‘They said nothing last forever. / We are here only today / Love is now an ever / Bring me far away ’
Sanakalbi Khaidem, who went missing on 10 March with Alice Kamei, wrote those lines, originally from a Michael Learns To Rock song, in a notebook she left behind at their school campus. The girls were last seen at 11.30 am that day, apparently headed to wash their clothes at the campus washing bay. Alice and Sana shared a hostel room and were students of Grace Reach Academy in Thoubal district of Manipur. According to a version of the story around their disappearance, they had left to join the underground militant Revolutionary People’s Front/People’s Liberation Army (RPF/PLA), a Meitei-dominated group fighting for an independent Manipur. But while Sana is Meitei, barely fifteen and the older of the two by six months, Alice is Naga—a member of a Northeastern community often at loggerheads with Meiteis.
The First Information Report lodged by Alice’s parents alleges that Elangbam Rojita Devi, a school helper, was promised Rs 30,000 for leading the girls to the militant outfit. The parents believe that Elangbam Thoimu, the school cook, was also involved. The two have been arrested. The police say they have confessed that they are ‘overground workers’ of the organisation and were paid Rs 30,000 to recruit the girls. However, a small number of people in the state believe that the girls were not lured but abducted by militants.
A few days after their disappearance, the underground group responded to mounting pressure by the media and human rights organisations by saying the girls had come to them voluntarily, and wanted to join the movement to free their motherland. “But Alice was a simple girl,” her mother Sundari says.
Sana’s younger sister Sanju Devi, who shared the hostel room with the two missing girls, says her sister was upset. She wanted too many things. And life was not kind to her. Sana’s notebook has her self-portraits. In one, she looks defiant with her hands on her hips. In another, she has imagined herself as a bride. ‘Your time will come’ is scribbled on the top left corner of the page. ‘Crazy Girl’ is written across a sketch showing her outfitted as a rock musician.
She wrote poems. They could lead us somewhere. But it is hard to understand a young woman growing up in an extreme place, and if the poems reveal anything, it is a yearning for love and a desire to be in a faraway land.
Sanju Devi says the cook had even told her she would arrange her marriage with a wealthy man, an insurgent, and their poverty and anxieties would end. She feels he might have made similar promises to Sana. Perhaps Sana took those promises too seriously. Or maybe she was just unhappy and wanted to go away.
Alice had troubles too. There was a relationship her parents did not approve of, according to Sanju Devi.
In the larger narrative of the missing girls of Manipur, this is the latest case to have hit media headlines. But amid the protests, candlelight vigils and blockades, Sana’s story is lost. It is Alice Kamei’s face that is all over the place. A Zeliangrong Naga outfit has printed pamphlets with her photo, and issued press releases in her name. Some say the Meitei girl convinced Alice to go with her. Others say that local Meiteis are keeping quiet because they are afraid of the RPF/PLA. In any case, Alice must be returned, they say.
Sundai last heard her daughter’s voice on 13 March. The conversation was rationed. The man, before he passed the phone to Alice, told her mother she won’t talk for long
“Alice, will they release you?”
“Yes, they said so.”
The click of the receiver, a shuffle, a stranger’s voice that tells them to stay away from protests and inform the media that Alice is at a relative’s house. Then the line goes dead.
At Alice’s house in Chingphu Kabui village, an hour’s ride from Imphal, her mother holds an A4 size paper with Alice’s photo. It says in bold letters: ‘Alice Kamei Missing’. Running her hands over the paper, she weeps. In Alice’s room, she sits on her daughter’s bed and speaks slowly. Alice isn’t well. She had symptoms of cancer, Sundari says.
Sundari says that she does not know if her daughter is alive or dead. Or if she is being raped. “The thought comes to me,” she says in Manipuri, translated for me by a human rights activist. “I can’t help it. It’s just terrible.”
