UID number was that of the anti-Christ, they thought, and a war and an unexplained darkness were coming. 19 people from Mizoram set off on a 200-km trek across mountains to Myanmar, fuelled by this faith rather than reason — and found love at the end. ADAM HALLIDAY retraces the journey. Photographs by ADAM HALLIDAY
A 3,185 sq km district with a population of around 1 lakh, Champhai has a special place in Mizoram. It is said the history of Mizos starts from Champhai and ends in Champhai. The town is also a fast developing venue on the Indo-Myanmar border. The World Bank is currently financing the building of a four-lane highway between the border village and Champhai town.
A UIDAI drive is currently on in Champhai district. The 19 — members of one extended family — belong to Tlangsam village of the district. An official said members of ‘God’s Church’ sect of Tlangsam have largely refused to be enrolled. An earlier round had been able to enroll just over 38% of the district’s population and left out as many as 30 villages.
The Chin Hills of Myanmar, which the group wandered through, is an area of ridges and deep river gorges similar to the hills of Mizoram or Nagaland, only higher in elevation at between 2,000 and 3,000 metres above sea level. Much of the region is thickly forested. Any kind of road winds around these ridges. The 19 largely stayed off roads.
They left after day had given way to night, a small band of 19 men, women and children looking east for refuge, from what they feared was an impending doom.
They knew not what cloak doom would don or when it would arrive, but the scanning of eyes for the Aadhaar scheme, they apprehended, was the start. So they fled. Urgently. Secretly. In silence. Convinced their destination would be revealed to them.
It was on March 15 that they left their village Tlangsam, trekking and taking lifts over dense forests and mountains to cover, as the crowflies, 200 km. It was on June 3 that they were returned home — escorted by Myanmarese authorities.
Last week, this was the Myanmar story you didn’t hear about.
R L Hmachhuana, who is in his early 50s, was once part of the same religious sect as the 19 in Tlangsam, a village that borders Myanmar. A decade ago, he parted ways.
But while mainstream Church organisations in Mizoram have been saying for years that the UID (the Unique Identification Authority of India scheme) is not something to be feared, Hmachhuana isn’t surprised his children and sister, their families and the others left like they did.
“In all of history, there has never been an identification project for citizens that is linked with the power to buy and sell. UID is the only one where your entitlements like rations and everything else are linked to your number, just like the prophecy says of the anti-Christ’s number,” he says.
“Some people argue that the Bible says the number will be on the forehead, but the original Greek word means the upper portion of a human face,” Hmachhuana adds, referring to the iris scan under UID. “That includes the eyes.”
Hmachhuana’s sister Lawmzuali lives with her son in a house about 10 minutes away on foot, beside the main road that enters Tlangsam.
“We felt a calling in our hearts that we must flee. We feared the coming of the darkness and the foretold troubles, and we left. It was not particularly the UID, but a combination of all the signs of the end of days,” she says.
The group included her husband, a 70-year-old man who had suffered a stroke and who sometimes could not recognise family members, as well as Hmachhuana’s daughter Rammawii with her three-year-old son, his sons with their families including three children, a close family friend and one pregnant woman.
They carried a change of clothes and food that was only enough to tide them over a couple of days.
At the head of the group was Lawmzuali, 50, who was entrusted with their entire savings of Rs 3,000.
In the beginning was Lalzawna. An erstwhile member of the Mizo National Front, he moved with the front into East Pakistan in the early years, and then to Myanmar’s Arakan region. In 1971, he claimed to have “received” a message that said, “You will take part in a boat race, but your boat will be different from the boats that others row.”
Eight years later, he began preaching a message of “cleansing the flesh” in the insurgent camps. He returned to Mizoram soon after and began travelling to spread his beliefs.
By 1984, he had moved with followers into Tlangsam and established the ‘God’s Church’ sect. Some say Lalzawna’s followers numbered more than 400 families and swamped the 50-odd families who made up the original residents.
Soon Tlangsam came to be known locally as the home of the religious sect that feared a giant rock would roll down from the east and cause great destruction.
Hmachhuana again has an explanation. He had left his hometown Kolasib near Assam to join the ‘God’s Church’ but abandoned it a decade ago with his kin apparently due to “administrative problems”.
Hmachhuana, who makes a living as a carpenter and farmer and who occasionally works at a saw mill in his yard, says he and his kin still continue to believe they are the descendants of Ephraim, the patriarch of the 10th tribe of Israel.
They also believe in the likelihood of a fierce war between the armies of the east and west. Sitting in his tin-roofed wooden house, Hmachhuana interprets the same as a war between the armies of China and India, with Mizoram emerging as an independent country.
