DEGEL MENASHE VISITS DISPLACED AT MIZORAM: AN ACCOUNT
Updated: Dec 15, 2023
(June 30, 2023) Some 200 of the 650
B’nei Menashe of Manipur who have fled their homes because of the Meitei-Kuki violence of the past two months are now in northern Mizoram – over 40 families in a government-run displaced persons camp in the location of Thingdawl and another 15 families in the nearby town of Kolasib. Some have come directly from Manipur. Others have been relocated from Aizawl, where they initially sought shelter.
This week, a Degel Menashe delegation made the 4-hour drive from Aizawl to the Kolasib-Thingdawl area in order to visit the refugees and determine what aid they required. The delegation consisted of six people: two, Jessica Thangjom and volunteer Rachel Garrick from Israel; four, Asaf Renthlei, Leah Renthlei, Ben Aryeh Chenkual and local B’nei Menashe Council treasurer Nadav Hranglientawna, from Aizawl; and Ohaliav Haokip, general secretary of the BMC in Manipur, from Churachandpur. Here, with input from Asaf, is Jessica’s preliminary report.
Rachel and I landed at Aizawl’s Lengpui airport on a flight from New Delhi on Tuesday morning, June 27, where we were met by Asaf, Leah, Ben Aryeh, Nadav, and Ohaliav. From there we set out directly in a three-car convoy for Thingdawl. With us we took a few simple gifts for the children in the Thingdawl camp: notebooks, crayons, and pencils with sharpeners and erasers, and some sweets and fruit juice.
We arrived at Thingdawl at about 4 p.m. Despite it being the week of the year’s longest day, the light was already beginning to wane, since India has no daylight saving time and only a single time zone, at whose far eastern end Mizoram and Manipur lie. Directed to the camp by local inhabitants, we came to three two-story buildings standing on a hillside. In two of them, it was explained to us, the camp’s 300 displaced– half B’nei Menashe, and half Christian Kukis – are housed, while the third served as an administrative center and kitchen for the two daily meals that are served to the camp’s occupants.
The B’nei Menashe of Thingdawl were expecting us. We were welcomed by a group of them, mainly children, and got to work at once distributing our gifts. One of the first things we noticed about the Thingdawl camp was that most of its residents were children and women. The men and older boys, we were told, had stayed behind in Manipur to help the Kuki defense effort. Over 10,000 Kukis have crossed since early May from Manipur to Mizoram, whose government was already coping with over 30,000 refugees from Myanmar fleeing the depredations of the military regime there. One must commend the Mizo government for the generous hospitality it has shown despite the strain on its resources.
Each of the two buildings housing refugees in Thingdawl, one of which has been set aside for the B’nei Menashe, has 13 rooms, each room holding up to four families. A communal kitchen on the ground floor serves those who would rather prepare their own food, which consists largely of rice, lentils, potatoes and vegetables procured when possible from the local market. The rooms have practically no furniture. All sleep on the floor with a thin foam mat for a mattress in the best of cases and makeshift pillows fashioned from clothes, bags, and other items. Some of the families have badly needed mosquito nets, either purchased or donated by local Mizos; some do not. Each building has a communal toilet and washing area, but water must be brought by the residents from nearby water tanks in buckets or pots and is carefully rationed.
All in all, the Thingdawl camp does not give a depressing impression. Its B’nei Menashe live in primitive but not overcrowded conditions . Each family has a corner of a room or more for itself, with cloth partitions sometimes erected for privacy, and a general sense of neatness and order prevails. The children have been enrolled by the government in local schools (though they do not speak Mizo, they pick it up quickly, since Kuki is a closely related language) and the women keep busy for much of the day cleaning, doing laundry (a never-ending task, since the same clothes must be worn and re-worn), preparing food, and fetching water.
The chief needs of the camp’s B’nei Menashe residents are mattresses, pillows, and mosquito nets. We slept alongside them in a room above the cooking area the night we were in Thingdawl, and the mosquitoes buzzed around us all night, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. We woke early the next morning, groggy and reminding ourselves as we sipped out breakfast of black tea that we had just gone through a single night, while those whose mats and floors we had shared had to endure such nights one after another. As there were not enough men for a minyan, Asaf, Ohaliav, Ben Aryeh, and Nadav had to say their morning prayers individually.
That same day, we also visited the eight displaced families that have been taken in by the tiny Bnei Menashe community of Kolasib, which is a little under half an hour’s drive away. Some are staying with relatives and some have rented homes of their own, either with savings they managed to bring from Manipur or from the work that some have found in local betel plantations. Their situation is better than that of the Thingdawl residents, a program of assistance to whom might include subsidizing rentals in Kolasib. If it was a pleasure for the six of us to be able to rest and wash up in normal facilities, how much more so would it be for Thingdawl’s B’nei Menashe to be able to live that way!
After leaving Thingdawl in the morning, escorted by the children who followed us everywhere, we met with the District Commissioner of the Kolasib region, Mr. John LT Sanga. He and Asaf had studied together in New Delhi and knew each other. An affable man with (like many Mizos and Kukis) an identification with Israel, he told us that the area is currently hosting the largest refugee population in all Mizoram, some 17,000 displaced persons having arrived in a steady stream from Manipur in the last 40 days. The previous day, in fact, had been the first in all that time with no new arrivals. When asked how long Mizoram was prepared to continue hosting the displaced Kukis, his answer was, “For as long as is necessary.”
This was reassuring, because the Thingdawl camp’s B’nei Menashe do not on the whole wish to return to Manipur. They do not feel that they have a future there. Their next destination, as far as they are concerned, must be Israel.
We parted from the commissioner and set out on the return trip to Aizawl, from which we planned to continue to Churachandpur. Although this might not seem to make sense when looking at a map, Kolasib being much closer to Churachandpur than is Aizawl, no passable roads lead from Kolasib northward, it already being the beginning of the monsoon season in India, when dirt roads become untraversable. A paved highway connects Churachandpur to Aizawl, and that was what we planned to take.
A glimpse inside the camp: