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A Journey in Solidarity

Sr. Elsa Muttathu & Co Sr. Elsa Muttathu & Co
25 Sep 2023

(The following is an edited version of a Report prepared by a team of CRI that visited Manipur)

A team from National CRI visited Manipur from 22nd to 28th August 2023. The team members were Sr. Elsa Muttathu, CRI National Secretary; Sr. Mary Scaria SCJM; Sr. Subeshna SJC; and Br. Sunil Britto CFC. The visit was facilitated by the Archdiocese of Imphal under the guidance of Archbishop Dominic Lumon and Fr. Varghese Velickakam, the Vicar General. For the first three days we were accompanied by Fr. Joseph Bungsong, a priest of the diocese. 

The purpose of the visit was to express the solidarity of National CRI with the Archbishop and his diocese, the religious of the diocese and the people of Manipur who are affected by the violence as well as to identify areas of support needed. During the week-long stay, the team visited different districts of Manipur where the aftermath of violence was painfully visible. 

A sense of fear, distrust and uneasy silence prevailed everywhere. The team also visited a few camps of the Kukis and Meiteis as well as religious communities. The finale of the visit was our meeting with the local CRI unit of Imphal which had to be cut short because of a fire in close by village which spoke of the uncertainty that prevails.

Arrival in Imphal

Upon our arrival at the archbishop’s house, Fr. Joseph Bungsong escorted us to visit St. Paul’s Parish, Sangaiprou and Holy Redeemer Parish, Canchipur. 

There was another team visiting Manipur at the same time -- a diocesan team from Mangalore along with Fr. Siby Kaitharan MI National Coordinator of Camillian Taskforce India who was in Imphal on a Disaster Risk Reduction mission with a medical team of 14 Religious from different Congregations. 

We learned from Fr. Siby that he was bringing a new team of 10 to 15 members every month who will stay for 15 days and do relief work (Fr. Siby Kaitharan 91-8921865690, indiactf@gmail.com). They will continue to visit and provide support for the coming 6 months.

St. Paul’s Parish, Sangaiprou

We were briefed about the distressing events that unfolded on the night of May 3 at St. Paul's Parish in Sangaiprou. A marauding mob stormed the church premises, began smashing whatever was in the church and the altar was set on fire. 

The quick response of the catechist trainees, who were residing within the campus, managed to quell the flames and prevented further destruction. The following afternoon, another mob came; this time they carried the cooking gas cylinders from the Pastoral Training Centre's (PTC) kitchen to the church, and after piling up all the pews and valuables they burnt the Church.

Adjacent to the church lies the Pastoral Training Centre, where lay catechists have been receiving training for several years. This is a regional training centre which has been conducting two-years Diploma course for lay Catechists. 

At the time of the incident, the PTC was occupied by 46 people, which included four priests and 37 trainees. Despite being informed that no Kuki individuals were present, the mob meticulously scoured every room, desperately searching for anyone hiding. Finally, the mob set the PTC building on fire. This included two vehicles and four bikes. Furthermore, a substantial number of livestock, ranging from chickens and ducks to pigs and fish, were stolen. Nothing but the debris and ruins of the buildings are seen everywhere.

Holy Redeemer Parish, Canchipur

Here we were told that on the night of May 3 a group of miscreants crashed through the gates and ransacked the parish church and the presbytery. After smashing whatever was in the church, the mob set the church on fire. The boys’ hostel was also burnt. The windows of the school auditorium were smashed and plastic chairs and PA system stolen. Some miscreants also entered the convent and vandalized it and looted all valuables. The Bethany sisters narrated how harrowing the whole episode was. 

Visit to Relief Camps

The team, accompanied by Fr. Bongsung, visited Kangpokpi Kuki camps at the foothills of Kangpokpi district. The irony was that in order to visit the Kuki areas one has to pass through the valley inhabited by the Meiteis. Therefore, one has to be ready to take the risk of not only heavy security checks but also the Meitei women’s security checks.

