(*Some names have been changed to protect identity)
Lush, damp, and dangerous — three wooden houses plotted neatly on a hilltop in Mizoram's Saitual district, now home to 40 Kuki refugees from Manipur, were previously unoccupied.
As ethnic violence between the dominant Meitei community and the Kuki tribals engulfed Manipur, these 40 people fled its capital city of Imphal to reach this transit camp set up in a district in Mizoram, the neighbouring state.
Home or what is left of it is 14 hours and over 400 km away.
"I thought you were from an NGO and were here with some bags of rice," said 40-year-old Mercy*, as she emerged out of one of these wooden houses when The Quint visited the camp on Saturday, 22 July.
Inside the two-room house were some utensils, a gas cylinder, flies swarming over leftover food, clothes and bedsheets hung to dry from ropes stretched between windows, and a few mattresses with mosquito nets tied around them.
On a mattress in a corner slept Mercy's 15-year-old son Andrew*.
"He usually sleeps during the day. Sleeping at night is difficult. This place is cramped. There are mosquitoes, bugs, risk of snakes and other reptiles... And then he even has those nightmares," said Mercy.
The nightmares she referred to are from the evening of 3 May when Andrew, a Kuki, saw his home in a Meitei-dominated neighbourhood in Imphal go up in flames after it was attacked by a mob.
"We were getting news about violence since afternoon that day. My mother asked my sister and I to pack only one pair of clothes as we took refuge in an army camp close by. We were hoping to return home the next day. In the evening, I saw a huge fire and smoke emanating from our society from across the wall of the camp. That moment never leaves my thoughts. For a week at least, I woke up in the middle of the night sweating and panting," said Andrew.
The afternoon The Quint visited Andrew at the transit camp in Mizoram too he woke up scared due to commotion outside his window after people lined up with buckets to fill water from a common tap.
Meanwhile, several other children his age gathered around as Andrew spoke.
"Be it a child or an adult, nobody is ever prepared for a situation like this. We all miss home but deep down we know we will never be able to return. Who will explain this to our children? Some of them are still hopeful. Some are angry and frustrated, others scared," said Andrew's father Tony*.
At the transit camp, The Quint spoke to three Kuki teenagers about the nightmares that unfolded in front of their eyes, and the dreams they dare to have even now.
'Couldn't Let My Son Pick Up Arms'
Andrew welled up several times as he narrated what he saw, heard and felt; how he escaped from Manipur with his family; and all that he lost.
"I wanted to stay back and join the village group to fight the mobs. I feel helpless here. They were killing our people, raping women and young girls, and I could do nothing," he said, his gaze fixed on the floor.
Why didn't he stay back?
Andrew’s father Tony dragged him out of the village – unwilling to let his son become a statistic. "He believed that it wasn't my cup of tea. I can't even hurt a fly," said Andrew, with a laugh.
But Tony’s worries about his son joining the Village Defence Force (VDF) aren’t entirely over as Andrew is still insistent. "To keep him (Andrew) distracted is a challenge. There's no school or friends, books or anything that resembles our life in Imphal. He is always on the phone –watching videos of the violence or protests in Manipur. It makes him restless, and he often says that he wants to return to Imphal and fight the mobs," said Tony.
The VDF is a voluntary force constituted by locals in villages across Manipur to guard their neighbourhoods in the wake of the ongoing ethnic violence.
"They only allow boys above 18 to join the VDF," said Andrew, the disappointment in his voice apparent.
Andrew's is not an isolated case. Several parents at the camp told The Quint about their children expressing willingness to pick up arms to fight the Meitei mobs.
The Refugee Influx in Mizoram
As per estimates by the state government of Mizoram, at least 12,000 people displaced from Manipur are currently seeking refuge in the state.
In an interview to The Quint, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga said that he has requested the Centre for financial assistance to take care of the refugees.
"Mizoram is a small, poverty-stricken state. We aren't prepared to handle refugees at such a huge scale. I have requested the Central government for assistance regarding this," he said.
As per Professor Lalnuntluanga, the General Secretary of the Young Mizo Organisation (YMA), a statewide body of volunteers involved in relief work for refugees from Manipur, the state government only has a conservative estimate of the number of refugees.
"The actual number of refugees who have come from Manipur to Mizoram is actually higher than what the state government is quoting. Hundreds of people are entering the state every day. For now, the relief camps are mostly concentrated in the districts of Aizawl, Saitual, and Kolasib. If the situation worsens, other districts will also see influx of refugees," he said.
'I Was Groped and Touched Violently'
On 3 May afternoon, 17-year-old Grace* had just returned home from school when she saw her mother pack jewellery, clothes, and documents in a bag.
Tensions in her Meitei-dominated neighbourhood in Imphal were palpable.
"My mother told me that we have to immediately leave our home for a place which was safe. At first, I didn't understand what was happening. In fact, I didn't even get a chance to change my clothes. Some of our neighbours had arranged a mini-van. My parents, brother, and I got into it along with others and left for Kangpokpi district," she told The Quint.
Kangpopki, a district in Manipur, is 43 km away from her village in Imphal.
After five days in Kangpopki, they left for Mizoram.
At the transit camp, as Grace spends most of her time teaching young children, she regrets not carrying her own books with her.
"Everything happened so quickly that there was no time to register anything. By the time I realised what was happening, we were hundreds of kilometres away from home. I wish I had carried my books. Now I don't know if I'll ever go to school again," she said.
Grace alleged that she was groped and assaulted by some Meitei men in Kangpokpi in May.
"First we thought Kangpokpi was safe... But one night violence broke out in the village where we were staying. Some men from the Meitei community groped me and other girls in our camp. They touched us violently and inappropriately. We somehow managed to escape," she recalled.
Grace's mother Mary* told The Quint that the family "wanted to approach the police" but there was no time.
She said, "After what happened in Kangpokpi, we decided to leave the state. Some people told us about relief camps being set up in certain places in Mizoram. We wanted to approach the police but there was no time... Also, who do we register a complaint against? An armed mob of 25-30 people descended upon us all at once. It was impossible to identify the person who groped my daughter."
As Mary recounted what happened in Imphal, and then Kangpopki, tears rolled down her eyes.
"My daughter is constantly nervous," said Mary as she sat on wooden bench and watched her daughter play with a four-year-old.
'I Want to Return Home'
Christopher*, 16, lives in the Saitual transit camp with his aunt. His mother and three sisters stayed back home in Manipur's Churachandpur district to "protect" their house.
"They forced me to leave to ensure that I don't get pulled into violence by any of the rebel groups. But now I constantly worry about them," he said.
After a long pause, Christopher continued, "I never wanted to join any of those rebel groups. But how do you expect me to stand and watch them hurt my family?"
Unlike other teenagers at the camp, Christopher was unusually quiet and spoke only when spoken to. Hopeful that things will get better soon, he is counting days till he can return home.
"I've already spent over 40 days here. I am hopeful things will get better soon and we will all return home. The whole world is talking about Manipur now. The government will come up with a solution," he said.
While Christopher yearns for home, for Andrew and Grace, home is a lost cause.
"Even if the situation calms down, home will never be the same. How will we ever trust our Meitei neighbours or classmates?" asked Grace.
Andrew added, "They burnt our house down to the ground. It's just ashes now. Some of our neighbours sent us photos of our burnt house. What will we return to?"