Ninety-eight families are making their way across from Tripura to 15 villages in Mizoram,carrying little but hope to rebuild lives destroyed in the frenzy of a night. Report and photographs by ADAM HALLIDAY
It was a wintry night 16 years ago that they fled their villages,located in Mizorams western districts of Mamit,Kolasib and Lunglei. Houses burnt down by angry Mizo groups,the Brus ran with what they could carry and didnt stop for three days,till they had put a states boundary between them and their assaulters.
On September 30,98 of the 6,000 families comprising 37,000 people that fled that night began their way home. The week-long fifth phase of a repatriation process,that has only progressed in fits and starts and has been often disrupted by violence,eventually hopes to resettle more than 35,000 people.
Officials heaved a sigh of relief when of the 121 families expected to return in this phase,98 registered. Last year,only seven out of 500 families did so. Till date,1,035 Bru families have been resettled in 35 villages of Mizoram,but an estimated 5,000-odd remain in the camps.
The journey back began at the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF) office at Naisingpara in north Tripuras Kanchanpur sub-division. As jeeps and trucks lined up to transport the refugees from the relief camps of Naisingpara and Asapara,people jostled around two desks to get themselves registered,under the watchful eyes of Assam Rifles and Tripura Police.
The 15-odd vehicles were enough,for after 16 years living in small thatched houses,the refugees were returning with little to call own.
It took more than two hours to reach Kanhmun falling in Mizoram,about 30 km away. Mizoram Police kept a watch on the bridge over the Langkaih river,the official boundary between the two states. Officials verified identities,handing out ration cards to those who met the criterion of having been on the states electoral rolls between 1995 and 2013.
In a corner,two doctors administered free check-ups and medicines.
The refugees were next sorted by police officers as per their designated villages,out of a total of 15,and bundled into vehicles again,escorted by armed police. Further afield in the transit towns they were headed to,policemen kept guard at various points.
Those who come back are entitled to Rs 85,000 compensation,Rs 5,500 to cover transportation costs and a year of free rations,all provided by the Centre. Besides that,Mizoram is allotting them land to settle down and build houses through respective village councils.
Administrative Officers,mostly local teachers,have been appointed to coordinate the allotment of land,both for homes and for farms,and provide any assistance the returnees need.
Lalbiakzama,Joint Secretary of the Mizoram Home Department,which is coordinating the repatriation process,says they are committed to providing the families what they need at the earliest.
Mizoram is the only state in India that has a full road-map for repatriation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Even our neighbours in the Northeast do not have such plans even though there are thousands of IDPs in their states or those who have fled their states. And we are not confining these returnees to any place.
One of the villages the Bru refugees headed for was Damdiai in Zawlnuam block,Mamit district. The day before,a Sunday morning,Nunpuia and his neighbours sat on the bamboo thatch floor of his house. Opposite stood the villages lone concrete structure.
Nunpuia is a rehabilitated Bru militant and was among the first batch of Brus to return. We are expecting 14 families to come here. They will stay in that building for now. We havent put a roof yet since strong winds are common and it might get blown away even before they come. Theyll have to stay there for about a week as we sort out where they will live, he said.
Nearby,two men were busy building a thatch roof for their relatives. Were putting the thickest parts of the reed facing down so that the roof is thick. Its still rainy season so we have to be ready, said one.
Thansiama,who returned in 2010 and is settled in Nalzawl village,in the same block,was eagerly looking forward to the next day. Most of those returning are from my extended family,including my fathers three siblings and their families,and descendants of my grandfather and grandmother. There are 37 children in all, he said,smiling.
The Nalzawl returnees,in all 20 families,had a hard time as roads,already pot-holed and muddy,were blocked because of a landslide. The refugees had to break their journey and spend a night in a shed near Bawngva.
Relatives came over with food for the night. Amid family reunions,some chose to stay back.
Early Tuesday morning,they set off again on foot,their belongings on a tractor. Among them was Thansiamas aunts son-in-law Khisno Joy and his wife,their son Diarai,his pregnant wife and their four children.
Before the family left for Tripura,they lived in Saipui,not far from Nalzawl. Though not burned down like other hamlets,it was abandoned. There is nothing there now but maybe,once we settle down,we will rebuild it, said Diarai. We always longed to return… We were unwelcome guests, he continued.
When they fled,Diarai and his wife had two daughters. Both died in Naisingpara. His wife is set to deliver their fifth child in three months.
When they reached Nalzawl,they were welcomed into their relatives homes with food and clothes.