The CRI team also joined a medical team comprising two doctors, nurses and other medical staff coordinated by Fr. Siby MI. The  co-education school run by the MSFS priests has up to Class 10, accommodating 1100 students. Fr. Roy MSFS, the parish priest-cum-principal, has been in Kangkopi since 1997. There are 89 catholic families here. in Kangkopi. 

Mandap Zaleen Camp

The team then visited Mandap Zaleen Relief Camp, Kangkopi. There were 58 families with 243 Kuki people residing in a two-storied community hall who were mostly displaced from the Valley. The place lacked even basic facilities. However, in the last three months, many families have moved on to other states, to their relatives’ houses, etc. Therefore, the initial situation might have been far more challenging than what we saw during our visits. 

Mandeep Zaleen camp

Inmates

Age group

 Number

Babies 

0-02

10

Children

06-12

53

Teenagers

13-19

25

Grown ups

20-60

93

Senior  citizens

60 & above

13

Total   inmates                                         

 

184

 

Bongmol Pathfinder Camp 

The team visited the Bongmol Pathfinder Relief Camp. We could see the medical team, in collaboration with MSFS priests, conducting a camp there. 

On the way back, the team visited FCC sisters’ convent. We saw new Kuki girls being accommodated by the sisters in the convent. We met a sister who had lost everything  during the violence. 

The team visited CMC convent and sisters who had been part of running relief camps. 

Visit to Sugnu

The team then travelled to Sugnu accompanied by Fr. Bungsong and one of the FCC sisters. On the way, we had to pass through more than 9 Army security check posts apart from the Meitei Mera Paibis women’s brigade who intercepted us in many places.

We stopped for breakfast at St. Peter’s Chandel where Fr. Michael Kochuparambil, Parish Priest and Principal of St. Peter’s Higher Secondary School of the Archdiocese, welcomed us. In fact, it is the home parish of Archbishop Lumon. 

From there, we proceeded to Sugnu. The vandalism and massive destruction of houses and property along the way was heartrending. We were mindful that each burnt house was a precious home to someone who is now homeless and displaced.

Entry for visitors to Sugnu is highly restricted and it is completely under the control of Army, other Security Forces and state-sponsored Commandos. However, the VG had contacted the Army and asked their help to make our entry possible. Capt. Bhagawan, the head of the Artillery Force stationed there, and his force accompanied the team to the restricted areas of the burnt diocesan school, hostel, parish church and the rest of the facilities. 

It was an emotional experience for the  FCC sister, who had been a superior and member of the Sugnu community, the first FCC house in Manipur, to see her religious house which has now been turned into an armoury occupied by commandos, with no permission for sisters to enter. However, after request from the team, the commandos allowed us to enter the premises, but not the convent building.

The team then proceeded to Singtom village. While all the houses in the surrounding area were burnt to ashes and no human presence anywhere, the Church itself was not completely destroyed. On scouting around the Church building we found vestments, sacred vessels and other worship items abandoned in open cupboards. After consulting the Archbishop’s house, the CRI team collected these items to be handed over to the Archbishop’s house. But on our return journey the army told us that we had violated the restriction orders in doing so and they had shoot at sight order if any one trespassed! 

From there the team proceeded to the Anal Naga Village, the native place of Fr. Joseph. On the way we stopped for lunch at the Divine Word school at Chakpikarong where we were welcomed by Fr Roy SVD and his little troupe. 

Visit to Lamka (Churachandpur)

Then the CRI team left Imphal for Lamka. This time, a Naga  driver was our guide. Before reaching the place, the team had to pass through more than ten security check posts and he managed them well. On arrival we met the parish priest of Don Bosco Parish Church and a few other priests. 

Since the person who was to be our local guide was not available, we proceeded to the FCC convent where we were put up for the night.  After dropping off whatever we had carried at the FCC house, Sr. Annie FCC arranged for one of their sisters to accompany us to the camps. St. Mary’s school Lamka is the only school owned and managed by the FCC sisters and within the school campus was a camp with about 200 inmates. 

