39 babies born in 90 days: Grief and comfort at Manipur’s only relief camp for pregnant women

Forty women live here now. Several of their homes were burned down after they fled their villages.

WrittenBy:Priyali Dhingra
Article image

Within the varicoloured walls of the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex in Imphal, a handful of pregnant women huddle together. Wearing the traditional phanek over their kurtas, they’re discussing the news of the day – attacks in the border district of Moreh, cross-firing in Bishnupur, and the larger disruptions that have taken their home state of Manipur by storm for nearly three months.

These women fled their homes after the riots started on May 3 and somehow found their way to this relief camp run exclusively for pregnant women in the youth hostel of the sports complex. It started operations on May 21 and is managed by members of the BJP’s Manipur wing.

Nine-month-pregnant Yumnam Thoibi with her child at the relief camp.
The camp has helped survivors give birth to 39 children since the violence began in May.

According to volunteers, medical teams visit other relief camps and recommend the youth hostel to women who are six months pregnant or later. The women are sent to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences hospital nearby for delivery. The camp looks after all medical and logistical expenses and even conducts the traditional naming ceremony when the baby is seven days old.

Almost 90 days after the violence first began, the camp now provides refuge to 40 women. Thirty-nine babies have been born so far.

A pregnant woman with her child at the camp.
The routine includes medical check-ups, academic sessions for children and exercise.
The camp, managed by members of Manipur BJP, was put in place on May 21.

Yuman Thoibi, who is currently nine months pregnant, was one of the first to arrive at the camp, fleeing Churachandpur’s Meitei Leka with her husband and two children on May 4. 

“Our friends in the village informed us that the mob was headed our way,” she says. “The mob burned two Meitei-dominant settlements located next to ours. We were certain they would come for us too.”

While all the women at the camp are from the Meitei community, a member of the Imphal BJP’s OBC Morcha insists the facility is also open to members of the Kuki community. “Kuki women have been unable to come here because of the ongoing ethnic tensions.”

Only last week, reports of women from the Kuki-Zo community being sexually assaulted and raped amid the conflict in the state made headlines.

Since May 3, more than 50,000 people have been displaced in Manipur. Temporary barricades have overtaken roads, dividing Meitei and Kuki dominated areas. Every person crossing these barricades must provide proof of ethnic identity. Most of the Kukis who once lived in the valley have moved to the hill districts of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, while the Meiteis who once lived in the hills have moved to the valley.

According to data reviewed by Reuters, the death toll is 181, including 113 Kukis and 62 Meiteis.

Thoibi, who worked as a tailor back home, says she misses being able to move around freely. “For a year, I worked on a rented tailoring machine. I had brought a brand new one a month before the violence began. Unfortunately, I could not carry it when I left.”

As she speaks, her five-year-old son sits next to her on a bed in the youth hostel. His education now comprises two classes a day conducted by anganwadi workers and volunteer teachers. While she grieves that her son cannot access the open spaces of her village anymore, Thoibi draws comfort from the camp. 

“I miss my home but I like being with the other women here,” she says. “We share our stories – of happiness and sorrows. We’ve all formed a special bond.” 

'When one of the women gets into labour pain and has to rush to the hospital, most of the women accompany her,' says a volunteer.

A volunteer at the camp adds, “When one of the women gets labour pain and has to rush to the hospital, most of the women accompany her.”

Newslaundry learned that the camp has three nurses working in different shifts to look after the women. Teams under the chief medical officers of Imphal West and Imphal East help arrange checkups with gynaecologists and paediatricians. 

The walls of the camp carry photographs of Mother Teresa and posters for Manipur tourism. But the dormitories, lined with makeshift beds and bright pink mosquito nets, hold stories of conflict and unrest.  

The children are given classes twice a day.
When asked what her newborn has been named, Abbem smiles and says, 'Lan-Ngambi', loosely translated to ‘victorious in a war’.
Moirangthem Abbem fled with her husband and her child from her Churachandpur home on May 3.

Hemam Deepa, 25, is pregnant with her first child and she seems nervous about bringing a baby into this conflict-torn land. “I have no idea when I will be able to go home, or whatever is left of it,” she says. 

Deepa came to the youth hostel 10 days ago. Her house was burned down by a mob in Moreh on May 4. “They even burned down my husband’s shop,” she says, adding that the one thing she misses the most about her home is the family photos that adorned its walls. “We didn’t have the time to take them with us. Everything was engulfed in the fire.”

But she feels safer in this camp. “I even found a friend from Moreh,” she says.

Her first pregnancy, Hemam Deepa, 25, is seemingly nervous about bringing a child into this conflict-hit land.
With makeshift beds and bright pink mosquito nets, the women wait to feel at home again, grabbing any thread they can to feel like part of a community.

A few beds away, Moirangthem Abbem, 40, and her family “ran away from our house in the middle of dinner on May 3. We had prepared a Manipuri speciality, iromba.” 

Her home is in Yaiphakol, a village in Churachandpur. After a mob reportedly burned two adjoining Meitei settlements, she fled with her husband and child, fearing an attack.

“We stayed at an Indian army relief camp in Churachandpur for a week and then moved to another district administration-run relief camp,” she says. “Already eight months pregnant by then, I came here on June 6.”

The mob burned down her house soon after she left. Abbem was unable to rescue her dog Kunnao. “I worry about what he may have gone through. We left him there thinking that we’ll be able to go back in a day or two, but our friends told us the house has completely burnt down,” she says.

Abbem’s baby girl was born on July 18. When asked what she’s been named, Abbem smiles and says “Lan-Ngambi” – which loosely translates to “victorious in a war”.

Soon after this conversation, the women gather in the kitchen, prepping vegetables for dinner. Their days are packed, starting with yoga at 5 am and ending with dinner and news updates at 8.30 pm. 

“I hope the crisis gets a better and quicker solution,” says Thoibi. “But until then, the women here are my only support.”

Also see
article imageManipur village caught in cross-fire: Bombings through the night, teen critically injured


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like