“The video hurts so much, I cannot find the words”

The family of the women in the Manipur video recounts its ordeal

The uncle of the 21-year-old survivor from the gruesome Manipur viral video looks at an image of his wife sowing paddy in their village. A mob of Meteis attacked their village in early May. Members of the survivor's family, including her aunt, her uncle and her cousins, have since been staying in Delhi.
The uncle of the 21-year-old survivor from the gruesome Manipur viral video looks at an image of his wife sowing paddy in their village. A mob of Meteis attacked their village in early May. Members of the survivor's family, including her aunt, her uncle and her cousins, have since been staying in Delhi.
31 July, 2023

LIKE MOST PEOPLE, the 52-year-old Vaiphei woman saw the viral video when it emerged online in early July. The video had been shot in Manipur, in early May this year. It was gruesome—two Kuki-Zo women, who had been stripped naked, could be seen being sexually assaulted by a group of men who were later identified as Meiteis.

The video went viral within minutes of its release. It immediately became emblematic of the ethnic violence that had been unfolding in Manipur for two months, where the dominant Meitei groups had disproportionately targeted Kuki-Zo tribe communities, leading to the deaths of close to one hundred and eighty people.

The 52-year-old and her family, too, had fled Manipur in early May. For her, however, the video meant much more. The young woman in the video was her 21-year-old niece. The other woman in the video was also a relative.

The family—the 21-year-old survivor, her brother, her father, her 52-year-old aunt, her uncle, their two daughters and their three-year-old granddaughter—had been separated while attempting to flee their village. It was not until the video surfaced, two months after the incident, that the aunt understood what the mob had done to her niece.

Violence had broken out in parts of Manipur on 3 May. The survivor’s village was located close to a Meitei-dominated area, and the family decided to go into hiding. The next morning, they were discovered by a mob comprised of Meitei residents from nearby villages. The granddaughter began crying loudly, and the mob told the aunt, the child’s grandmother, to console the three-year-old. The attackers then ambushed the rest of the family. The family members said that many people in the mob wore black shirts—a uniform of the Arambai Tenggol, a Meitei militia.

The mob lynched the survivor’s father and her 19-year-old brother, and beat up her uncle. They set fire to the homes in the village and killed the livestock. The attackers took away the 21-year-old and the wife of the village chief—their ordeal was recorded in the viral video.

The aunt hid in the forest all night, crying and praying. At the time, she did not know what had happened to the rest of her family, or whether they were even alive. The family members who survived were reunited two days later, in a village a few kilometres away. Over the next few days, they went from village to village, camp to camp, attempting to stay safe from the violence and seek medical treatment for the uncle. Two weeks later, they decided to borrow money and come to Delhi, where their son and daughter-in-law live. The 21-year-old niece, who is visible in the video, stayed back. The Caravan is withholding the personal details of the family members to safeguard the identities of the survivors.

A traditional Vaiphei shawl hanging on the clothesline at the family's home in Delhi.

At the time the video went viral, the 21-year-old survivor’s aunt and uncle had been staying in Delhi for close to two months, along with their two daughters, a 24-year-old and a 22-year-old. The video was a brutal reminder of their losses. “One of my daughters told us about the video. My niece and my youngest daughter are quite close so it has been hard,” the aunt said, crying as she spoke. “The video hurts so much, I cannot find the words.”

THEIR VILLAGE was home to around twenty-five Vaiphei families, or just over one hundred people. It was part of a cluster of Kuki-Zo villages—the Vaiphei tribe is classified as Kuki-Zo—located only a few hundred metres apart. The village is located in the foothills, surrounded by paddy fields, in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district. The cluster was surrounded by Meitei villages.

The aunt and uncle described their daily life as being centred around farming and community, especially the church. “I am someone who doesn’t like to stay idle,” the aunt said. They cultivated the land and also reared livestock. “I had one pig and three piglets,” she added. Most of her family lived in their village, including her siblings. “We all worked together to cultivate the land,” she said. “My daughters would join me when they had holidays from school or college.” She worked in the fields and looked after her son’s daughter. The three-year-old had come to stay with her grandparents because her parents worked long hours in Delhi, with little time to spare.

