It was around 5.30 pm in Kohima. Already dark, the electricity too had just gone off. The light from the firewood ablaze in one corner of the kitchen faintly revealed a pot cooking on top. A crying toddler clung to his father’s legs as he moved around the dark room. The toddler’s father, Boylene, 33, had arrived in Kohima from Manipur’s Kangpokpi that evening.
For the last few months, with no access to medical facilities in Manipur, Boylene was unable to take his critically ill father to a hospital. It was a long wait without a semblance of respite in the tensions before they decided to bring him to Kohima. Upon arrival, his father was immediately admitted to a private hospital. And Boylene came to the church to prepare supper for the family.
The Kuki church in the heart of Kohima town has made its kitchen available to the community to help those in need, especially the attendants of hospitalised patients. The pastor said the first eight victims came in May, with horrific gunshot wounds. Since then, Kohima has been seeing a consistent flow of patients.
Over the past three months, members of Kukis-Zomi tribes have fled to other states in the Northeast to escape the violence in Manipur. More than 2,000 such people have made their way to Nagaland in search of safety and medical care, according to .
Boylene is from Saikul Hill Town near Kangpokpi. On the evening of May 30, he said, the villages in neighbouring Maphou Kuki town witnessed heavy destruction and all the residents of the region fled into the nearby jungle.
From the vantage point of a nearby ridge, he watched as a mob drove up to his village in four to five trucks and torched the houses. There were about 140 houses in his village; he is unsure if the mob spared any. Terrified villagers fled deeper into the jungle and eventually found their way to a Naga village, where they took refuge. Boylene plans to return to Kangpokpi once his father recovers.
A concrete building next to the kitchen serves as the pastor’s quarters, where three men quietly sat on chairs, facing each other, occasionally digging into a bowl of pineapple placed in a table before them. A rucksack packed with items rested beside one of the men, with a toothbrush and toothpaste protruding from the bag’s side pocket. These men were Kohima’s Kuki Baptist Church pastor, college professor M Mate, and the registrar of the Trulok Theological Seminary in Imphal, Khongsai.
Mate and Khongsai had just arrived from Kangpokpi. They, too, had travelled to Kohima for medical care. At first, they looked weary, but once they began recounting their stories, they were passionate, and at times even despondent.
‘Once our hometown, now not a single Kuki left in Imphal’
“So Imphal was once your hometown?” I asked Mate.
After a moment of stillness, he gazed up at the blank ceiling and said, “Yes, for me and many others, but there is perhaps not a single living Kuki in Imphal valley today.”
He recounted his memories of the events of May 3 in rapid succession, as though a barrage of flashbacks had been unleashed. On the day the clashes began, the professor went to the airport to see off his daughters who were bound to Delhi.
As they left, Mate discovered that Meitei groups were planning a counter-blockade along his route back to his house. He rerouted to his brother’s rented house at Langol. Around 6 pm, a large crowd swarmed this area as well, and set fire to a church directly across their building. Huddled into a room, Mate’s family watched the rioters on the streets, some of whom also attempted to set their house on fire. But a man intervened, claiming the residence belonged to a Meitei family.
Mate said if the mob had set fire to his brother’s house, they would have died, trapped inside as a 10-foot wall encircled the property. At the time, eight members of his family were lodged in the house, including his 95-year-old mother and his elder brother, who is deaf.
He recalled that the smoke bulging from the burning church left him unconscious twice, as he suffers from asthma. The threat to their lives remained until three in the morning, when they finally managed to contact their niece, a colonel in the army, posted outside Manipur. As she alerted the army officials in Imphal, the family was rescued and escorted to a camp.
But on the way to the camp, a mob halted them, demanding identification proof. On the basis of his wife’s Meitei identification card, his family was let go. Others, in the cars behind them, had to step out of their vehicles and undergo a more thorough inspection. And as they drove ahead, they heard the rapid, deafening roar of gunfire and screams.