In Manipur, among the most volatile and violent of Indian states, torn apart by underground factions warring against one another and also the might of the Indian State, stories of human suffering are tightly controlled by human rights organisations. In fact, they are edited and interpreted to the world in ways that suit their narrative. The story of Alice’s disappearance too is largely a presentation of activists, and the spin they like to put on it is that the girl was abducted by militants against her will. It is difficult to ascertain the truth. But sometimes a set of chance events come together to reveal the world of underground militant groups in the Northeast and their enthusiasm for child soldiers, as in the case of a group of boys who somehow managed to escape a militant camp.
They had reached the river. They argued over which way to go. Robert (names have been changed in this section to protect those still under threat), who had led them so far, was the oldest at nineteen. He said they needed to cross the river, and follow the sun thereafter.
Among the 18, four of whom were minors, who had managed to escape that night from an insurgent camp in Bangladesh in 2009, a few had doubts. They had only wanted to get out of the camp. Home was too much to ask for. If they managed to get so far as to a village, they would be lucky.
Robert started to walk alone.
He turned back and figured the rest were following him.
They crossed the river, and Robert felt the weight of responsibility. He saw his 16-year-old younger brother Charles crying, and he decided he would set aside his own fears, and be the one to lead the group, as he wrote in his memoir. Because he knew many local dialects and languages, it was possible for him to communicate with villagers in Bangladesh, where they had been taken.
At one point, he wrote in his memoir, made available to Open, they could have drowned. The river’s breadth was 70-80 metres and the force of water was very strong. Not all of them knew how to swim. So, they cut bamboo trunks and made bundles which they tied together, and on this makeshift raft, they piled their stuff, and hung on.
For half an hour they struggled with the current—but managed. For four-and-a-half days, they pursued this ‘hard journey’, and there came a point that it was difficult for them to walk. They formed a chain, and held hands and walked, praying and hoping. Giving up was easier than going on.
Robert and Charles were born in a village in Manipur near the Burmese border. Their father was a Hindu Meitei, and mother, a Tangkhul Naga Christian. The boys were schooled in various places, including Dimapur in Nagaland and Shillong in Meghalaya. One day in 2005, they went with their father to visit their mother’s village Kamjong to celebrate Robert’s brother’s Class 7 results. They reached the village, but their mother wasn’t home. So they cooked lunch and were resting when three men with guns appeared and asked their father to follow them. The sons wanted to go along, but the gunmen ordered them to stay back. The two brothers, along with their eldest brother, tried to follow them anyway. Sneakily, at a distance. But they lost track at some point.
When the men had first started talking to their father, Robert didn’t have any pangs of anxiety as it was almost routine to see men with arms. But after this, when their father did not return for hours, they went in search of him in the jungles nearby. Soon, they thought they saw him leaning against a tree.
‘Daddy was not leaning on the tree but was tied to the tree and he was blinded by a handkerchief, from where the blood was clotting ... I ran to him and checked his heartbeat and body temperature. But his heartbeat was not working, and his body temperature was very cold. Both of us start weeping ...’ Robert wrote in his memoir.
‘... I kept praying with all my heart and soul to God asking for my daddy to be alive,’ he wrote.
Robert went back to school, but couldn’t get over the death of his father. He would weep often, and started doing drugs. In Class 10, he was expelled from school for drug abuse.
Finally, after Class 12, he quit his studies. He applied for a clerical position at a hospital. But his mother said he should not give up. He could go to a big institute in Bangkok where education would be free of cost, as her friend Memcha had suggested.
Charles and a cousin of theirs were also eager to come along. They boarded a bus from Imphal to Shillong. Besides their mother, there was a stranger named Das with them who would be arranging for them to go to Bangkok. That would be the start of a new life.
In Shillong, they were told by Das that they would first be going to Bangladesh, and would then fly to Bangkok after getting the appropriate visas. They said their goodbyes and crossed over to Bangladesh with two other men who had come to fetch them.