The uncle was an active community leader. He was the secretary of the local church, and his brother-in-law was the chairman. “We had various traditional festivals where the community would come together and feast,” the uncle said. The church would host feasts after the sowing season, or for maichâm—offerings to god. Kuki-Zos from the area would visit each other’s churches. Every year, the village hosted a volleyball tournament.

On most days, youngsters from the villages would come around to play. “Members of the neighbouring villages—Meiteis, Meitei-Pangals and Tangkhul-Nagas—would come together to participate in various sports,” he said. (Pangals are a Muslim minority group among the Meiteis, who are predominantly Hindu.) “Our village was a hub where everyone gathered,” the aunt said.

Earlier, Meiteis would visit them over Christmas as well. “Youth from the neighbouring villages, even from the Meitei villages nearby come to ours for Christmas and New Year. Even last Christmas, some even stayed at our place during the festivities,” she said. “Even the nearby Pangals come to partake in our sports.” Tensions had arisen from time to time. Local brawls would sometimes take place between two members of different communities.

Yet, they never thought the violence would escalate. The Vaipheis knew that on 3 May, several tribal communities held rallies across the state to oppose the Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status and the eviction of tribals from forest land. “We did not expect it to set off such terrible things,” the aunt said.

That evening, around 10 or 11 pm, a Meitei mob showed up to an adjoining village. The mob, of a few hundred people, began to set houses in the village on fire. The uncle and the village chief went to the site. They called all the Vaiphei families to gather and help fend off the mob, with knives and catapults. They also called the police—the Nongpok Sekmai police station, of the Thoubal district, is located nearby. The uncle said the police arrived shortly, but did not help them. It sided with the mob instead.

The aunt and uncle at their home in Delhi. The family is not used to living in a city, with its crowded streets and cramped homes. But returning to their village is now out of the question, they said.

The mob was also setting the houses of their village on fire. They began throwing stones as well. Some members of the mob knew the uncle. “I heard them saying, ‘Oh, that’s [his] house,’” the aunt said. She ran out from her home, towards the mob and asked them to stop. A stone hit her chest. “I was scared they would kill us so I moved away.” She said that one of them told her, “We will burn your house and also come and kill all of you.” The mob set fire to a few houses at the start of the village, including her and her brother’s home. They managed to quickly extinguish the fire.

Eventually, the mob retreated. That night, the police officers stationed themselves around the villages. But many of the villagers left to go into hiding. Others, like the aunt’s family, her brother’s family as well the village chief and his wife, decided to stay. They began moving their belongings into the forest next to an adjoining village. “We did maichâm and spent the night,” the aunt said.

The next morning, local Meitei representatives held a meeting with several of the Kuki-Zo village chiefs in the area. According to the family, the Meitei leaders assured the Kuki-Zos they were safe and that their houses would not be burned down.

Despite this verbal assurance, the village chiefs were not convinced. It was decided that the Kuki-Zos would continue to evacuate their homes and also go into hiding. The aunt and her family hid in the forest, as did her brother and his children—his wife was not present as she had gone to Lamka town, about two hours away, for work.

Suddenly, everything changed. In the afternoon, a mob of close to five hundred people arrived in the village next to which the family was hiding. As the mob began to loot the village, a goat escaped and ran towards the hiding villagers. They were discovered.

“Someone shouted, ‘There are people hiding here, come fast,’” the aunt and uncle’s 24-year-old daughter recalled. They were soon surrounded by the mob. The aunt ran towards the attackers and began pleading for mercy. Two members of the mob, one who held a machete and another holding a baton, pushed her down. The man holding the machete said, “Your people raped and murdered our women in Churachandpur, so we will do the same to you,” she recalled. The man was referring to a rumour circulating on social-media, of a Meitei nurse who had been allegedly killed by Kuki-Zo residents—later proved to be disinformation. The mob checked the family’s Aadhaar cards. “You Vaipheis are Kukis,” the aunt remembered one of them said.

The mob began attacking the family members at once, leading them to be separated from each other. The 21-year-old niece fainted. The family tried to revive her, even as the mob was threatening to kill them. A few men in the mob asked the wailing three-year-old aunt to take her away. “My little one saved me,” she said. She picked up the child and stood some distance away. The man with the machete escorted her to where the police stood, but the personnel refused to help her. She decided to hide nearby.

