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Thursday, January 27, 2022

‘Admit we got aggressive but they killed our brothers, who had done no wrong’

On Saturday, there was sound of gunfire, too — but that was different; continuous, and as one villager puts it, “ominous”.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Oting (mon) |
Updated: December 7, 2021 11:48:35 pm
Residents protest against the deaths of civilians in Mon, Nagaland, Monday. (Photo: PTI)

The sharp sound of a gunshot broke the relative calm of Monday afternoon in Oting village in Nagaland’s Mon district, home to just 180 households. The shots fired are a traditional mark of respect by villagers for 13 of their own.

On Saturday, there was sound of gunfire, too — but that was different; continuous, and as one villager puts it, “ominous”.

“We knew something was wrong,” said T Nahwang, a local resident.

Nahwang was with a group of locals near a coal mine in Tiru valley, 6 km from Oting. They did not work at the mines, but a group of eight miners, including his friends and cousins, did. Just a little before they heard the shots, the group had left home in a pickup truck. “We decided to head back home…to hear the gunfire was unsettling,” he said.

The group took another, slightly longer route home, different from the ones the miners did. Once home, they realised the miners had not reached. Hasty calls were made, which first rang out; minutes later, the phones were all switched off.

“We did not wait; (we) packed some food and went to see if they were okay,” said K Konyak, who was with Nahwang. Nothing prepared them from what lay ahead.

Along the way, they found the pickup truck, damaged, its glasses shattered. “Another vehicle, also a pickup, was moving away. We managed to stop it,” said Konyak.

Security personnel said the car had only “injured” people, being taken for treatment.

“We did not believe them,” said Konyak, who managed to put his hand inside the back of the truck, covered with tarpaulin. In the dark, beneath the cloth, he felt arms, legs and faces. When he took the covers off, six of the eight miners lay inside, dead. Then he cried, “The bodies are here”.

Villagers attend the funeral of those deceased. (Express Photo: Tora Agarwala)

After that, local residents said, “all hell broke loose”: tyres were punctured, three empty vehicles were torched, and crowds gathered as the forces opened fire.

In the chaos that ensued, seven villagers fell to the bullets and an Army jawan lost his life. While villagers claim they did not have any weapons, government sources said they were carrying machetes.

“I will admit it. We got aggressive, but they killed our brothers who had done absolutely no wrong, who had only worked hard, sweated and toiled in a mine, who were returning after a day of sweat and toil. Why would we not be (aggressive),” asked a village council leader.

Thaiwang Konyak, 25, said he was at the spot and claimed to have witnessed “indiscriminate firing”. In the truck, he saw his brother Yinjong, whose legs were broken, he claimed. “I tied his legs with a muffler…that is the only thing I could do,” he said.

Shortly after, as security forces fired bullets, he ran for his life, leaving his brother’s body in the truck.

The suo motu FIR lodged against 21st paramilitary forces at Tizit police station says there was “no police guide”, nor did the security forces make a requisition to the police station. “Hence it is obvious that the intention of the security forces is to murder and injure civilians,” it reads.

Charred remains of vehicles of security personnel after the vehicles were put on fire by some miscreants over the death of 13 people, who were allegedly killed by Armed Forces, in Mon district, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (PTI Photo)

An official report submitted to the government on the incident says the forces “fired upon villagers at random, without any attempt for identification”. It states that eyewitnesses have confirmed that “forces opened fire indiscriminately as they fled from the scene towards Assam side even firing in the coal mine hutments on the way.”

Later, the district administration, police and Konyak union leaders took the bodies to Mon district headquarters.

On Monday morning, a funeral service, attended by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rip and other dignitaries, was held at the helipad ground in Mon. In his speech, Rio said the day would “go down in the history of our people, where our brave sons sacrificed their lives for our land.” He said the challenge of removing the tag of “Disturbed State” on Nagaland and the prevalence of AFSPA in the state is a continuing challenge which the state government is fighting against.

The state government has declared an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh for the family of each victim. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 11 lakh and a government job to the family of each victim.

In his speech in Parliament on Monday, Shah said the Army had received inputs about movement of insurgents near Tiru village in Tizit area of Mon district, and that a team of 21 para-commandos had laid an ambush on Saturday evening. He said the vehicle approached the location and was signalled to stop. “But the vehicle tried to flee,” he stated.

Local residents in Oting deny that. “There was no checkpost, there was no signal to stop,” one resident said. “These were all young boys, just coming back after a day’s hard work.”

From the two who have survived, and are currently in Dibrugarh, locals have heard the group was singing songs in the car on the way back. “That was the mood… so why would they flee,” Konyak asked.

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