After they crossed a small jungle, Robert was apprehensive. He told the men he did not feel right, and the men made him speak to their leader in Bangladesh, who said he knew their father and that there was no cause for fear.
After they had crossed the jungle, they took a boat and then a taxi to a strange place in the middle of the wilderness. ‘The most shocking thing was the place where we thought we were going to hold for the night was not a place to hold but instead an insurgency camp where we were about to do our training and going to become an insurgent,’ he wrote.
“Are you willingly ready to sacrifice yourself for our motherland?” an insurgent asked.
This was after dinner on their first night in the camp. Robert said he had come there to study, and he didn’t really know if he was ready to be an insurgent. He was told there was some misunderstanding between the people who had sent them there. He went into the barracks and slept hoping things would sort out, and they’d be released.
But then a man came and called the three of them outside, where they were threatened.
They had been recruited to the insurgency.
They spent two months in the training camp before they managed to escape.
Every day they would get up at 3 am and start their training. They would do rock climbing, rolling and other exercises until 6:30 in the evening, after which they would be locked up in the barracks for the night.
“It was tough. They would beat us up if we felt tired,” Charles tells us in Imphal. He is now a tattoo artist, sporting a peace sign on his chest and the Taurus star sign on his back.
“Even with food, it was a torture. They would give us five minutes to eat. Hot food would be served, and we had to mix water to gulp it down. If even one grain of rice fell, the cadres would beat us up.”
They were given political lessons. They didn’t really speak about the war, or the insurgency. No indoctrination took place. Except, they were shown maps, and that’s when Robert realised he came from a place in the east where the sun rose early—which was what he remembered on the day they reached the river and didn’t know where to turn.
In their camp, there were 30 people, including 18 of them. They heard a few of the cadres talking about some girls who would be joining them, the younger brother says.
One evening, when they were in captivity, it started to pour. The guards, they figured, were not as alert as before, and so Robert decided to escape. He went to Charles and the cousin, and all of them decided to take the risk.
They packed their bags, stole five knives from the kitchen and left.
After they had covered some distance and reached a hilltop, they saw torchlight and heard shouts. According to Charles, the cadres had figured they had run away and begun hunting for them.
All night, they kept walking in the dark, slicing through the forest as they walked. A boy slipped and fell down a slope but managed to get back to them. He suffered night blindness and couldn’t see properly. They held hands and walked in a single file.
‘I told them that there is no maps or compass or anything with us and so no one is sure that we will be able to reach home or not. I said those who wants to follow me, follow me,’ Robert wrote in his memoir.
They continued on their journey towards home, tired and hungry and sick. On the way, they crossed villages. Some offered them food, other turned their back on them.
“One village, they locked all the doors. They were afraid of us. We were wearing camouflage and had short cropped hair,” the younger son says. “Or maybe they were afraid of the insurgents to provide food or shelter to us.”
Another boy, Indragovind, had been seriously ill. In the camps, they had been administered malaria pills. But in the jungles, they had no protection against the elements of nature. In one village, where they had halted on the fifth day, Indragovind asked them to go on without him. They said they wouldn’t, but he snatched a knife and threatened to kill himself—unless they would proceed without him.
After tearful goodbyes, they went on, hoping he’d have a chance of survival. ‘After we left him, it was now only 17 of us and everyone started losing our hopes and faith,’ wrote Robert.
Finally, they spotted another village and went in looking for food. Robert made a map based on what the villagers told him, and they left after giving the villagers some of their stuff. They were able to reach a camp of the Liberation Party (LP), a Burmese insurgency group that seemed to have informal links with Indian security forces.
By then, Robert had contracted malaria, and asked the group to leave him at the camp, but the LP insurgents had other plans. They placed him on a stretcher, and turned all 17 of them over to the Assam Rifles.
That was 1 June 2010. After a journey of eight days and nights.
Last year, Robert died in Delhi following an illness caused by an infection. He was 22. His family was poor, and couldn’t get him to a private hospital in time. His memoir will soon be published by the Control Guns Foundation of India, which works for the end of violence in Manipur.
