DEEP IN THE CONFLICT ZONE AT LAMKA (CHURACHANDPUR)
Last week we posted a dispatch from Jessica Thangjom, a member of the Degel Menashe aid mission to northeast India, describing its visit to Thingdawl, a displaced persons’ camp in northern Mizoram. This week she is joined by mission member Asaf Renthlei, who describes his impressions of the homeless B’nei Menashe in Manipur’s second largest city of Churachandpur.
(July 6) After returning from Thingdawl, our Degel Menashe mission left Aizawl for Churachandpur at 7 a.m. on Thursday, June 29. As we neared the Mizoram-Manipur border, Internet reception grew more patchy, the Manipuri government having yet to renew the Internet services that it shut down when the violence in that state broke out two months ago. At Khawdungsei, the last stop on the Mizo side, we said goodbye over our cell phones to those in Israel we had been maintaining contact with, and a little later, as we reached the border crossing at the Tuivai Bridge, we did the same with our friends in Aizawl.
The roads got worse and worse. At many points on the Manipur side, they were paved with nothing more than stones that had been partly pounded into gravel by the trucks passing over them, and they frequently narrowed to stretches that only one vehicle could pass at a time. Although we were already in the monsoon season, it was our good fortune that the preceding days has seen no heavy rains of the kind that can turn such roads into quagmires. Only once did we get briefly stuck, and at 10 o’clock that night we finally reached Churachandpur, having taken 15 hours to cover the 200-kilometer distance.
The next day, we were up early disbursing supplies to the displaced B’nei Menashe in Churachandpur, who are now quartered at two locations – 23 of them on the premises of the B’nei Menashe Council-run Rabbi Avichail School, and a larger group of 105 at the Shavei Israel-administered Beit Shalom Synagogue.
At the Avichail School, where there were two families from Sajal, a heavily B’nei Menashe village destroyed by Meitei assailants in early May, each family had a room to itself and conditions were reasonably comfortable. The situation was different at Beit Shalom, whose population, most of it from Sajal too, is squeezed into a curtained-off enclosure at the foot of the synagogue, each occupant living and sleeping within inches of another. Although the caretaker, Samuel Vaiphei, did not allow us to enter the area, we caught a glimpse of it the next day on our way to Shabbat services in the synagogue. Two Kuki humanitarian organizations, the Kuki Youth Organization and the Indigenous Tribal Leadership Forum, have been, Vaiphei told us, providing the Beit Shalom population with food and water, but the water must be carefully rationed, there is a severe lack of blankets and mosquito nets, and there are only four toilets for the entire group.
While the Beit Shalom facilities, according to Vaiphei, make it “one of the best relief camps in Churachandpur,” Beit Shalom’s occupants paint a different picture of insufferable congestion, inadequate services, and sleepless nights. One family, after two weeks at Beit Shalom, which it told our mission was a “pig sty,” fled to the the Avichail School in desperation. Eight other families, the school having no more room, approached us with the request that we arrange alternative lodgings for them. Soon after our departure, one of Beit Shalom’s occupants, 28-year-old Ronen Thangminlal Haokip, was found dead in a toilet of a drug overdose. Haokip, who had no previous record of substance abuse and was driven to drugs by his despair, left behind a wife and two small children.
It is not just the displaced B’nei Menashe families who need care and attention. With fighting continuing along the demarcation line between Kuki and Meitei-controlled areas, there is no end to the hostilities in sight. Supplies can reach southern Manipur and Churachandpur, where the great majority of the state’s B’nei Menashe live, only from Mizoram, and the local economy is barely functioning, so that most families that have retained their homes are in living in straightened circumstances, too.
The majority of B’nei Menashe in Churachandpur are daily wage laborers and the difficulty of finding work has hit them hard. Employed or not, they have to pay their rent, their food expenses, and their electricity and water bills. The average family’s diet has deteriorated significantly and now consists of rice with vegetable gravy and chillies. Meat, while still available, is off the table, and fried fish is a delicacy reserved only for Sabbath meals, if at all. The local food markets are open only three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and their produce is snatched up quickly.
In such bleak circumstances, it was uplifting to join the community for Shabbat. We ate our Friday night meal with its kiddush and familiar melodies with the families at the Avichail School, and were hosted for a Sabbath lunch by Joel Haokip, a local B’nei Menashe member. Later in the day, the community members cobbled together a handsome se’uda shlishit to which we were invited. For the Havdalah ceremony, a Torah tutor at the Rav Avichail school, Simon Singsit, graciously hosted us in honoring the departing Sabbath with raisins and homebrewed raisin wine.
On Sunday morning, we headed back for Aizawl with heavy hearts. The sheer magnitude of the circumstances in Churachandpur which we were already aware of in broad strokes through scattered news reports and social networks but were seeing in person for the first time, was a haunting experience. Yes, people were out and about in the streets, small businesses were open, and water and electricity were more or less available, but in the two months that have passed since the eruption of violence in early May, the complete breakdown of law and order continues.
As the Indian army and the central government in New Delhi go on sitting on the sidelines, the conflict grew ever more vicious. It reached a climax the week we were in Manipur when a Kuki-Hmar village, Langza, was attacked and burned to the ground. One young villager, caught by Meitei militias, was beaten to a pulp, and decapitated, his head impaled on a bamboo stake. In revenge, a Langza defense force attacked the nearby Meitei village of Khoijumantabi, killed several of its guards, and beheaded one of them. The wounds inflicted by the last two months will take a generation or more to heal. The B’nei Menashe of Manipur cannot wait that long for their long-promised Aliyah to Israel.