The aunt watched her house burn. Her brother was carrying her unconscious niece—the survivor—on his back and trying to get away. The aunt saw the mob ambush them. Later, the mob beat the brother and his son to death. She did not witness the killing, or the niece and the chief’s wife being led away by the mob.

Meanwhile, another section of the mob had cornered the uncle, their daughters and the village chief. The elder daughter pleaded with the assailants to let them all go. The mob began to beat the uncle. The daughters threw themselves on their father, trying to protect him. “I told the mob that our father is sick and ailing, and asked them to spare us,” the elder daughter said.

Some members of the mob, who were from the neighbouring villages, had recognised the uncle and his daughters and took them aside. The attackers spoke amongst themselves. The elder daughter told us that their neighbours did not want them to be hurt. The chaos around them was swelling—more and more people were joining the mob.

Before the rest of the mob could realise, the neighbours told the daughters of a safe escape route. They let them run away, with their ailing father and the chief.

The elder daughter said they spent the next few hours walking through dense forest, clearing the way as they went along. At around 10 pm that night, they arrived at a Naga village in the hills, located a few kilometres away. The village’s residents helped shelter them. They had lost track of the rest of their family, and did not know if the aunt and the three-year old were alive.

At this village, the daughters learned that their uncle and his 19-year-old son had been killed. Their 21-year-old cousin, the survivor in the gruesome viral video, had somehow made her way to this village as well, along with the village chief’s wife. “As soon as I reached, I was searching for her,” the elder daughter told me. “Hearing my voice, she ran towards me, hugged me and started crying uncontrollably.” The survivor had witnessed her father and her brothers’ murder. After she escaped the mob’s assaults, she had gone back to the spot where the bodies lay—she was wearing her younger brother’s blood-stained shirt as a belt, to hold her torn pants in place.

Left: The three-year-old granddaughter's first school bag. As they fled their village, the family kept its documents in the bag. Right: Pants belonging to the 24-year-old cousin of the survivor. The pants are stained with the blood of the survivor's brother, who was murdered during the attack.

“They stripped my clothes,” the elder daughter said her cousin told her. “I asked her if they raped her. She replied, ‘They did whatever they could do.’” The elder daughter continued, “She couldn’t talk properly as she was sick. We were grieving. Sometimes, she would try to speak about it but would cry. I would console her, but while I was consoling her, she would faint. When she was conscious, she would cry again.” The elder daughter tried to give her cousin an oral-rehydration solution. “But she barely drank a sip.”

THE AUNT HID in the bushes for what felt like forever. After escaping the mob, she ran with her granddaughter to a neighbouring village, but was turned away. She then decided to take shelter near the road, next to a shallow gorge. “The baby would whimper sometimes, but then she would quieten down when I consoled her,” she said. “Whenever she was quiet, I would check to see if she was still breathing.”

She did not know if the rest of the family were even alive. She was terrified that the mob would find her again. “If they find us, they will kill me, but at least they would spare a baby’s life,” the aunt thought. “But where will my granddaughter go if that happens?” The thought made her cry. She wanted to return to her village and find her family. But every time she attempted to cross the road, she would be deterred by the sounds of footsteps or flashing lights.

She spent several hours crying, praying and attempting to console the hungry three-year-old. At some point in the night, when it was quiet and dark, she managed to run across the road. She walked some distance in the direction of her village. On the way, she took water from an abandoned shop. As she crossed a bridge connecting the shop to her village’s fields, in the distance, she could see smoke emanating from her house.

When she arrived in her village, it was deserted. The fires had gone out, but the earth was still warm. Not knowing what else to do, she and her granddaughter spent the rest of the night in the ashes of her home.

The next day, the aunt said, some police personnel arrived in the deserted village and asked her to leave. She relayed the night’s events to the policemen and asked them to let her use their phone. They did not agree. “More police were walking by. I asked one of them too,” she said. “He said, ‘Ema, my network is not working right now, you can use it later.’” (The Caravan reached out to the Manipur Police for responses regarding their presence in the villages near the Nongpok Sekmai Police Station, on 3 and 4 May, and their failure to help Kuki-Zo residents. At the time of publication, no response had been received.)

