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'Hell! I Had a Normal Life': Kukis Share Horror Tales of Escaping Mobs in Imphal

"People at the airport were celebrating every flight they got, for themselves and others," one Kuki told The Quint.

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"And, you know, the funniest part... My dad is from a tribe and my mum is a Meitei," said Mike, who identifies as Kuki and who managed to flee Manipur's capital, Imphal, two days ago with his whole family.

"I have never shared a post on Instagram or Twitter about any protest. I was just minding my own business, watching TV at home, which by the way is nothing but dust and ashes now, and taking care of my one-year-old daughter. Before the violence broke out on 3 May, earlier on in the day, I was at the hospital for my wife’s monthly pregnancy check-up. She’s six months pregnant with our second child," he added.

Mike is one of the thousands of Kukis who have had to flee Imphal as ethnic violence engulfed Manipur last week over a multitude of issues. "Hell, I was living a normal life! Even if there was a protest, I thought, well, what's the worst that could happen? The police would intervene. But now, my state is burning and all I am asked is whether I am a Meitei or Kuki," he lamented.

The trigger for the current wave of violence, that according to experts was building up over a period of time, is the Meitei demand for ST status, which the Kukis, Nagas, and other tribes oppose.

More than 60 people have already died in the violence, as per the official numbers. While Churachandpur is the epicentre, the violence has trickled down to the state capital, so much so that hundreds of Manipuris have been fleeing the city. While those who can afford to catch a plane have done so, albeit at very high rates, many have used their cars or military vehicles to take shelter around the outskirts of Imphal. Many are also taking refuge in Manipur Rifles (MR) camps or with their relatives in Kangpokpi district.

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The Evening of 3 May

The Quint spoke to several Kukis who fled the capital, and most of them had a similar account of when the violence began, and how they escaped. John (name changed) was in his office that day, like any other day, when around 6.30 pm, he started getting calls from his friends and family.

"They were asking me to stay alert and ensure the safety of all my documents, all important documents. I was eating something stupid, I think it was an omelette. So, I collected my work material and quickly went home to my family. We took our education certificates and health insurance documents, you know, stuff like that. I had even heard that they had started attacking the churches, which are close to where I live."

Similarly, Chen (name changed), a student in Imphal, claimed that "on the night of 3 May, she, along with her sister and her friends, were in a rented house. "Suddenly, we heard firing at around 8 pm, and people were shouting outside the house, like a warning to lock the houses and stay indoors."

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    A burnt house in Imphal. 

    (Photo: accessed by The Quint)

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    A burnt house in Imphal. 

    (Photo: accessed by The Quint)

The Meiteis, who are mostly Hindus, are a majority of the population of Manipur, and are concentrated in the central valley, accounting for 10 percent of the state's landmass. This includes Imphal, the centre of Manipur's political power. The tribals, including the Kukis, account for around 35 percent of the population, and reside mostly in the hills. This geographical disparity has given the violence a "valley vs hills" dimension.
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    A burnt house in Imphal. 

    (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

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    A burnt shop in Imphal. 

    (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

On the evening of 3 May, according to eyewitness accounts, mobs scattered across the capital and went on a spree of violence and arson.

"Let me tell you this, before burning our houses, including my house, they looted all our belongings. That is how systematic it was. There was no intervention from the state. We had just enough time to collect our documents and a water bottle. I’m not sure what happened to our house," said Chen, holding back tears.

"In Imphal, first they came from the Hatta Golapati area, which is a Muslim-dominated side. At around 7 or 8 in the evening, that's when they started torching all the vehicles. By 'they', I am referring to a Meitei mob," claimed Thung (name changed), another Kuki man who escaped to the outskirts of Imphal with his family.

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'Local Meiteis Hid Us, Gave Us Shelter'

Most Kukis who spoke to The Quint said that they spent the night of 3 May hiding from the mobs – and fleeing from them. For instance, John said that local Meitei residents helped him and his family hide in a small corner of a bar and later on in a store.

"There was a mob that was aggressively cheering outside of the gate of our Meitei neighbour who gave us shelter for 10 minutes or so. After the mob left, we were told by our Meitei neighbour to leave for an MR camp. Their cars and vehicles were still there, untouched, probably because they are Meitei."

