B’nei Menashe Refugees Reach Aizawl Mizoram BMC Offers Aid
(May 25) When, during the violent assaults by Meitei attackers on Kuki communities in Manipur in early May, an estimated 600 B’nei Menashe, all ethnic Kukis themselves, fled from their homes in the capital of Imphal and the two villages of Sajal and Kangchup, their main destinations were safer places in Manipur. A few with family elsewhere and the means to get there, travelled as far as New Delhi. None at first chose Manipur’s neighboring state of Mizoram, despite its proximity and its own 1,000-member B’nei Menashe community.
The reasons were several. Despite lying on Manipur’s southern border, Mizoram is not easily reached from there; the only roads are in poor condition, public transportation involves arduous roundabout routes, and air travel is expensive and even dangerous, since Manipur’s only airport is in Imphal, where Kukis venture at their peril nowadays. They speak different though related languages, and have managed their affairs separately over the years. When Manipur’s B’nei Menashe refugees thought of finding a safe haven, their first thoughts were not of Mizoram.
And yet since mid-May, a trickle of B’nei Menashe has begun arriving in Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl (several families have also sought refuge in the northern Mizo towns of Bairabi and Kolasip), and this shows signs of turning into a larger flow. The overall number has been estimated at 15 families and close to 100 people. Just last week, our Newsletter was told by Asaf Rentlei, a B”nei Menashe communal leader and educator in Aizawl, they were joined by five more families from Imphal, all traveling together.
The route taken by them was not a direct one, although, lately, some have done so, out of desperation. When Meitei mobs rampaged through their Imphal neighborhoods, the first refuge they found was in a temporary shelter in a local army camp. Following the camp’s disbandment, they were given the choice of being bused, with an army escort, to either Churachandpur in Manipur’s south, or to Kangkpokpi in its north, both Kuki towns with sizable B’nei Menashe communities that had not been directly affected by the violence. Along with other B’nei Menashe refugees, the five families chose to move in with relatives in Kangpokpi.
Yet there, too, they did not feel truly safe and they soon set about procuring bus tickets for Dimapur, a city in Nagaland to Manipur’s north, from where they traveled to Shillong, the capital of the adjacent state of Meghalaya, and from there, via another long bus trip, to Aizawl. “It wasn’t easy,” says the leader of the five families, Elisha Haokip, “but to be blunt, we have no more prospects in Manipur.” Haokip, an enterprising and well-educated young man who tells a harrowing tale of a co-ordinated attack upon hapless Kukis throughout Imphal, feels that until Israel allows him to make Aliyah, he would be better off earning a living and studying Judaism in Mizoram. The chances of ever recovering his family’s burned and looted property in West Imphal, he estimates, are slim at best. Better to live among fellow B’nei Menashe than in exile elsewhere.
Upon arriving in Aizawl, the five families turned to Lemuel Haokip, a a B’nei Menashe Council advisor who hails from Manipur but has been employed in Aizawl in government service. Haokip found them lodgings to rent, from which they subsequently moved to other rented quarters where a BMC delegation visited them this week and discussed ways of helping them. With the BMC’s help, other B’nei Menashe families from Manipur now in Aizawl have found alternative solutions. Two are staying in the South Aizawl home of long time BMC member Elisheva Khiangte, and some are being housed at the BMC-administered Shlom Tzion Synagogue.
Although the distance they must travel is greater, B’nei Menashe heading for Aizawl from Kangpokpi have in one respect an easier time than those wishing to do so from Churachandpur. This is because in the latter city, which is the center of Kuki life in Manipur and of Kuki resistance to the Meitei onslaught, the departure of able-bodied men who can be conscripted to the Kuki cause has been discouraged by Kuki volunteer groups. Thus when, convinced they would have a better future in Aizawl, Oren and Efrona Tungnung decided to leave Churachandpur with their two small children even though their house there was in no immediate danger, Oren secretly left first while Efrona, pregnant with a third child, joined him only upon hearing that he had safely arrived. Now together again, they are staying for the moment at the BMC’s Shlom Tzion Synagogue.
“We are doing all we can to provide assistance and comfort to our displaced B’nei Menashe brothers and sisters from Manipur,” says Mizoram BMC treasurer Nadav Hauhnar, says, “We appreciate what the government of Mizoram has done to aid all Kukis who have sought refuge in the state, and we are adding our own bit for the B’nei Menashe. If more come, we will extend ourselves for them, too. We welcome them in fellowship in our synagogue and at our prayers, and hope they will think well of our efforts.” Asaf Renthlei adds, "We are a small community here is Aizawl. Our numbers have doubled since the conflict began and we are overstretched. Friends, well wishers and organizations have reached out to us with aid but we will be needing every assistance in the coming days. Even if this conflagration were to end tomorrow or in a month, which I doubt, the effects will linger on for a long time to come."
Amid all these travails, the Aizawl community shared a moment of joy in mid-May when the first Israeli-B’nei Menashe marriage ever to take place in India was celebrated at the May 15 wedding of Asher Chen and Naomi Lhoujiem. They had narrowly escaped the violence in Manipur taking the southerly route to Aizawl. The bride, a native of Manipur, has known her new husband since 2019, nor is Asher a stranger to the B'nei Menashe community, having visited it that same year and worked there as a volunteer teacher with B’nei Menashe youth in Manipur. “We all wish them a hearty Mazal Tov,” says Asaf Rentlei.