An Escape: Experience in Militarized Landscape

Jinine Lai *

Heavy Military escort for Minister of State for Home Affairs (MoS) Kiren Rijiju  on December 23 2016
Heavy Military escort for Minister of State for Home Affairs (MoS) Kiren Rijiju on December 23 2016 :: Pix - David M Mayum

July triggers me reminiscence of my partaking in campaign against militarization; Thangjam Manaroma’ s killing and my participation in Apunba Lup ever since floated it in a sangoi of her neighborhood, and birth of my conceived campaign idea - EEVFAM to an energetic Loitongbam Sarat, father of a fake encounter victim. Then my poor memory cannot forget an incident of a small sigh of relief amidst the aching atmosphere of tight militarization in Manipur .

Somewhere around the end October of 2005, Indian army stormed in to the southern Jiribam with a military operation called Tornado. The situation feared human rights violations and displacement. On 28 October , we, some activists and Meira Paibis set off to assess the situation with the Human Rights Commission. Next morning, our private bus approaching from Jiri town, along a stretch of about 30 km to the south.

The Commission started some hours earlier in their vehicles. We followed them. Along the dilapidated roads in the rain forest, swarm of army with sophisticated rifles and machinery were lined up. Now and again we were stopped and checked by the army and got throbbed in military phobia in our heads. Around the noon of 29 October we reached a village where motor-able road ended. Left the bus there and walked into two three villages.

To see us, those men, women and children who could not flee earlier were so happy and relieved. People from other villages came to join us and some also came out from the jungle then. They felt like rescue from a death danger . They narrated - army came with Zoros, (the bad guys hiding faces under black scarfs)beat up the villagers, posed questions whereabouts of underground cadres.After the military action, civilians were displaced to leave the landscape deserted.

Some of them reached safely Jiri town, some were hiding in the jungle some had crossed Barak River , escaped to Assam. A woman who born a baby just after half an hour joined the run. The Commission had assessed the situation and left in the afternoon.Our team too was about to follow their vehicles for avoiding unnecessary harassment from the army on the way . Then, most of the families wanted to leave the villages, they wanted to go out to Jiri town in our bus. Scanty passenger buses,one or two times were plying in and around the villages.

Yet they could not travel by those buses because military men would pull down, torture, harass even kill them on the allegations of nexus with the armed opposition groups. Finally , negotiated four five villagers to be in our bus. Our team hurried to the bus as we would follow the commission close and go away from the Tornado’ s tense before getting dark. Things began going wrong, the bus got stuck in the soft soil of the road aside.

Three-four hours had consumed trying to push the bus out of the sticky mud. It’ s getting dark, no way to go out that day . Soon the darkness of the evening began covering the place black, no electricity and no moon in the sky only glow worm and blinking stars. Locals suggested that that darkness was ideal to avoid the attention and action from the army .

At around 8 pm, a quick big supper for about 25 people was done in a house. During the food, more stories, fearer words of torture, harassment and need of getting away from militarized zone were surfaced. For night rest, Meira Paibis went to some houses and we headed to a Bengali teacher ’s house. We were sleeping in his side parlor extension.

I noticed some melodious insects’ song fondled the quiet night but dogs’ bark afar agitated the black night. Though we had been exhausted, could not sleep well fearing army might come to harm us suspecting their enemy . Got up early in the morning, felt a bit relief that night was safe. While we were moving down from our night shelter ,a woman showed us army personnel movement in around the village. From that small hill side we saw some blurred personnel down there in that hazy morning of early November .

The woman told us that they had been there all night long in search of some young boys. The army accompanied Zoros to identify the suspects and their houses. According to her , some boys were hiding in the jungles fearing the army action. These boys sometimes were used by the underground in trivial work and made mingle with them. We visited some houses and met the families as they requested in the morning.

The hard time we really encountered was –again, they wanted to go with us and be safe from the military hand and we did not have practical capacity to do that. We tried to convince them at our level best by ensuring that we should convey the message ofthe situation to the government. But we could not deny one request for saving a life of a boy who just came out from hiding nearby jungle. He should be taken with us otherwise he would be finished that day itself.

