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Operation Mattresses and Mosquito Nets: Report From Asaf Renthlei

(Asaf Renthlei is a B’nei Menashe educator and activist living in Aizawl.)

Pastor Abe Thomas Oomen visiting the B'nei Menashe in early June. File photo.

(August 10) In the city of Kochi on the Indian Ocean, in the southwestern state of Kerala, is a Christian charitable organization called Operation Exodus that believes that the Jews remain God’s chosen people, so that, as a spokeswoman says, “We see God’s hand at work as He performs countless miracles to bring His people home to their land.” Reaching out across the breadth of the Indian subcontinent, it has helped the B’nei Menashe of northeast India in the past. Recently, too, with the outbreak of violence in Manipur, it came to their assistance with an aid package brought this past June 1 to Aizawl, the capital of the state of Mizoram, by a delegation headed by the organization’s co-founder, Pastor Abe Oommen.

Following this visit, which was hosted by Shavei Israel, I reached out to Operation Exodus and informed it of the presence of several groups of displaced Bnei Menashe that were not served by Shavei Israel. The organization expressed its interest in helping them as well, and in the wake of last month’s Degel Menashe fact-finding mission to Mizoram and Manipur led by Jessica Thangjom, Operation Exodus offered to send additional aid based on the mission’s findings.

We called Operation Exodus’ attention to Thingdawl, a government-run relief camp in northern Mizoram where 25 B”nei Menashe families from Manipur are now staying. Thingdawl’s residents are provided with floors to sleep on and a meal of rice and lentils twice a day. (Two sit-down meals a day are the custom in Mizoram) However, since most of them fled Manipur for their lives in the early stages of the conflict, jostling for space in cramped vehicles, they traveled only with their clothes and most essential belongings. Mattresses, blankets, and mosquito nets, all crucial items in the Mizoram hills, with their cold nights and malarial mosquitos, were an urgent need. So were disposable diapers for children and sanitary pads for women, for although Thingdawl’s 200 residents have access to piped water, there is not enough of it to do frequent washes .In addition, hygienic essentials like soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste were a necessity.

Material assistance sent by Operation Exodus to the B'nei Menashe at Thingdawl, Mizoram.

Operation Exodus graciously agreed to supply all these items. Getting them to Thingdawl, however, was not easy. The initial plan was to deliver the entire package of aid via a road running from Silchar, a transportation hub on the Assam-Mizoram state border. Yet the heavy monsoon rains of July and early August had turned this road into a morass. Mudslides had blocked parts of it, forcing vehicles to take rural detours unable to cater to large trucks. As a result, the aid had to be divided into two shipments that could be transported on smaller pickup trucks. The first shipment to arrive in Mizoram was delivered to an Aizawl warehouse by an Operation Exodus team on the Sabbath eve of August 4. In it were 28 mattresses, plus mosquito nets, blankets, buckets, laundry powder, toothbrushes, toothpastes, diapers, sanitary pads, and soap.

Ariella Haokip hands over aid items.

From here, the local Bnei Menashe community assumed responsibility for the shipment. On Monday, August 7, a day of heavy rains, the shipment left Aizawl for Thingdawl, A trip that usually takes two hours ended up taking five, as the weather impeded progress and mudslides along the way diverted traffic onto side roads. Yet by afternoon all the relief items were in Thingdawl, in the hands of their grateful recipients.

“We’ve been anxiously awaiting these things,” said Ariella Haokip, a Thingdawl resident who helped distribute the materials. “I’m overjoyed that they’ve arrived.” To which another camp inhabitant, Nadav Lhoujiem [see last week’s article, “A Hebrew Teacher in a DP Camp”], added with emotion, “Thank you so so much, Operation Exodus! I look forward to finally sleeping on a comfortable mattress for the first time in two months.”

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