"This Is How We're Living": Over 900 Meiteis At Jiribam Shelters Seek Help

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'Where's Government? This Is How We're Living': Over 900 Meiteis At Jiribam Shelters

Displaced members of the Meitei community sleep at a shelter home in Jiribam

Imphal/Guwahati/New Delhi:

Manipur's Jiribam district bordering Assam had remained untouched by the ethnic crisis for over a year. Until Saturday last, when the mutilated body of a 59-year-old man from the Meitei community was found. Before that, in May, the decomposed body of a Kuki teen was found in a river. The police have not released the autopsy report; however, the Kuki tribes alleged the body had bullet wounds. The Meiteis have alleged the 59-year-old man was tortured and killed by Kuki miscreants in an act of revenge.

These two incidents ignited trouble in the district through which National Highway 37 passes, one of the two lifelines of Manipur, the other being the highway going to Assam via Nagaland. Jiribam has a diverse ethnic composition.

The violence has led to large-scale displacement of residents. Local officials said over 200 members of the Kuki and a few Meiteis have fled to Assam, while over 940 members of the Meitei community including 353 children have taken shelter in seven relief camps spread across Jiribam.

The situation is dire, the caretakers at one of the relief camps told NDTV. At another shelter, people jostled for space as they spread cloth and slept wherever they could in the hot and humid weather, amid buzzing mosquitoes. NDTV saw only three fans in the shelter where people slept on the floor.

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Chingdong Leikai Primary School in Jiribam has turned into a relief camp, like many other schools in Manipur. Of the 184 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living here, 75 are children. The caretakers told NDTV they need resources if the IDPs have to stay longer.

"The problem in Jiribam should be solved soon. It is a place for everyone. These people need to return home as soon as possible. We heard some people have put up barbed wires on the roads that go towards where many of the IDPs lived before they were evacuated," a caretaker told NDTV, requesting anonymity.

It rained a little when the children in this shelter sat down on the verandah for lunch. They sat in a long line and kept their plates on the floor, waiting for someone to serve them. "We got rice, dal and potatoes for lunch," an 11-year-old boy told NDTV.

In another shelter, people slept on the open ground due to lack of space. Many did not sleep. They stared at the clear night sky, occasionally slapping their own arms to keep away mosquitoes.

"This is how we are living, see, see," a man staying at the shelter said in a video he took. "For now we are sleeping wherever we can. The government has to do something about this. We need all the help we can. No one cares about us. This is how we are living," the man said, adding 125 people are in the shelter.

"They set our homes on fire. And now we have to live like this. What is the government doing?" he said.

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Ten civil society group leaders of the Meitei community have written a joint letter to Chief Minister N Biren Singh, alleging a road leading to their homes has been fenced with barbed wire. They alleged "a self-styled leader of a SoO militant group is living in his own house at Rani Veng along with his armed escort".

"... Any type of untoward incidents may take place at any time if he continues staying in his own residence," they alleged in the letter, referring to the controversial suspension of operations (SoO) agreement with some 25 Kuki-Zo insurgent groups in the ethnic violence-hit state. Broadly, the SoO agreement says the insurgents are to stay at designated camps and their weapons kept in locked storage, to be monitored regularly.

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Tension came to a head on Thursday last when the mutilated body of Soibam Saratkumar Singh, a farmer from the Meitei community, was found. A group of people from the Meitei community came out on the streets in protest and burned an unoccupied structure that belonged to a Kuki family, and a church. The locals managed to douse the fire before it spread to the entire building, the police had said. Later at night, some armed Kuki men set on fire an empty shed at a farmhouse belonging to a Meitei family, and recorded a video of it.

On Sunday morning, suspected insurgents came in three-four boats in a river in Jiribam and attacked many police outposts and set homes of members of the Meitei community on fire. Over 150 Manipur Police commandos were airlifted to Jiribam from the state capital Imphal, 240 km apart. On Monday, suspected Kuki insurgents attacked an advance convoy of Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who was scheduled to visit Jiribam.

The state government in January had written three times to the Director General of Police (DGP) asking to step up security and respond to any threat in Jiribam and pre-empt threats by suspected Kuki-Zo insurgents.

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Government sources had said the attack on Meitei villages in Jiribam and the ambush on the police convoy had distinctive footprints of the tactics used by suspected Kuki insurgents in the trading town Moreh bordering Myanmar. "We have seen a trend where the insurgents burn houses, chase away people, and start ambushing police teams. In the next step, their civil society groups announce a unilateral 'buffer zone'," a senior police officer told NDTV, requesting anonymity.

The ethnic clashes that began over cataclysmic disagreements on sharing land, resources, affirmative action policies, and political representation, mainly with the 'general' category Meiteis seeking to be included under the Scheduled Tribes category, have taken the lives of over 220 people and internally displaced nearly 50,000.