Refugees of ethnic clash in India find open arms in majority-Christian state

manipur kuki refugees Father Caleb Laldawngsanga leads refugees from violence-torn Manipur in the praying of a rosary. | Credit: Anto Akkara

Thousands of ethnic Kuki Christians are still struggling to restart life after being displaced following the bloody ethnic conflict in Manipur state in northeast India that took place in early May.

However, those who fled to neighboring Mizoram are grateful for the welcome they have received in the majority-Christian state.

“Unlike thousands of others [refugees from Manipur], we are lucky. We have got government accommodation, the Church is helping us, and our children have been admitted in [the] government school,” said John Thangvanglian, a catechist at St. Joseph’s Parish of Sugnu in Manipur.

“On hearing about the comfortable situation, seven more families have contacted me and [will be] reaching here soon,” Thangvanglian told CNA Nov. 25 from Aizawl.

Manipur, located east of Bangladesh and at the border with Myanmar, is home to 3.3 million people. For decades, members of Meitei, Kuki, and Naga tribes have fought over land and religious differences. 

Beginning in May, a protracted violent clash between the majority Meiteis, most of whom are Hindus, and the minority Kukis left nearly 200 dead. Over 60,000 Kuki refugees along with 10,000 Meiteis were driven out from Kuki strongholds.

The government of the Christian majority state of Mizoram extended a helping hand to more than 12,000 Christian refugees from Manipur, housing scattered families in cities such as Aizawl in newly built apartments.

“We are happy and relaxed here. There is a lot of public support and concern for us,” pointed out Thangvanglian, who had led dozens of Kuki Catholics to reach Aizawl over three days of arduous mountain travel from Sugnu when their township came under attack from Meitei militants in May.

This correspondent in mid-September visited Kuki Catholic refugees from Sugnu sheltered at the newly built apartments that the Mizoram government had constructed for housing the poor.

“When armed forces were unable to keep the Meitei militants away, many of us took shelter in army camps and moved out of Sungu with their escort. Not a single Christian is left there. The church, convent, school, and all our properties have been looted and torched. We are lucky to get away alive,” Thangvanglian said.

“At least 6,000 Kukis [all Christians], including over 1,000 Catholics, have been driven out of Sugnu. We don’t know if or when we can return,” James Thangboi, another Catholic from Sugnu, told CNA.

The plundering of once bustling Sugnu township — which now looks like a war zone — has been brought to light in the documentary “Manipur: Cry of the Oppressed.” The film highlights the devastation, marked by arson and anarchy, suffered by Catholic targets across Manipur.

“We are grateful to God [that] we are safe here,” Mercy Tungdian, who now lives with her three small children in a government apartment shared with her family members, told CNA.

“They have become a new vibrant community for us,” said Father Caleb Laldawngsanga, who led this correspondent to the refugee center and says Mass every Sunday for the four dozen Catholic refugees at the complex in one of the corridors.

On Sept. 16, the Catholic refugees were thrilled when Bishop Stephen Rotluanga of Aizawl joined them in their evening rosary.

When they finished the rosary, Rotluanga went to comfort them standing in front of the statue of Mary kept on the table in the corridor of the apartment complex.

“Suffering is a part of Christian life. I can feel your pain losing your houses and all possessions. I have gone through the same experience in my childhood,” recalled the 71-year-old bishop, who heads the 30,000-strong Catholic Church in Mizoram, home to 1.2 million people, nearly 90% of them Christian.

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“I remember my house and everything going up in flames in a forest fire in our native village [Sakawrtuichhun] when I was a small child. My father’s desperate attempt to save it did not work and we had to move to Aizawl as homeless people.” 

“So, I had good schooling, joined the seminary, became a priest and bishop. If that fire had not happened, my life would have a different story. So, don’t worry. Your suffering will turn out for good. Trust in God,” Rotluanga told the homeless refugees.

On Sept. 16, 2023, the Catholic refugees were thrilled when Bishop Stephen Rotluanga of Aizawl joined them in their evening rosary. Credit: Anto Akkara
On Sept. 16, 2023, the Catholic refugees were thrilled when Bishop Stephen Rotluanga of Aizawl joined them in their evening rosary. Credit: Anto Akkara

Unlike the Catholic refugees from Sugnu, 59-year-old Francis Thanghminglian, a government teacher from Singngat village in Manipur, is leading a quiet life in the safety of a rented house away from the bustling Aizawl city.

“When our village was attacked, we took shelter in the army camp. After a week, the army escorted us to the [Imphal] airport and we reached here safely,” recounted Thanghminglian, whose son Samuel was ordained a priest in 2021 for the Imphal Archdiocese.

“Though our younger son Stephen [a Jesuit theology student] was assaulted by [Meitei] goons [while on a pastoral visit to families from the Jesuit house] on May 3, we thank God that the injury was not serious. He is now continuing theological studies in Pune. We have nothing now. God will enable us to carry this burden. There is God’s plan behind all these,” added the father of six sons and grandfather of two grandchildren.

Lala Songate, a Baptist who led a comfortable life running a furniture showroom in the city of Imphal, had to flee with his entire family from his native Langoi village as Meitei mobs targeted Kukis.

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“Though we have lost everything, I thank God for keeping my entire family safe. Two youths of our village were killed while they were fleeing. We rushed to the army camp for safety,” Songate recounted regarding the safe escape of his entire family — his wife, three sons, two daughters-in-law, and three grandchildren.

“They [the army] escorted us to the airport and we flew to Aizawl by May 6 and stayed with friends. Soon [the Mizoram] government arranged this accommodation for us,” Lala said, describing his family’s exodus to safety in government apartments at Edenthar.

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