As the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA had been partially repealed in the valley days before the violence broke out, the army couldn’t do much, he said. Despite the army’s best efforts, the situation steadily worsened. He said he had never felt so helpless, and hopeless in life.
‘Mob torched buildings, police, fire services stood spectators’
Trulock Theological Seminary registrar Khonsai said they were in the middle of a convocation on May 4 when a mob stormed into the church on TTS premises, vandalised it, and set it on fire.
Soon after, around noon, a mob of over 500 people entered the campus, chanting “yai phare”, loosely translating to “victory to the Meiteis” or “long live Meiteis”, and set fire to the buildings on the college campus. The terrified faculty and students then fled to TTS’s other campus, which houses a hospital. Khonsai said they begged for help, but no one came to their aid.
He alleged that the police and the fire services stood spectators as their buildings were torched by the mob. “They did nothing to quell the violence or put out the flames.”
Khonsai said their entire world crumbled before their eyes, and now the students’ careers are at stake. Many of them have taken transfers to institutions in Kangpokpi.
‘Many escaped with nothing, didn’t even have slippers on’
About 52 km away from Kohima, at Khaibung village’s Kuki Baptist Association Center, the first group of families escaping the violence arrived around May-end. The centre’s secretary Neisi said since then many families have come and left.
“Most of the employable youth have left for bigger cities in search of jobs. With the news of schools reopening, many students, especially those in Classes 10 and 12, moved back to places like Kangpokpi and Senapati,” Neisi said.
At present, the centre accommodates about 30 people, mostly elderly, and children. While many of the adults engage in daily wage labour, some of the young girls take tailoring classes at the centre.
Neisi said they had the biggest group arrive at their centre after they heard about , where the Meitei Leepun chief had openly declared that Kukis would be “wiped out”.
“The women took that threat seriously and did not want to take any chances,” she said, adding that many of these people came with nothing but the clothes they had worn, while some didn’t even have slippers on. “Fortunately, with the help of volunteers and well-wishers, we could provide them with some basic needs.”
Jangkholum Vaiphei, 75, from Game village in Langol, is one of the 30 people remaining at the centre. A retired Manipur police officer who served the state for 36 years between 1969 and 2005, he said a WhatsApp message on May 3 had informed them that violence had erupted following the tribal people’s peace rally. Moments later, he had learned that the city’s centenary gate, an Anglo-Kuki War memorial, was on fire. That same night, a mob stormed their area and torched many houses across the government quarter. He said their home was spared because it was a government owned property.
The chaos continued until 4 am when CRPF personnel came to their rescue and escorted them to a camp. A few important documents were the only thing Vaiphei’s family managed to bring along as they left their residence. A few days later, he learned from his neighbours that as soon as they were rescued, their homes were plundered.
Meanwhile, as the news spread that the CRPF was providing shelter, mobs blocked the road to the camp.
“It was the most horrifying time of my entire life,” Vaiphei said. He claimed there were at least 4,000 people at the camp and that eventually, a mob surrounded the camp, pounding lampposts, chanting, and torching cars parked outside “while the CRPF was not present in full strength”.
‘Houses marked, guns seized before attack, need independent probe’
Months after the violence erupted, Vaphei is still trying to make sense of what transpired. He alleged that about a month before the violence started, his and many other Kuki-Zomi houses in his area were reportedly marked by a few young men under the garb of a government survey. He said a circle with a cross mark in red ink was drawn on the gate. In a colony of around 700 government quarters, about 500 were occupied by Kuki-Zomi families.
Vaiphei said he wants peace and wants the central government to give his community a long-lasting solution so they will not be hunted down, time and again.
Meanwhile, professor Mate added that there is a need for independent investigation. He alleged that in the months preceding the violence, all the gun owners in the hills were required to surrender their weapons for inspection. Within a month of returning the weapons, the government asked them to redeposit their arms, and while weapons had not been returned to their owners, the violence erupted.
“Some villagers owned guns for hunting, but as the violence broke out they had to confront the mob with catapults and stones against modern weaponry. Among the many high-ranking Kuki officials who were targeted was the director general of the police in Imphal,” Mate pointed out.