According to human rights activists, insurgents of the Northeast have been luring children of very poor families to fill their ranks, including girls.
Ever since Manipur merged with the Union of India in 1949, more than 20,000 people have been killed in the state, as a result of insurgency. Around 15 militant groups are currently active in the state. A few have over a thousand cadres and have camps in Burma and Bangladesh.
According to activists, all these underground outfits have child soldiers in their ranks. The lowest age recorded by the Control Arms Foundation of India is 11 years.
The recent trend is to induct more girls, and they are now believed to constitute 6-7 per cent of total cadre strength. The lowest recorded age for girls is 12 years, according to CAFI data. Escape from these camps in Burma and Bangladesh is almost impossible. In several instances, militants have returned the children they had enlisted following mass protests and media outrage. But they have also issued statements saying the children came to them willingly and want to fight for liberation.
Sapam Suran is now a short young man with a happy face. He does not talk much, and smiles frequently. At their house, a mud hut in Sairem village in Imphal West, his father, who used to teach karate in the city before a series of strokes rendered him an invalid, lies on a reed mat. He moves his hands slowly to ward off flies, and gazes into the distance with unfocused eyes. He cries often.
Suran, who almost joined the insurgency movement because a man named Ranjit said they would give him a few lakh rupees and put his father on a path to recovery, sits near him, and recounts his encounter with the insurgency. Not that he had any idea of what it meant to be an insurgent. It had all seemed like an adventure.
Suran was told his father would be flown in a jet plane from Manipur to a ‘good city’ for treatment. The insurgents said the father, an emaciated man with thin legs and arms and a wrinkled face, would be on his feet again and things would be fine. For Suran, who was 16 at the time, this was more than enough. He had three young sisters, and he had been working with his uncle to take care of his family and pay off debts they had accumulated during his father’s treatment. Ten years ago, he had suffered his first stroke. There were many more to follow.
In April 2011, Suran along with two other boys, Chanam Ajoynao and Soraishem Naothoibi—all about 15 years old—were taken by Ranjit to the outskirts of the village and made to kneel in front of a local forest deity.
Their heads bowed, they repeated the words of the oath administered to them:
“You will be joining the armed group and fight for the liberation of your land. You will serve your family. You will give them money.” That was their ‘consent’.
A few days later they were on their way to buy recharge coupons for their parents’ mobile phones when a van stopped beside them. A man offered them a ride to a football match, and they hopped in.
They found themselves in a hut, and it was then that they realised they had been conscripted to join a camp beyond the border.
From here, they went to Imphal city and stayed in a shabby hotel for two days. From Imphal, they were taken to Moreh, a border town, and walked through the jungles to a river.
They crossed the river, which was shallow, and reached the other side where two men were waiting for them. They walked farther through the woods until they reached a camp of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak). It was a clearing in the forest circled with thatched mud huts. There were around 40 men there.
Soraishem remembers seeing two very young children in camouflage fatigues holding AK-47 rifles.
So far, it had been like an adventure for them. Only Ajoynao was homesick and kept asking the men when they would meet their parents. He was beaten up several times. The boys were made to sleep in separate barracks. A cadre member would always be with them. At first, they made them plant trees and do odd jobs.
The first evening, they were made to hang their clothes in a hut and wear camouflage suits given by cadre members. They would wash clothes and help out in the kitchen. A week passed. They were getting anxious, but they were afraid to ask questions. One afternoon, a member came to them and said they should change. They would be returning home, he said. The three boys hung up their camouflage, and crossed the river, and in Moreh, they were taken to a hotel where they were returned to their parents.
According to human rights activists, the Prepak—one of the 15 odd underground groups active in the state that had abducted the children—chose to return them because of the protests that had followed their disappearance. “More or less, that time has passed.
We survived that, and we continue to survive,” Ajoynao says.