A group headed to Mamit town,the district headquarters,to get silpaulin sheets to keep the rain from coming through the thatch roof.
There are 30 of us in our house right now. But it is okay,the administration is working as fast as possible to formally hand over land, said Thansiama.
At Rengdil village nearby,a draw of lots was done on Tuesday to decide the plots to be allotted to the 20 returning families. Lalramthanga,his wife,son,two daughters,and 19 other families are among those currently living in temporary shelters.
My grandfathers name has been in the states electoral rolls since 1952, said Lalramthanga,who used to be an evangelical teacher. At Naisingpara,he became a salesman. Now our only aim is to die and be buried in Rengdil, he said. We are home,and this is where we will live the rest of our lives.
Former BNLF supremo Surjyamani Reang called himself a social worker now,involved full-time in the repatriation of Brus. It was on April 26,2005,that he signed a peace deal with the Mizoram government. Three months later,he emerged from the jungles with 195 armed cadres.
They were settled in four villages,including Damdiai,where Reang now lives with his wife and ailing mother. Four of his five children attend school elsewhere.
Wearing shorts and a half-sleeve shirt,his feet folded up on his wooden chair,he said: The formal repatriation process is going fine,but there are problems with those who return on their own without intimating the government. I and my colleagues in the Bru Coordination Committee (the main agency helping the return) have been urging those in relief camps to not do so.
However,as he pointed out,the main problem is land,because much of it is now owned by wealthy Mizos.
As he spoke,his mother moaned in pain. Reang said it was difficult to get treatment since there was no hospital in the village,and a health worker only came occasionally. When we signed the peace agreement,one of the components was sanctioning of Rs 33 crore as for Mizorams western belt,where our community is concentrated. The money was to be used for community halls,playgrounds,anganwadi centres and schools and to develop water supply infrastructure and laying of electric cables. The Centre has not yet sanctioned that because so many Bru refugees have not yet returned, he said.
Bru leaders in the relief camps have been demanding doubling of the repatriation package. The demand is not unreasonable,Reang said,given that inflation has eroded the package since it was settled a couple of years ago.
Angelvenpuii sat looking at her calloused hands. We thought our son would look after us in our old age.
On a wall in their house in Bungthuam village,close to the Tripura-Mizoram border,hung dried and artificial flowers offered to her as a mark of condolence for her son Zarzokima,who was killed on November 13,2009.
That morning,the 18-year-old was out looking for fodder when he was hit by 22 mm bullets fired from a country-made in the chest. Next to his body was a handwritten note in English signed by the Bru Revolutionary Union,which has been never heard of before or since.
The Mizoram government believes Zarzokima was murdered as part of a conspiracy to derail the repatriation process. A total of 10 people were arrested in the case,some of them from inside Tripuras Bru relief camps.
The murder resulted in fresh ethnic violence between Mizos and the remaining Brus. Scores of Bru families fled that conflict too,and are currently settled in what is known as the new-comers relief camp in Tripura.
In the MBDPF office at the Naisingpara relief camp,president A Sawibunga and vice-president Laldawngliana listed the problems the refugees face. Some of these people have been registered for repatriation under wrong ration card numbers,and some without telling the heads of their respective families, said Sawibunga.
Asked when they planned to return to Mizoram themselves,Sawibunga laughed: We cant leave until all this business is settled. That would be unfair on the people remaining here since we are leaders,at least in name.
Laldawngliana refuted as complete falsehood allegations that forum leaders are extorting camp inmates or that it is in their interest to have refugees stay back. We do receive voluntary contributions from households,which is Rs 5 per every minor and Rs 10 per every adult,but just once every four or five months. Since the forum needs to work for the welfare of the people,we need funds, said Sawibunga.
Elvis Chorkhy,former president of the MBDPF,lives with his wife and two school-going sons in a small rented flat in Mamit town. While his family hails from Sihthiang village in the same district,Chorkhy was at college in Shillong when his people fled. It was only in 2002 that he moved to Naisingpara to set up schools for refugee children.
He soon became president of the MBDPF that helps coordinate life in the relief camps,including lobbying to help bring Brus plight into the limelight.
When the repatriation process began in 2010,Chorkhy and his family were among the first to return to Mizoram. Now chairman of the Bru Coordination Committee,he helps ease the resettlement. There is no meaning to life in a relief camp, he said. There is no gainful employment,no farms for our people who are still largely agriculturalists,education is limited and many die from diseases. It is like a jail.
