A Sajal Survivor Tells His Story
Updated: May 11
On the evening of May 3, Sajal, a Kuki village of some 350 imhabitants between Imphal and Churachandpur 250 of them B’nei Menashe, was burned to the ground by Meitei assailants in what has so far been the worst incident in the current ethnic violence in Manipur. Here is the account of one survivor, B’nei Menashe community member Letkhoneh Shem Haokip. I am from Sajal, 47 years old with a wife and two children, an older son and a daughter. My son is in Bangalore, working to help support us and our 12 year old daughter lives with us. I work in construction at the Manipur-Mizoram border and am away from home most of the time. On the 3rd of May, I happened to be home. I had gone to Nambol, a nearby Meitei town, to buy some tin sheet roofing for my house in Sajal that I was adding to. I came back home late afternoon that day. I had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen that night. The first warning was when I began to see messages on my WhatsApp from people in the nearby Kuki village of Agijang, about 5 or 6 kilometres way, saying that a menacing crowd was gather near their village. I thought they were overreacting and went on planning the construction on my house. I was still involved in it as the sun began to set.
It must have been about 6:30 pm when I sat down for my supper. Outside I could hear excitement, movement, people running around for no reason I could make out. I continued eating, finished my meal, and walked to the edge of the village to have a look. Sajal is high up and we have a good view of the valley right below us, the rice fields, and the roads. It was already dark, probably about 7. Looking down, I saw the headlights of what must have been about 30 to 40 vehicles heading towards us on the Nambol road, where I'd been earlier that day. At the same time, on the other side of the horizon, we saw Aigijang village on fire. The vehicles stopped at Leimaram, which must be about 2 kilometers away from us. By now I agreed that it certainly looked menacing. A few minutes later, someone from Sajal fire a shot with a shotgun. It was replied to by several rounds from automatic rifles. It was then that we realized that the worst was happening: they were coming for us!. There was nothing much a few shotguns could do against automatic rifles.
There was no time, it was a matter of minutes before they reached Sajal. I went to fetch my family, including my old father and mother. My father is a semi-invalid, but at least he could walk. Hurriedly, we made our way up the hillock nearby. From a relatively safe place we watched our houses as they were torched one by one until the whole village was engulfed in flames. There must have been at least 500 attackers Our synagogue, too, was burnt along with our Torah. There was simply no time to save anything. We'd left Sajal with only the clothes we had on. Some lucky ones managed to grab a shawl or a blanket. I felt lucky that I'd eaten supper, at least I wouldn't have to worry about being hungry.
We spent the night in the jungle. Most of us were too tense to sleep; moreover there was nothing that could serve as a bed. The next day, at dawn, we trudged to a nearby village of the Chiru tribe. The villagers gave us food and water, which was gratefully welcomed by us after a harrowing night. After a while, though,, we were told by them that we had to leave their village since they had been warned by the Meiteis that they would be made to pay for it if we were given shelter. We headed to the nearest Assam Rifles army camp in the area. I wouldn't call the welcome given us there a warm one, but at the same time we were not refused. We must have been a little over 120 in our group from Sajal. I didn’t know where the others were: it wasn’t possible to keep track of everyone in the chaos. There were over 2,000 Kukis from several villages taking refuge in the camp. The food was terrible, nothing but rice with lentil gruel cooked with jackfruit three or four times a day. But who were we to complain? At least we had food and shelter. We slept on the floor, finding space wherever it was available.
Finally, after five days, we were told that we could choose where we would like to go with security and transport provided by the Assam Rifles. With our homes gone, the only places we possibly could choose were the homes of relatives who could take us in. Around 80 of us chose to go to Churachandpur and the rest headed for Kangpokpi. On the 9th of May, we arrived at a camp in Churachandpur which was run by various charities, and that evening we were given shelter at Beit Shalom Synagogue. Food has been provided by the Kuki Youth Association. I have no idea what the future holds for us. I have been waiting for more than 27 years to make Aliyah to Israel. Now is the time to let me come.