Eight-year-old Khumanthem Mangal was playing in a relief camp for Meiteis in Imphal East's Akampat when some of the other displaced kids shared a haunting image with him – a photograph of his family's house in Thengra Leirak, in Manipur's Churachandpur district, now reduced to a desolate pile of concrete and rubble.
Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he decided not to tell his parents. Later that day, unable to contain his grief any longer, he broke down and showed the picture to his parents, leaving them completely numb. He was, after all, just a child.
But theirs isn't the only Meitei house that has allegedly been completely razed to the ground in the villages of Kuki-dominated Churachandpur.
Forty-year-old Keisham Francis, another Meitei living in the same relief camp in Imphal, cried inconsolably after seeing a picture of his house in Churachandpur's Mandop Leikai village – only it wasn't there anymore.
Keisham told The Quint that he had poured all his life savings into building that home, working tirelessly on double shifts as a construction labourer.
"That was the first time I saw him cry," his wife Ranjita told The Quint. This is, perhaps, because the stark reality of becoming a refugee in the very land where he and his parents were born was something he could never have imagined.
'When the War Is Over, Where Will We Go?'
In July, the Manipur government submitted data of displaced Meiteis and Kuki-Zos living in different relief camps across the state to the Supreme Court. According to that, approximately 15,000 Meiteis residing in 19 Meitei-dominated villages of Churachandpur have either been evacuated or have fled since ethnic clashes broke out between the majority Meiteis and the minority Kuki-Zo community in Manipur on 3 May.
The total number of Kukis displaced from across the state is over 40,000.
Churachandpur is the main stronghold of the Kukis who live mainly in the hills. Meiteis, on the other hand, occupy the valley areas (such as Imphal).
The displaced Kukis and Meiteis are currently seeking shelter in various relief camps across the Manipur.
The one in Akampat, which The Quint recently visited, is among the relief camps for Meiteis – a girls' college now housing over 200 displaced families from Churachandpur.
"Only the poor are suffering in this war, which seems neverending now," Keisham said. "We have spent four months in this relief camp in a pathetic situation, but nobody has come for us."
These families have called dilapidated classrooms at a college – located next to a sprawling garbage dump – their home. They have partitioned six large rooms with clothes pinned to the walls, creating 4x4 living spaces in a bid to attain some semblance of privacy.
In each room in the relief camp, around 30 families reside in close quarters, with a gas stove adjacent to their mattresses for cooking.
Overseen by the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a civil society organisation, the relief camp has seen minimal government involvement, according to accounts from camp residents and managers.
One of the larger halls has been divided into a storage area for rations and a space where children can study and play. Over 150 children opt to spend most of their time there, as it is the only room with windows and ventilation.
Adding to their anguish is the realisation that they are left with no other place to call home.
"We were born and raised in Churachandpur. Today, we cannot even enter that area – and our homes built with our sweat and blood have been reduced to a pile of broken bricks and concrete. When the war gets over, where will we go?"Keisham Francis
'Meitei Houses Systematically Flattened'
In multiple FIRs, which are part of a suo-motu case initiated by Churachandpur Superintendent of Police (SP) Karthik Maladi, it has been alleged that Meitei localities have been "systematically levelled" in the wake of the violence.
The Quint has accessed these FIRs which claim that out of the 19 Meitei villages in the district, at least seven – with nearly 500 houses – have been completely razed. These include Mandop Leikai, Ngathal, D Phailian, Thingkangphai, Thengra Leirak, Khumujamba, and Khuga Tampak.
Copies of these FIRs have also been shared with the Chief Minister's Office for compensation purposes, The Quint has learnt.
"Some Meitei houses in Churachandpur were burned down in front of our eyes. But after we left, numerous other Meitei houses, including ours, were systematically flattened by miscreants using heavy machinery," Keisham alleged.
The FIRs, which were filed as recent as 9 September, implicate unknown youths, unknown "drug abusers", and members of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders' Forum (ITLF), one of the largest civil society organisations representing the Kuki-Zo groups in Manipur.
"Field investigations" were carried out under SP Maladi, after which ITLF's name was added to the FIRs.
These FIRs invoke various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including 143, 149 (unlawful assembly), 380 (theft), 427 (mischief causing loss or damage), 447 (criminal trespassing), 483 (counterfeiting a property mark used by another), and 34 (common intention).
Speaking to The Quint, ITLF spokesperson Ginza said, "There is no justification for the mass destruction of Meitei houses and settlements, just like there is no justification for the Kuki houses in Imphal being vandalised and torched."
"I think what happened in Churachandpur was in retaliation to what happened in Imphal with Kukis. The mob has no face – and the mob that has levelled the Meitei houses must have done it out of anger. But ITLF did not sanction this. In fact, ITLF in their public notices required Kuki-Zo people to not touch any Meitei houses unless there was a solution in place."Ginza, ITLF spokesperson
CM Biren Singh Claims 'No Such Destruction'
Addressing the media on 2 September, Chief Minister N Biren Singh dismissed the claim that Thengra Leikai in Churachandpur had entirely been levelled. He, however, did not comment on other villages.
"We are aware of instances of vandalism – and we are here to assure citizens that the matter will be investigated thoroughly, and strides have been taken towards the resettlement of displaced individuals back to their original land."
The CM pointed out that the government possessed video evidence countering these allegations, showing no such destruction. However, there have been no reports of arrests so far.
A senior bureaucrat in the state government informed The Quint that individuals found responsible for the destruction of properties on both Kuki and Meitei sides will face legal consequences after the investigation.
Imphal East SP Shivkanta Singh confirmed to The Quint that apart from the demolition of Meitei houses in Churachandpur, thousands of Kuki houses have been burned down, looted, as well as vandalised in valley areas.
Additionally, he assured that internally displaced people, who have lost crucial documents like land records, educational certificates, and financial records will be reissued to them.
He also emphasised that all District Magistrates have been directed to streamline and expedite the document issuance process for the affected individuals.
'We Want To Go Back'
After four months of strife, and despite over 40,000 security forces being stationed in the state, as per data provided by the state government, violence continues to cost human lives.
Over 200 people have been killed so far in the state, and due to fresh violence almost every day, the death toll keeps rising.
Nandini, a displaced Meitei woman from Khumujamba in Churachandpur, one of the seven villages which has been allegedly razed to the ground, now finds herself in an Imphal East relief camp with her mother and two children.
"Churachandpur stands as the sole tribal district in the state where a largest Meitei population resides. Even during the peak of the violence on 3 May, my mother, who is suffering from dementia, was not ready to leave our home. She kept questioning why we should flee from her place of birth."Nandini, Meitei from Khumujamba, Churachandpur
She recalled that some of their neighbours had to forcefully pick her up and run to safety.
"She has not stopped crying ever since and keeps saying that she wants to go back home. I don't have it in me to tell her that our home has been bulldozed."
Meanwhile, the Manipur government conducted a Cabinet meeting on 9 September and approved the construction of houses for violence-hit victims worth Rs 75 crore.
(The author is an independent journalist, who has extensively covered human-interest stories and investigations from across the country and overseas. She won the Ramnath Goenka award in 2023.)