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A Report from Kangpokpi

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

In last week’s Newsletter, the Degel Menashe aid and fact-finding mission sent to the B’nei Menashe of Mizoram and Manipur gave an account of its visit to Manipur’s second largest city of Churachandpur. This week’s account of its stay in the northern Manipuri town of Kangpokpi is its third and final one. Degel Menashe intends soon to present a full report of the mission’s findings and conclusions.

Friday morning at Beit Shalom, Kangpokpi.

(July 13, 2023) Although half a day’s car ride would normally have brought our Degel Menashe mission from Churachandpur in Manipur’s south to Kangpokpi in the north, this would have meant crossing the Meitei-controlled Central Valley at our peril. The risk was too great, and so we made the 15-hour road trip back to Aizawl in Mizoram, flew to Guwahati in Assam, spent the night there, took a train the next morning to Dimapur in Nagaland, and drove south in a rented car without passing through Meitei territory to Kangpokpi, where we arrived late at night. The need for such a three-day trip is one of the many ways in which the ethnic violence that has swept Manipur has totally disrupted the region’s life.


The day after our arrival in Kangpokpi it was a Friday. Our first meeting, which took place in the local Beit Shalom Synagogue, was with B’nei Menashe from the Kuki village of Saikul, located in the foothills bordering the Central Valley’s eastern rim. They had come to Kangpokpi to see us and wanted to set out for home early so as to arrive in time for Shabbat. Saikul has in recent weeks been the site of frequent skirmishing between attacking Meitei and defending Kuki forces, which include the village’s ten B’nei Menashe families, none of which has chosen to leave it. So far, we were told by their representatives, the attacks have all been repelled with heavy Meitei losses and minimal casualties on the Kuki side. We gave the Saikul villagers the 150 kilos of rice that were their share of the food relief we had at our disposal and saw them off with our prayers.

Representatives of the Saikul community.

The next group we met with at Beit Shalom was from the village of Kangchup, on the Central Valley’s northwest side. Its fate has been different Saikul’s. Stormed by Meitei bands at the beginning of the fighting in early May before it had a chance to organize, its population, including some 50 B’nei Menashe, fled for their lives and most of its homes were burned; although subsequently some of its male residents have returned to defend what is left of the village, no B’nei Menashe are among them. We spoke at length with one of the Kangchup group, Yaakov Sitlhou, whose family is now living in rented rooms in the village of Motbung, some 15 kilometers south of Kangpokpi.


“Kangchup was overrun by a Meitei mob on the 4th of May, around noon,” Yaakov told us. “We were totally unprepared. We had heard about the violence in Imphal and Churachandpur, but we didn't think it would reach us. I myself was sure the government would protect us. How wrong I was! Our house was at the far end of the village. When shots began to ring out and I saw the mob coming and setting fire to everything in its way, I took my wife and two daughters and headed on foot for an Assam Rifles army camp nearby.”


The Sitlhous were quickly joined by other B’nei Menashe families. “We scarcely made it out of the village in time,” Yaakov said. “The bullets were already whizzing past us. Four of us had gunshot wounds, my friend Tuvia Kipgen with a shotgun pellet in his shoulder; one was badly wounded in the stomach and had to be evacuated to a hospital in Guwahati. When we reached the army camp, my wife had a heart attack. Her life was saved by an army officer who had access to an oxygen tank.”

Meeting with the Kangchup community, Yaakov Sitlhou, in the center with blue shirt.

The Sitlhous stayed in the army camp for slightly over three weeks before moving on to Motbung. “Before the fighting,” said Yaakov, “I used to run a fairly successful organic vegetable farm. We had a good income and a secure life. All that has changed now. We've lost everything. I have no illusions about returning to our home and fields in the foreseeable future.”


But the most painful part of it all for him and other B’nei Menashe, Yaakov explained to us, was less the loss of their homes than the loss of their Jewish communal life with all its practices and rituals. Yaakov had tears in his eyes as he told us how, while at the army camp, he missed the Sabbath table at which his family used to gather every week to recite the Kiddush and sing Sabbath hymns. “Some of us living in relief camps,” he said, “still don’t have so much as a table. They have to make their Shabbat on the floor, surrounded by Christian families staring as them. When something like this happens, you feel disconnected and life means less. Things like a communal Kiddush, studying Torah – that’s what we miss most. You can take a rifle and shoot at Meiteis but how is that going to help us? Our task is to lead a life of Torah. We need to be able to do that together, in the privacy of our own community.”


Rivka Lhouvum, also from Kangchup, told us of similar experiences. Her husband and three children fled to the same army camp as did the Sitlhous before finding refuge in Kangpokpi. “In Kangchup,” she told us, “we had had a home and a small stationary business. Now we’ve lost everything. All we have left is our hope that things will change for the better.”

Relief camp at the Industrial Training Institute campus, Kangpokpi.

From Beit Shalom we went to see a government-run relief camp on the grounds of Kangpokpi’s Industrial Training Institute. Each of its six rooms used for living quarters was crowded with up to eight families, among them four B’nei Menashe ones -- three from Kangchup and one from Sajal, 18 people all in all. Conditions were primitive. There was no furniture or accessories of any kind. The camp residents slept on the floor, on thin reed or plastic foam mattresses. Their only personal possessions were the clothes they were wearing when they fled their villages. They had no mosquito nets, an absolute necessity in Manipur when the monsoon season sets in, as it just has done.


Some displaced B’nei Menashe have managed to leave the relief camp and are now renting room in Kangpokpi. We spoke with one such family, that of Elkana Ngaite, his wife

Reed and foam mats which serves as beds.

and three children, also from Kangchup. Elkana was a successful trader who also ran a small-loan business that catered to local merchants, and luckily has enough money in the bank to pay for rented quarters. Altogether, of the 190 B‘nei Menashe who fled to Kangpoki at the height of the hostilities in May and found temporary shelter there, only those at the Industrial Training Center camp are still homeless. Some have rented rooms like the Ngaites, some have moved in with relatives, and many have left for Churachandpur, where there is a larger B’nei Menashe community and a greater sense of security. Work is scarce in Kangpokpi, and employers give preference to local residents. None of the displaced B’nei Menashe is currently earning any income, and those relying on their savings face the prospect of their money running out.


We spent Shabbat in Kangpokpi, hosted and fed by Liora Gangte, a local member of the community, and attended Friday evening and Saturday morning prayers at Beit Shalom. Despite all that everyone has been through, the congregation, old-timers and displaced newcomers alike, sang the familiar melodies with great exuberance and in perfect harmony. In a moment of collective trauma, we were thankful to be able to be there with them.



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