During the day, the team met the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) members who had set up medical team & camp around the Lamka Government College campus. The leaders of the ITLF medical team expressed concern over relief materials and medicines not reaching sufficiently the camps.

As on 22 August,   108 relief camps are managed by Relief and Medical department of Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) in Lamka district catering to 15,833 people including 2697 children below the age of 5 years.

For the deaths and damages, they have lodged more than 8,000 FIRs. We also interacted with the legal aid cell that was busy filling in forms.

The team met Brigadier Michael D’souza, who is responsible for three battalions, to discuss the situation and the efforts made by the security forces to control the violence. 

While he would welcome peace, he was rather sceptical because of the deep-rooted hatred among the ethnic communities. We sensed that the army and security forces are all tired and would like to see an end to the situation.

Lamka Camp 

It’s run by Young Vaipheis Association. The team met the committee members and many affected people.

Though it was late evening and raining heavily, the team proceeded to Singhat St. Joseph’s parish. The people in the camp were Catholics, including the families and parents of the parish priest Fr. Athanesus who lost everything. 

The team also met the Sacred Heart sisters working in the school there and taking care of the girls’ hostel. Among the three sisters one  had to be transferred as her family requested the congregation to transfer her from there. The other two sisters work in the school, take care of the hostel children (girls) while the parish priest looks after (boys) and also now help in the relief camp which has 258 people living with tremendous space constraints.  

We returned to the convent late in the evening and enjoyed a hot supper and warm company of the sisters. After supper we spent considerable time talking and listening to the Kuki sisters in the community. They confessed their anxiety and mood swings that make things difficult for their community members. They are struggling that they get angry more easily now. But they shared that the community was understanding and supportive and was grateful that we took time to be with them.

Anticipating trouble from Meira Paibis on the way, we were advised to leave early for Imphal which we did. However, on the way we encountered trouble from Kuki women and militants who demanded money from us. Our driver managed to get us out with a payment of Rs.200.  On our way we slowed down the vehicle when we reached the wall of remembrance where empty coffins were kept, a reminder that even after many months, the dead bodies were still lying in the morgue without burial. We couldn’t stop the vehicle there as it was not safe to do so.

Visit to Meitei Camps in Imphal 

There are around 15 Meitei camps in Imphal valley. On the 26th August, in the first hour, the team visited the Meitei relief camps, accompanied by Ms. Ranjana, a Meitei Catholic lady working in the Diocesan Social Service Society of the Archdiocese. We saw a marked difference here from the earlier cramped camps we had visited.  

Around 728 inmates were accommodated in a sprawling Expo Trade centre and they didn’t seem to lack any facilities. They were happy with the relief services provided by the government and NGOs. They were well organised with improvised individual family rooms with locks and some cooking facilities too, common TV, and  access to charities and other support both from the Govt. and Non Govt organisations including the Catholic Church.  They had access to more than 40 toilets, separate ones for women and men.

We also met a person who was the only Catholic Meitei in that camp. Though the church was ready to protect him, he did not want to risk his life. He was a catechist in a Parish. 

Though the team had some apprehensions visiting Meitei camps, the affected people were friendly. We had a short meeting with the Committee members. Here too we found some women leaders looking for help to work towards peace.  When we came out of the trade centre we realised that close to the place there is the Ima Keithel market exclusively run by the Meitei Meira Pabis! This is the largest women-only market  in the world.

We also visited the Thongju Kendra Meitei relief camp at the government college. It too had good facilities but not as grand as the one at the trade centre. There too people shared their stories of pain, displacement, loss of wealth, loss of work, illnesses, and concerns for their children’s education. Most of these Meitei families were from Moreh, a Myanmar Border town. They wished to go back to their original place at the earliest.

However, many women have small income-generating activities and the government support has reached them. They are engaged in activities like artificial flower-making, soaps and phenol-making etc.  We also saw fabricated houses coming up in the town for the temporary rehabilitation of the Meiteis.

