, had descended on their village, screaming and hurling abuses.

Neineng’s husband knew what it meant. He asked her to escape with their four children and not look back, promising he would take care of the cattle and their home. She quickly packed her belongings and ran to a nearby relief camp. A day later, more of her neighbours reached the shelter and told Neineng what had happened to her husband.

When the mob reached their house, the husband tried to reason with them, but they wouldn’t listen. Soon, they started beating him with iron bars.

More armed men arrived and chopped off his legs. Then they picked him up and tossed him in the raging fire that had already engulfed his home.

Neighbours found his charred body on the scorched floor.

“They tortured and treated him like an animal, without any humanity. When I think of his last moments, I can’t comprehend what he must have felt,” Neineng said, barely choking out words.