The army and the Zoros had been searching for him for last few days. Dilemma! If we did not take him along he would be killed or if we even let him in our bus how could we save him. For sure army and Zoros must check our bus and us, all of us must get down off the bus to line up aside, pass the check post by walking, not only once, at least three or four times on the way to Jiri town.

As his life was just on the balance of terror , I suggested to escape to southern part of Manipur through jungle. No way , he could not agree to do that. So we accepted the boy in the bus and another 4 villagers too we agreed previous day . Around 9 o’clock in the morning we gathered nearby the bus - some were weeping biding departing gesture some casting long face for could not go along. The bus was parking about a kilometer away from the previous place it got stuck.

When I got into the bus I saw the boy wearing a woman dress with some face make-up like lipstick and powder sitting beside one mother . Yet all his fear was worn on his face - in the eyes, on the lips. He was putting on Phanek, on top a blouse and an Inaphee. Shocked! That appeared much dangerous. His looks completely showed a joke kind of make-up. Nothing was hid, nothing could disguise,and one could see the odd so straight.

His head was covered with Inaphee down upto the upper part of face. But that was a sheer disastrous attempt, rather exposing then disguising. If we were going that manner we were inviting a big inevitable danger . We all very likely ended up there soon. I discussed that with Meira Paibis and other colleagues. As an ultimate way out I made the boy wear like a bus a conductor/handyman. Took off the women dress then got changed to an extra frayed short pants owned by the real bus conductor , a dirty T-shirt and a loin tie from a mother made a scarf around his head.

Some dirt of black oil somewhere from the bus engine applied on his face. I told him to act like real bus-boy and not to show any tension and worry on his face - one hardest thing. Almost one hour or so passed in the bus yet we had not started. Then the bus started to set off for the Jiri town carrying about 25 panicking passengers. With heavy worries and anxieties in all our heads the bus was moving.

I told the boy not to get off the bus while stopped at the army check posts. In fact, nothing smarter things we had in our heads to manage the menace. Having nothing else to escape the situation, after few minutes the driver slowed own the bus; we reached the first army check. At our scariest, some Zoros were being seen sitting on elevating roadside of nearby hillock. A dozen of camouflage full equipped armed men stopped our bus before crossing a narrow bridge. We got down to cross the bridge. It was supposed to search our bodies but that did not occur .

I liked to look at the bus behind the bridge fearing something was happening – but could not. We were standing in line aside the road talking nothing one another . The bus came, we got up then it started moving. Next moment a sigh of relief, the boy was alright. Soon the air in the bus was of pretty quiet again because next check post was the one where worst Zoros were active.

After about half an hour , the bus reached near another narrow bridge. Our bus was stopped again by four -five military personnel. This time a young officer with an ease face with no weapon was coming up accompanied by two armed soldiers, and talking with a little smile in Hindi. Greeting the mothers with Namaste! Two of Meira Paibis were responding in broken Hindi.

The short conversation was around - if we had food, where we were staying previous night. He did a brief interaction in English with me too, identifying ourselves, asking if the situation in the place had just visited was alright. Luckily , we did not see the bad guys there. Nothing was happening to the boy . Then we were set free to drive away from their check post. Another huge relief gusted in us.

After few minutes our bus was stopped again by another group of military personnel at a small market place. We were asked to get down. Some mothers had already stepped down, we were about to follow them. Then suddenly the bus driver declared that no need to get off as the army permitted him to pass the check post. Drove away again, another relief sweeping in, without nothing happened to the boy .

One of the mothers told us that there would be no more risk onwards as army check post left all behind. We stopped somewhere on the way to ease out our natural calls. After tensed sweating hours we reached the Jiri town safe and sound. For one last time I looked at the face of the boy and asked if he was alright then.

* Jinine Lai wrote this article for Imphal Times
The writer is an Asst. professor, University of Suwon, South Korea
This article was posted on July 16, 2017.

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