They see as well the coming of an unexplained “darkness” that would destroy and create a new land, and UID as the number of the Biblical anti-Christ that all “doomed humans” would sport either on their forehead or right wrists.
The group of 19 headed for the Tiau river first when they left home around 7 pm on March 15. The river, which in some places is no more than a wide stream, serves as the international border with Myanmar, with no fencing along it. When they got tired, they rested in the wilderness near Khawzim, a border village.
The next morning, they say, they just waded across the Tiau into Myanmar. And then walked further in to Tuidil village. When night fell, they slept on the village’s outskirts, in a small abandoned hut.
It had been just two days, but their food supply was already running out. Worried for the first time, they also realised the money on them might prove inadequate. Hmachhuana’s dog, a large mongrel, had followed the group from Tlangsam, refusing to be shooed away. At Tuidil, they sold it for the equivalent of 2,000 Indian rupees.
By then Lawmzuali’s husband Zonghinglova, the oldest in the group, had begun showing signs of weariness. When he fell ill, the young men took turns carrying him on their backs. Lawmzuali remembers he resisted this forcefully.
Zonghinglova had initially been sprightly, “the one most excited” about the journey, she adds. “After a few days, he started feeling weak. But he would keep saying he felt weaker when anyone carried him, and insisted on walking.”
From Tuidil they kept going and reached Lentlang, proceeding onwards to Laitui. Now approximately 22 km from the border, they said, they reached a settlement of largely ethnic Mizos.
Lawmzuali admits they didn’t know where they were going, or had any idea of the terrain they were crossing. The Chin Hills of Myanmar, where the group would continue to wander about, is an area of ridges and deep river gorges similar to the hills of Mizoram or Nagaland but higher in elevation, between 2,000 and 3,000 metres above sea level.
Much of the region is thickly forested. Any kind of road winds around these ridges. The 19 rarely took one.
They pressed on, they say, in the belief that a supernatural presence “would show them the way”.
“Once we found ourselves at a fork in the road. Maduhlaia, who was walking in the front, turned around and called to me, ‘Aunty, which way are we supposed to go?’. So I told him, ‘You go wherever it seems suitable’. I prayed, and after I was done praying, he had made up his mind and said, ‘I’m going this way!’. And so we all went,” Lawmzuali says.
Just before they reached Laitui in the Chin region, a band of Myanmarese traders offered them a lift. The women, children and the elderly got on. The eight young men kept walking, and the group reunited at Run. They made a halt a little distance from the small town, sleeping in the open.
As they resumed their journey the next day and headed towards Falam township more than 40 km to the south, a truck came by and the driver asked if they wanted a ride. “So we all got on. The driver asked us where we were going, and I asked him in return which way he was going. He said Tahan. So I said we’re also going to Tahan,” says Rammawii, Hmachhuana’s daughter.
The group isn’t clear what route they took from Tahan, knowing little about the towns and villages they crossed on foot.
Around three days later, they found themselves close to the international border where Manipur meets Myanmar. By now they had ventured roughly 200 km from home. Some men — the group suspects they may have been Manipuri or Naga rebels based in Myanmar — told them the area was unsafe and took them to a village populated by the Thado community. They believe it was called Usu, located anything between 10 and 15 km from Tamu town, the site of an official Indo-Myanmar border crossing.
The story of the incredible journey was about to draw to a close.
The Mizos living in Tamu heard about a group from Mizoram being found in the area, and went to get them. Soon the news spread, and Myanmar police and immigration officials descended on Tamu to interrogate the 19 about out where they had come from and why.
The group was interrogated for an entire night, and then put under a sort of house arrest. The 19 say the building seemed to be a school. By then, a week had passed since they had fled Tlangsam.
The Mizos of Tamu went out of their way, the group says, to ensure they were not jailed and a formal case was not registered. It helped that the elected representative of Tamu was, till his recent demise, a Mizo. The local Mizos also bargained with the authorities to be allowed to feed the detained group.
However, there was a little trouble soon. “It was warm and the children drank a lot of water. Us, too. We kept needing to relieve ourselves, and we kept dispersing since we weren’t locked up. The guards would tell us to stay put but we didn’t understand their language,” giggles Rammawii.
The group was next put in two lock-ups, women and children in one, men in the other, separated by a thin wall — a large holding area they describe as about 50 ft by 20 ft each, also holding locals detained for petty crimes. “Wide enough for the children to race around in, which they did all the time,” says Rammawii.
On the afternoon of March 27, V L Chama Hnamte, president of the Champhai district sub-headquarters of the Young Mizo Association, was working on some child abuse related cases (he is also the chairman of the district’s child protection committee) in Champhai town when he received a call from an unfamiliar number. Champhai is sprawled on a Mizoram hill just across a vast stretch of picturesque rice fields from Tlangsam, and the Young Mizo Association is the state’s largest community-based organisation.