Expressing gratitude towards the Meitei locals who protected him and gave him shelter, albeit temporarily, John said that it would be wrong of him to not narrate that part of the story. "They had every reason to not shelter us. People are scared, even the Meiteis. But they took us in, hid us. And while they had to ask us to leave for an army camp, they were doing it for their own security. I am still thankful to them."

The Kukis are not the only ones under attack in the state.

Ground reportage from Imphal has shown the extent to which non-Meitei properties have been targeted in the capital. In one particular instance, a Meitei shop, which had an identification sticker attached to it, was left untouched among other shops in the same line that had been destroyed.

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    (Photo: Akshay Dongare/Instagram)

Chen told The Quint that she, her sister, along with her cousins and aunts, had to hide in the basement with the lights off till 2 am in the night after which they ventured out to make some phone calls.

"We tried to get a rescue team for us. Then, until 3.30 am, we stayed at a Muslim friend's house who gave us food, water, and everything else that we needed to go away for a few days. We somehow managed to contact the police and we were put in a military vehicle with some other fleeing Kukis. We are now in the outskirts of the city."

"People at the airport were celebrating every flight they got, for themselves and others," one Kuki told The Quint.

Kukis fleeing in a military bus in Imphal.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

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Meiteis Say They Deserve More Media Coverage

Speaking about the Meitei side of affairs, Heigrujam Nabashyam, chairman of the World Meitei Council, told The Quint that he hopes the media goes beyond Imphal – and covers the atrocities against his community as well.

"The Kukis, and I am talking about the Kuki militants, have burned through Meitei villages in Churachandpur. They deliberately went in armed batches to Bishnupur district where Meiteis are concentrated in large numbers," Nabashyam alleged.

Violence was reported from Bishnupur on Wednesday last week. It is one of the many districts in the state where curfew and Section 144 orders have been imposed.

"The media has to give attention to the Meitei side. Thousands of Meiteis have been evacuated from Churachandpur. Did you know that in the tribal students' rally, there were Kukis who were armed? They had permission for a peaceful rally. Did they have permission to carry weapons and cause havoc?" asked Nabashyam.

Similarly, senior journalist Pradip Phanjoubam told The Quint that while there was no anti-Meitei violence in Imphal, Meiteis are being targeted elsewhere. "I would just request the media to be fair."

He added that things are getting better in Imphal. "Leaders and representatives from both communities met yesterday to diffuse the crisis. So, that is a good sign."

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Imphal Airport, a Safe Haven for Fleeing Kukis

Amidst the violence in the national capital, Imphal International Airport has proven to be a safe zone for fleeing Kukis. Despite expensive flight tickets, a total of 10,531 passengers and 108 flight movements were handled till 6 May, according to an airport official who spoke to PTI.

"The morning of 4 May, we were escorted to the airport at 7 am. I would have wanted to pray first, but the churches were burned. Anyway, we decided to stay at the airport since it felt safe. There were so many families, women, and children, cramped together, sleeping on the floor. All Kukis. It was so sad to see. All this in a matter of hours," John rued.

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    (Photo: accessed by The Quint)

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    (Photo: accessed by The Quint)

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    (Photo: accessed by The Quint)

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    (Photo: accessed by The Quint)

Flight operations at Imphal International Airport have been extended to what is now a 24-hour service, and the authorities have taken various measures to help passengers including waiving cancellation and rescheduling charges for planes to and from Imphal.

"No matter how expensive an escape it was, people at the airport were celebrating every flight they got, for themselves and for others," said Mike, who managed to land in Delhi on Saturday night with his one-year-old and pregnant wife. "When I landed in Delhi and got out of the airport, I felt like I had everything I need in life. Though I have lost so much in Imphal, at least I still have my wife and my daughter. Not all will be this fortunate."

Indeed, not all have been able to make it out of Imphal as some Kukis take refuge with their relatives or their Meitei friends, while others have to resort to MR camps.

As Thung's phone tells him that the battery is about to die, he says one last thing: "It's the year 2023. Why would you want to destroy my life? I get it, we have disagreements. But can't we just sit down and talk? You have to burn my house first? Take my life? I just don't get it anymore."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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