Highlighting the significance of Churachandpur’s centenary gate, which was partially burned by a mob, he said the gateway was built to commemorate the 1917–1919 Anglo-Kuki War. “A probe will only reveal if this is a fight against narco-terrorism, illegal migration, forest encroachment, or something much more sinister. If burning coal is covered with a cloth, it will burn slowly. Isn’t it?”
An arduous journey through forests to safety
At the KBA centre, sitting not far from Vaiphei was Thithim, 26, a private school teacher at Kamuching village.
She recalled that while they were having supper around 6 pm on March 3, she received messages about some nearby towns being burned down. Soon they could see smoke billowing from the buildings at a distance. Her village’s women and children then escaped into a nearby forest, while the men returned to defend the village. Pitted against a frenzied mob, the men couldn’t save much, she said.
Most of these men were employed in the valley, which is the main hub of jobs in Manipur. But as the tensions rapidly escalated, they fled with their families, deep into the forests for safety. Thithim said, the village residents escaping the violence included several elderly women aged 80 or older, two pregnant women, and a disabled boy.
On the first night of their escape, they prepared the small amount of rice that some of them had carried to the forest. Their children cried for food and water, recalled a teary-eyed Thitem. “I still get nightmares remembering how the children cried for food and water, while we had nothing to give them.”
She said they were compelled to make their children of three and four years of age walk through the forest as they couldn’t carry them because of exhaustion and hunger. She recalled, halfway through their journey, they were forced to leave an elderly woman behind in the care of a man, as she was in no position to continue walking.
After three days in the forest, the families were able to contact the village chief’s daughter, who works as a banker. She alerted the army about their plight, following which they were rescued. Their return, however, was as arduous as they had already traversed several hills into a remote area in the three days.
On this journey, Thithem was separated from her family, with whom she reunited after a week at a relief camp in Kangpokpi. She said the hardest part was not knowing where and how her family was. The school teacher added that she will never comprehend the reason behind Meitei men from the neighbouring villages joining the mob. She said the residents of the neighbouring villages had earlier shared peaceful relations with each other.
Questions on where and how to rebuild life
Thithem and her family are now faced with grave questions about their future. As they look for jobs to support the family, they are unsure about where to rebuild their lives. Her parents are engaged in daily labour in Khaibung village, where she joins them sometimes. After failing to find work around Khaibung village, she enrolled in a tailoring course at the women’s unit of the KBA centre.
Thangboi, 33, is one of the Kuki people who have found a job in Kohima. He works at a private hospital. But his journey to Kohima is a tale of perseverance.
Thangboi worked as a librarian in Imphal before the ethnic clashes broke out. He said living in a multicultural neighbourhood saved him and his family from the riots. But stranded at his rented accommodation and rendered jobless amid worsening ethnic tensions, he decided to flee Imphal on June 1.
He left with his wife, and their son on a two-wheeler with just their crucial documents, leaving behind everything else they possessed. Their journey to Kangpokpi took four hours, during which they encountered some resistance. And after a night at a refugee camp, they made their way to his aunt's house in Kohima.
Meanwhile, at his native village of Aigejang, as a mob stormed in, Thangboi’s parents fled to the forest, leaving behind two buffaloes, two pigs, and a few chickens. All their belongings were subsequently plundered and the village burned down, with only a vandalised church remaining. Thangboi’s parents are currently living at a relief camp in Kangpokpi.
On hearing the stories of escape, professor Mate said despite three months of mob-led violence and horrific videos of violation and sexual assault, “there appears to be no sign of concrete action to resolve the conflict”. He said while the victims of the violence are seeking medical aid for their physical injuries, the psychological trauma inflicted on them will take generations to heal.
“The neighbouring states and other parts of India must be prepared and willing to offer not just immediate relief and recovery services, but also create an enabling environment for mental health services. Otherwise, traumatic events of this magnitude will have huge consequences for society’s well-being for many years to come.”