Momoi T. Address – Lamphel, Imphal
- What are the circumstances under which you arrived at the camp? On what date? How long were you at the camp?
(Bang chidan a camp tan tung? Bangcik ni a? Ni bangzah sung om?
The day before the camp on 3rd May 2023 was when the peace rally by tribals had taken place at Lamka public ground, soon after which we started hearing about burning of tribal houses and Churches in the villages by the meiteis. We at Lamphel started to panic and started packing our belongings, the bare minimum, just in case the meitei mob reaches us since we also live nearby Lamphel EBC Church, which eventually got burnt the next day. The next morning on 4th May 2023 we heard the news that everyone was to take shelter at the nearby CRPF camp first, after which we would be escorted to Churachandpur. But the events that happened after that changed everything. As me and my family( 7 of us including an elderly and 2 children) started towards the camp with our car we saw a long line of vehicles parked before reaching the camp, so we parked ours wherever space was available. As we and other people there were getting ready to walk towards the camp, we saw a meitei mob shouting and heading towards us a few meters away coming from the road behind the Church. We got so scared that we just ran towards the camp with every amount of energy we had. I held my elder son’s(5 yrs old) hand and ran. It felt like a lifetime running that distance. But the CRPF personnels ushered us in and we were finally inside as they closed the gate behind us. I was so exhausted but I continued going in as deep as I could with my son. We were stuck and not allowed to pass outside the gate because of the risks, so there were no escorts to Churachandpur that day. Me and my family managed to live at the camp for 2 days before we got tickets to escape, by God’s grace.
2. What were you able to bring with you to the camp and what did you leave behind at home? Do you know/describe the current state of your home?
(Camp ah bang teng toi lut man? Bang teng inn ah nusia? Na inn dinmun na thei hia [ki haal/ding lai]?)
We made sure to pack our important documents and papers, ids, and a few clothes to change. I made sure to pack my younger son’s food and formula and his feeding essentials. But there were lots of things that we forgot or didn’t get time to pack, like a mat, shawls or light blankets, biscuits, etc, which we found were needed when we were inside the camp, since there were not enough rooms to sleep, sit, etc. Thankfully we had friends who shared their stuffs with us. God bless them.
It seems the mob’s first target was the Church, so they went for it and started burning it. We were all inside the camp by this time, and we started to see smoke and fire from the burning Church. And there was more burning and gas cylinder explosions which we assumed were our houses/quarters, one after the other since most were connecting quarters and the sound of explosions getting nearer and nearer. We didn’t expect them to burn them since they were govt quarters, but they did and it was beyond heartbreaking to see, since they still were homes filled with memories to us. All we could do was just watch helplessly from the distance. Later we came to know that they didn’t burn houses that were connected to non-tribal houses, but their belongings were all either destroyed or stolen. It seems they knew exactly where tribals recided. They heartlessly burnt our house down, all our belongings and memories reduced to ashes. There was nothing left to save.
3. Were you together with your family at the same camp, or have you been separated; if so, do you know what their current situation is?
( Na sung te toh camp ah na omkhawm uh hia, ahih kei leh na kikhen kha uhia; amau dinmun na thei hia?)
Thankfully, me and my family did not get separated during this whole ordeal, and we’re still together, safe and sound far away from what could have been our deathbeds.
4. Were you provided with food and drinks at the camp? Was their sufficient food and drinks for all?
(Nek leh dawn di camp ah hon pia uhia? Kidaih vek hia?)
Food, water, toilet, a place to sleep. There was a scarcity of almost everything in the camp. And I don’t blame the CRPF at all. They were doing their best to provide us with shelter and protection, but when thousands of people suddenly come to you for help, it is impossible to feed all of them and meet their needs when the state government doesn’t try to help at all.
Food wasn’t available whenever we were hungry, so we just had to wait when it was available. It’s tolerable for us adults, but I felt so bad for the children. They served us khichdi, but since there were so many people to feed, the food would be exhausted within no time so we had to rush everytime they would say food was available. There were so many of us who didn’t bring containers so we used whatever we had to put the food. Plastic bags, leaves, etc. Water was another issue. I think by the 2nd day, water in all of the syntax containers in the campus were exhausted so people had to use the toilet with little or no water, and toilets were getting filled up with human waste. Taking a bath was not an option since water was so scarce and we wanted to save it for more important things. But I saw a water supplier truck filling up the campus syntax so I’m just guessing someone, a group of people or the CRPF might have called and paid for them.. Drinking water was also thankfully available as the suppliers/vendors came occasionally and sold them at Rs.150 per 12 bottles, which was a good discount.. Internet and social media was shut down so we had no idea what people were talking or discussing about in the state and around the country. There were rumors and a lot of talks, but no-one was 100% sure about anything. Everything was a speculation, and we were just trying to live and come out alive. We did see a lot of RAF aircrafts flying past the sky, and everytime I saw one I felt a sense of relief, to know that they have been sent to control the situation here.