The caller identified himself as Lalchatuana, leader of the Tamu Mizo Thalai Pawl, a youth group of Tamu Mizos. As V L Chama listened with increasing amazement, Lalchatuana told him about the group of Mizos from Tlangsam who had found their way into Tamu and been detained by police and immigration officials. Lalchatuana said they were trying to secure their release and were making sure they received adequate food.
A large, energetic man, V L Chama immediately made his way to Tlangsam and located Hmachhuana. The man with answers to most questions told V L Chama he too had just come to know of his relatives being detained in Myanmar, and had no idea what to do.
“He told me he was surprised the group had reached that far, that he had assumed they would live in the forest along the international border and come back after they had got over their fears,” says V L Chama.
Back at Tamu, the detention of the 19 continued. But the group’s memories of this time are of kindness, not hardship.
A police officer they named the “lord” because he had three stars on his uniform and was evidently the highest-ranking officer there took “very good care of us”, says Lawmzuali. “Every day he would come to the cell and have the children examined for any kind of fever or illness. He was especially mindful of the pregnant woman among us. He made sure she got soup regularly, and got her examined very often.”
The Mizos of Tamu also kept up a steady stream of food supplies, including rice, vegetables and, at least once a week, meat. The food was prepared by the cook on orders from the “lord”.
The officer also made sure that enough water was kept in the cells, though that led to a minor problem. As the days and nights were warm, the 19 would often sneak out for a quick bath even at night. The officer cut down their water supply after that, telling them through a translator that the children would fall sick if they continued.
Some Mizos would visit them almost daily, buying them cigarettes from nearby shops and passing these along with the help of guards. “Very often the guards themselves would come to check on us,” says Rammawii.
She christened one of the guards, an officer with a star on his uniform, “Boxer” because, as she recalls, he punched several of his juniors after some inmates complained of verbal abuse.
Around the end of May, Lawmzuali’s husband Zonghinglova’s condition got worse. A doctor diagnosed internal bleeding and he was kept in the infirmary. His wife was allowed to tend to him.
On May 22 night, he passed away.
Lawmzuali says she won’t forget what followed. “I and my relatives, the Tamu Mizos, the guards and even the ‘lord’ gathered around the body and we put on gloves and masks and cleaned him up. I thought to myself, ‘He is my husband’, and I took off the gloves and touched him with my bare hands. When the ‘lord’ saw that, he also took off his gloves and helped me get him into new cloths for the burial.”
A CD containing video clips of the funeral and burial, given to the group by the Tamu Mizos, shows the ceremony, with the group gathering around the coffin and the guards and other officials looking distraught.
A convoy of 10-odd SUVs emblazoned with official symbols acted as the funeral party as the coffin was transported to a Mizo cemetery some distance away. Several officials can be seen in the funeral video. Lawmzuali remembers one as the town’s administrative head and another as the widow of Tahan legislator D Thangliana.
Lawmzuali recalls the officials telling her later, “As is your community’s custom, you will one day wish to return and erect a headstone on your husband’s grave. We will host you as family.”
V L Chama had kept in touch with Lalchatuana since that March 27 call. On May 23, he received another call from across the border. The Tlangsam group had been released, he was told, and they would be coming home soon.
On June 3 at 7 am, they arrived with an escort of Myanmar officials and police and four Mizo leaders at the border crossing near Zokhawthar village. V L Chama and his colleagues along with Champhai District Deputy Commissioner H Lalengmawia were there to receive them.
“I am truly amazed the Mizos of Myanmar did everything they could to get these people back home. An international border might separate us but Mizos this side and that are bonded by the spirit of Tlawmngaihna,” Lalengmawia said, receiving the group, referring to the traditional Mizo code that puts the community above individuals.
Says V L Chama, “I have been asking myself how we would treat a group of Myanmar nationals if they found themselves in the same situation… What the Tamu Mizos told me more than once was how surprised they were that the authorities did not even register a formal case, simply detained (the 19) in a lock-up. They said that was unprecedented.”
By the evening of June 3, the group was back in Tlangsam.
Since then, the children have gone back to school, while the adults are again working in their fields or at Hmachhuana’s small saw mill.
At her son’s home in Tlangsam, where she lives, Lawmzuali stares out the window as she contemplates the events of the past three months.
After a silence of a few minutes, she says, “I buried my husband there. Maybe we were heading for the place of his death and his grave all along. He was the most excited among us about the journey. It must have been God’s will. My heart is at peace.”