In the evening we visited the Missionaries of Charity house near the Bishop’s House and met their Superior and Regional Superior. They have established a community with 4 sisters in Moreh and 6 sisters in Mantripukri. A group of 14 sisters from Kolkata and Shillong was working in different refugee camps in the districts of Kangpokpi, Saikul, Churachandpur and Imphal valley. They serve both Meitei and Kuki camps. 

Together with their regional superior, they have visited over 100 refugee camps. The sisters visit the camps every day, providing relief material, conducting programmes for children, youth, and women. One M.C. sister’s house is completely burned and the family members are living in Sugnu mountain area. The Regional Superior told us that she was withdrawing her sisters from all the camps for some time, as they are worn out and they need to be re-energised with rest and spiritual sustenance. We also met the sisters at the Sacred Heart Convent near CMC Hospital. 

Our Observations 

The state of Manipur and the Church in the state have gone through an unprecedented, man-made catastrophe. The situation seems to be so complex that while many theories are in circulation no one clearly knows what triggered the violence. Both the Kukis and Meiteis are blaming each other. It is difficult to figure out to which side the Nagas are leaning. But the situation is still volatile and trust deficit is high.

Political parties seem to be taking mileage out of the situation for their own political gains.

Even though a lot of relief materials have been going to Manipur, people in the camps are feeling neglected. Individual Congregations and groups are working in silos.

There seem to be people still living in deep forests who have not yet been reached out with any relief materials, including food. People are deprived of health and nutrition as well as dignity with only one proper meal, that too only rice and dal and no agency to buy or cook food of their choice.

Most of the school/college-going students are absorbed into different educational institutions though there are still a lot of children in the camps. A group of CMC sisters risked going in to deep, unreached areas and reaching relief that had not yet been reached.

Material and Other Needs

• Material needs such as baby food, nutritional supplements for lactating mothers, medical and educational supports, sanitary napkins, etc.

• Any consignment of food, medicines, stationary, winter clothes and winter bed linens.

• Volunteers to support relief camp activities with children, young couples.

• Professional volunteers like doctors, nurses, teachers, individuals who can facilitate group sharing, some techniques to facilitate activities with children such as meaningful games etc.

• Different congregations to come together to sustain the energy.

• Psycho-social and spiritual interventions.

• Housing for the displaced. It could be a long-term plan.

Concerns

• Vocation of the affected Sisters challenged and disturbed.

• Peace Initiatives – All peace-makers are attacked. Those, including Meiteis, who have talked about peace-building have been ostracised. Everyone has backed out because of threats. People who are taking initiatives are doing it outside the state, as per the Archbishop and priests of the Archbishop House.

• Alternative views are countered by others. All efforts are silenced. 

• Worn out experiences for continuous relief activities.

• Not able to resume some classes in most schools and colleges as classrooms are converted into relief camps.

Recommendations

1. Channelise resources to the relief camps run by the religious and the Indigenous Tribal Leaders through CRI as and when they are in need.

2. Express solidarity and support to those who are working on the ground.

3. Set up a coordinating team at the National level to monitor and connect resources to needs on the ground.

4. Collaborate with organisations like Camillian Task force, congregations based in Manipur, especially in Kuki dominated districts  and others to send personnel who are medically trained, counsellors/ social activists/ child specialists etc and material support. 

5. Support therapy and healing sessions for religious in Manipur who have been through trauma. 

6. Work on peace initiatives with women organisations engaged in peace building in Delhi and elsewhere.

7. Initiate dialogue and understanding among religious belonging to various tribal groups towards peace-building.

8. We could also think of providing some cash support to those Catholics in the camps that they can buy some things for themselves as some Protestant groups are doing.

Our sincere gratitude to Archbishop Dominic Lumon, Fr. Varhese Velickakam, Fr.Francis Vialo and all their team for all the meticulous planning and arrangement of our stay and visits.

Gratitude is also due to all the religious and parishes in Manipur for their warm hospitality and time spent in sharing their experiences with us. 

Thanks also to Sr. Nirmalani and the National Executive for encouraging us to undertake this journey of solidarity .
 

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