5. Approximately how many people were there at the camp? Were you able to sleep? How safe did you feel at the camp?
(Mi bangzah vel camp ah a om di uh? Imut theih na cit a hi hia? Camp ah na omlai in na lung a muang thei hia?)
Lamphel CRPF camp consists of 2 camps, camp 1 and camp 2. The camp we stayed in was camp 2. I would say there were definitely much more than 1000 people at that camp, the total number of people at camp 1 and camp 2 together might be around 4000. Since we don’t know the exact number of people I can’t say for sure how many there were, but definitely in terms of thousands. There were a lot of us, adults, elders, children, babies, newborns, and even pet dogs.
I don’t think people slept the 1st night. Everything escalated so fast after we left our homes, we were all still in shock, depressed, displaced, things that we never imagined would happen to us happened within a few moments. In the blink of an eye everything was gone. I made sure my kids could sleep and that was all that mattered to me. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. Mosquitoes were a big problem and I stayed up all night protecting my kids from them.
Staying inside the camp was definitely safer than being outside. But I can’t say I felt 100% safe at the time, as I felt like the meitei attackers would find an opportunity and jump in from the walls anytime. The CRPF even warned us not to go too close to the walls, corners and boundaries as attackers could assault from there. There was an incident on the 2nd day at camp 1, where 2 men went outside to buy medicines or stuff without an escort, they ended up being kidnapped by some meitei goons and were dragged upto the hills, but as soon as the news came some CRPF personnels went and rescued them and brought them back. They came back with bruises and wounds and an ambulance was called to get them to the hospital. I saw the ambulance and the injured people with my own eyes as we had transferred to that camp from camp 2 that evening since we were to be escorted to the airport from there the next day. There was some tension that evening(on 5th May 2023) with gunshots being heard in the vicinity, so the CRPF would keep reminding us to lower our voices and stop unnecessarily roaming around. One even said, ‘Aaj road ka condition bohot kharab hai’, meaning ‘Today the roads are in very bad condition’. It was scary and I wondered if we would even be able to make it to the airport the next day. I was so much in fear that night, and so were others. But I’m extremely grateful to the CRPF because I know they were trying their best to protect us from any harm dutying and guarding us from all sides that night. They kept assuring us that they wouldn’t leave any of us behind and that everyone who had tickets would get to go, and they were doing their best to escort us safely. All this while the state govt and their MLAs were silent and sleeping.
6. Do you or your family know of anyone who has been injured or killed?
(Nang leh na sungkuan ten na mi theih uh a liam leh si a omkha hia?)
I’ve heard and seen pictures of people who have been injured or killed, but I don’t know them personally. My family knows a lot of them as they’ve been living in Imphal for many years. Even though I don’t know them personally, I’m heart-broken and angered at the circumstances and the way they were killed, mostly by mob lynching. Really inhuman and heartless. A mother and adult son who were a bit late in driving towards a shelter on 4th May 2023, crossed paths with a meitei mob, who pulled them out and mercilessly beat them to death. They also broke the daughter-in-law’s arms who had gone missing for sometime after that incident, she was found at RIMS hospital later, unconscious and with two broken arms. Also, MLA Vungzagin Valte was on his way to have a meeting with the CM about safely escorting tribals, he sent his guards back home to protect the many people taking shelter in his home, so it was just him and his driver and on their way back they were attacked by a meitei mob and were left unconscious on the road. His driver unfortunately didn’t make it after being treated at RIMS hospital ICU. He on the other hand was taken to a Delhi hospital in critical condition and is currently recovering. There are many more who are injured and lost their lives at the hands of these heartless people, and it boils my blood when I think about them. Even we had a narrow escape when moving towards the camp. I can’t imagine what they would have done to us had they reached us before we reached the camp.
7. Can you describe how you got from the camp to Guwahati? Did you face any dangers along the way?
(Camp apan hiai mun non tung dan non gen thei diam? Lamkal ah buaina tuah khak na nei hia?)