People die due to epidemics on a regular basis, said Laldawngliana. In May and June 2002,nearly 3,000 died due to dysentery and diarrhoea. Fires are also common,especially during February and March. As many as 21 persons including several children had perished when a fire broke out in a cluster of houses in the Naisingpara area in March 2011.
Lalsawma and wife Thangkhlaiti still remember that night of March two years ago when they woke up to find their house afire. The winds were blowing in a northward direction and we knew this was the season of fire. But we never imagined our house too would catch fire, said Thangkhlaiti,showing the scars on the body of her three-year-old daughter Dabirai. Their eldest daughter Mainoma (8) died in the fire,while son Robirung (6) too suffered burns.
Our biggest problem is healthcare and drinking water. The nearest government health centres are at Dasda and Anandabazar,both about 5 km away. But doctors seldom come there. We are mostly left to wild herbs, said Laldawngliana.
The lack of safe drinking water also makes diseases common. While a government supply was provided after the 2011 fire,it can meet the demand of hardly about 300 families.
With little work,the Bru refugees mostly sustain themselves on rations provided by the Centre,routed through the Tripura government. We are entitled to 600 grams of rice and 25 grams of salt per day per adult. Likewise,a minor is entitled to 300 grams of rice. There is no kerosene,no dal. We are also entitled to cash of Rs 5 per adult per day and
Rs 2.5 per minor per day in addition to rice, Sawibunga listed.
Some people work in nearby villages,but hardly get Rs 100 a day. Others sell herbs collected from hillocks,for a maximum of about Rs 50 a day. It all depends upon how much herb I can collect, said Titaboti Reang.
The other problem is education. We teach the kids in Mizo language. This is because sooner or later we have to return to Mizoram, said a teacher. The Tripura government procures textbooks from the Mizoram unit of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) for distribution.
A couple of missionaries have set up a few schools. The Skang Yarpi Adventist School established in 1998 has 425 students studying up to Class VIII. Most give up studies at this stage; the nearest high school is about 20 km away,at Tlangsang.
Those attending SSA schools study only till Class VI. Most end up as labourers. A number of young boys work in coal mines in Meghalaya. Three of the four sons of Toloiram Reang have all migrated for jobs. The eldest one is a security guard in Hyderabad. One is in Guwahati,the other in Shillong, said Toloiram. They sent him about Rs 2,000 a month in all,he added proudly.
Sukherung Reang (17) and her friend Snamrung Reang (16),a student of Class VI,want to become teachers. I will go to Meghalaya or Nagaland to continue my studies, said Snamrung. We dont even have a proper house or address. How can we dream of becoming a doctor or engineer? added Sukherung.
Each morning,Mosia Msha walks about 4 km from the Kaskaopara Bru relief camp towards Kanhmun,where he currently works in a shop,earning Rs 200 per day. He often works as an agricultural labourer. The 26-year-old has two schoolgoing children,and lives with his wifes family since his father-in-law is ailing. His parents live in the same camp.
We lived in Borai village. I was 11, he remembered. Our village wasnt burned down but others nearby were. I often tell my father we should have stayed back. I tell him our lives have been ruined. I just studied till Class VI,I could have studied more if we had stayed in Mizoram,there would have been better-paying jobs,we would have land,a farm.
The murder that led to a mass fleeing
* The Mizo-Bru conflict that sent an estimated 6,000 Bru families fleeing 30 to 60 km from homes to Tripura began in the mid-1990s when Bru leaders began an agitation for an Autonomous District Council. Similar councils had been granted to the Lai,Mara and Chakma minorities earlier,and Mizo groups claimed that such demands would split the state.
* The Mizos (a term encompassing several tribes) have traditionally considered Lais,Maras and Hmars as ethnic relatives,but Chakmas and Brus as settlers.
* In 1997,the Bru National Liberation Front murdered a Mizo game watcher inside the Dampa Tiger Reserve. The Mizos retaliated and pillaged Bru villages. Brus fled to Tripura to join other members of their community who lived there,known in that state as Reangs.
*Apart from Asapara and Naisingpara,about 230 km north-east of Agartala,the refugees fled to Kaskaopara and Khakchangpara,among other places,close to the Mizoram border. They came from dozens of villages,including Tuipuibari,Nathiazol,Chhikha,Fulpuwi,Sarali,Falkawn,New Fulpuwi,in the Mamit,Lunglei and Kolasib districts of Mizoram.
With Samudra Gupta Kashyap