On the 2nd day at the camp, we decided to book tickets to flee from Manipur since it was clearly not safe for us to stay any more. First we thought of Aizawl, but all flights to Aizawl were full, tickets were all booked for upto 2-3 days. So the next option for us was Guwahati, but we had to book fast since flights to Guwahati were also getting full rapidly. My sister ultimately found and booked a flight to Guwahati via Teju(Arunachal Pradesh) for all 7 of us for the next day, i.e., 6th May 2023. We went to camp 1 that evening since many of us were to be escorted from there the next day. That was the night of tension and fear. The CRPF informed us that we would be starting out at 4:30 am. We had slept under the cloudy open sky that night with a cold wind blowing, but I tried to make my kids as comfortable as possible. At around 3am it started to drizzle and we quickly got up with our bags and took shelter in a nearby, already crowded big room. All of us waited for 4:30 am but because of the ongoing tension outside we were called only at around 6am, the CRPF took us to their vehicle station and there were many army trucks and buses to escort us. The 9am flights were called first to fill a truck, and then the 11am flights to fill another. There was a rush as everyone was desperate to escape first, the airport was the first safe haven to go to, it felt safer than the camp since it was not the main target for the meitei attackers. Me and my kids sat in one truck, my other family members sat in another bus. A bullet proof vehicle with CRPF personnels led the escort, followed by a bus and 2 trucks full of people, and at the end behind us was another vehicle full of CRPF personnels to guard us and complete the escort. They covered the truck curtains over it to make sure that we were all hidden from view. While on the way, I peeped from the curtains and saw the non-tribals probably mostly meiteis walking, driving two-wheelers, four-wheelers freely and opening shops and just living their normal lives, they had nothing to fear or be hidden from since their lives weren’t in danger, our lives were. This is why it really angered me when later I saw on the TV, a group of meitei protestors in Delhi with placards that read things like ‘we want peace, save the meiteis’, when they had nothing to be saved from, they were all protected and really living their daily normal lives in Imphal. The state govt is by your side and that is why they haven’t done anything to stop all the burnings and killings. They just let all these attacks happen freely. I’ve been on ground zero and I know what I actually saw and what happened here than all those fake protestors.
The whole way from the camp to the airport, with fear in our hearts we prayed that we reach safely and that we don’t cross paths with any meitei mobs on the road. But to some extent we were relieved that we were finally leaving this place. Lamphel was quite deserted, shops in the supermarket were all closed and some were burnt, but from RIMS road onwards the rest of the road looked quite normal, with a few burnt remains here and there. But that was all I could see from the curtain that I peeped from. Inmates in the truck who couldn’t look outside asked me if we were nearing the airport, which we finally did as I could finally see the airport walls, we had reached at around 7 am. Everyone was so relieved, then we entered the airport gate smoothly. As we stopped and got down the truck, we thanked the CRPF personnels and wished them well. The airport was jam packed since people were trying to flee. It was still early for us to enter since our flight departure was at 11:45am, so we waited till about 8:30am to get in line. While we waited, we saw many more batches of people arriving, being escorted by the CRPF. The line to the airport entrance was long, but my husband took the time to request a wheelchair for my mother-in-law since she is old-aged and has difficulty walking. We could finally enter the airport and finished check-in and got our boarding passes, everything was complete and we were all ready and sat and waited for our flight by 10:30am. Since we didn’t get to eat anything in the morning, we thought we’d eat something when we finally reached the airport even if it cost double or triple, but everything was exhausted, there were no snacks left for them to sell. I felt really bad for my son as he was also empty stomach, but I kept telling him to wait just a little longer, and all we could do was just wait. At around 11:25 am they finally announced that our flight was ready and we could board the flight. Our flight started out at around 12pm, stopped for a few minutes at Teju airport in Arunachal Pradesh and we finally reached Guwahati at 3:15pm. The airport staff in Guwahati were very welcoming and I realized people were talking a lot about the ongoing turmoil in Manipur. I saw 2-3 people holding placards that said they were there to escort students coming from Manipur. Our clothes were unchanged and dirty. Our gaunt, tanned, sleep-deprived and exhausted faces showed our struggles. People could literally distinguish between which passengers were normal and which escaped from Imphal camps. As we came out of the airport I finally saw my family and we happily and emotionally reunited after what seemed like the longest and hardest few days of our lives. I saw my mom first and we hugged and cried, grateful that we could see each other again safe and sound.
While in the camp I kept wondering if we would survive and make it out alive. We did survive and I’m extremely grateful to God, to all the people who prayed for us while we were in the camp, to our relatives who spent sleepless nights and days trying to book the earliest tickets for us, to all the CRPF personnels and army who protected us during our stay at the camp and while escorting us to the airport, to fellow camp inmates and friends who shared some of their belongings and food with us. We wouldn’t be here today safe and sound without all of these joint efforts. It’s hard and sad to think about the people we left behind at the camp, especially children and there were some newborns and new mothers too, as I know so well the things they still have to tolerate, living in fear every moment, along with extremely limited resources and difficult living conditions. We are fortunate that we could escape at the earliest, but there are people left in the camp who want to and are willing to flee to any other state but don’t have the money or family to go to, and tickets are also getting difficult to get, and prices are soaring by the minute. Let us continue to pray for them, and for our state to heal as soon as possible.