The aunt walked to a nearby shop, owned by a Meitei man whose wife is from the Kuki-Zo community. The couple helped her, and she rested at their place for some time.

She also used their phone to contact her children. To her relief, she learnt that they were alive. She then began walking to the village where her family was staying. On the way, she stopped at a Vaiphei village that had not been attacked yet. She met her parents and other relatives there. “Together we all mourned for my brother and nephew,” she said. “My parents were trying to figure out how to retrieve my brother’s and nephew’s bodies.” Her daughters had told her that her husband was not doing well, so she soon resumed her journey to them. She arrived at the village by 10 pm, on 5 May.

Over the next few days, the grieving family travelled from village to village, relying on the villagers to shelter them, and trying to avoid being caught again in the violence that was now rending the whole state. They first went to a Naga village where they spent one night. The next morning, they began walking to another village, taking a longer route to avoid crossing Meitei villages. They managed to make contact with a Kuki organisation that helped transport them to a Kuki-Zo village, where they stayed for the next few nights.

The uncle’s medicines were running out. So, the family decided to go to Tengnoupal town. “We were planning to stay at the relief camp, but one of my daughters was too weak, so we had to go straight to the hospital where they put her on a glucose drip,” the uncle said. He too fell sick the next day and had to visit the hospital. They spent a couple of nights between the hospital and a nearby relief camp.

Eventually, by 11 May, they made their way to Lamka, the district capital of Churachandpur, where they felt they would have better access to medical care. They had relatives in Lamka. “They had prepared a meal for us, but we had no appetite,” the aunt said. She added, “In my daily life, we always did everything together with my brother’s family—all activities, labour, celebrations. While we shifted from village to village, all I could think of was him and my nephew.”

The family stayed in Lamka until 16 May. By this time, many of their extended family members had already fled Manipur, worried for their lives. The family decided that it was best for them to go stay with their son, in Delhi. Over the next four days, they travelled to Aizawl, in neighbouring Mizoram, and stayed with their relatives, as they arranged for money for their travel.

IN EARLY MAY, when the 27-year-old son in Delhi first spoke to his sisters, they were yet to be reunited with their mother and their three-year-old niece. He was convinced that they had been killed.

“I thought I would never meet my family or my daughter again,” the son said. He was afraid to even call his family—he worried that a ringing phone might give away their location if they were hiding. Once he learned that they were alive, he only wanted to bring them to Delhi.

The uncle visits a government hospital in Delhi. Accessing healthcare has been hard for the family, as they do not speak Hindi and cannot afford to pay for private care.

The son said that it became difficult for him to continue his work. “I was sick to my stomach and consumed with fear.” His wife, too, worked long hours. He quit his job to focus on arranging for funds for his family’s safe exit. “We borrowed about one lakh rupees to help us make the journey,” the aunt said.

Sixteen days after they had been driven out from their village, the family of five finally arrived in Delhi, almost two thousand five hundred kilometres away from their home.

The first few weeks after the attacks, the family members struggled to even speak about the incident without crying, the aunt said. I am still jumpy,” she said. “My sleep breaks easily, with any noise, or with disturbing dreams.”

“It has been difficult adjusting to life in Delhi,” the uncle said. “We do not speak the language or understand how things work here.” They were not used to the hot weather or to being stuck at home all day. “There is no labour I can do here to earn money also,” he said. “I do feel slightly hopeless.”

The uncle needs regular medical treatment for his health issues, including high blood pressure. After reaching Delhi, he developed a rash all over his arms and legs—not uncommon in a hot, polluted city. But his family panics easily now and is anxious for his recovery. Accessing healthcare in Delhi has been hard, since they cannot afford to pay for private treatment. “Maybe if I learn a bit of Hindi, it will be easier to navigate the city,” the elder daughter said.

In Manipur, the younger daughter was enrolled in college, but her education has been suspended. She is working as a shop assistant, for a small salary, to help the family repay its loan.

“I dreamt of my brother-in-law,” the uncle told us. “I dream of my brother and nephew too,” the aunt said. “They were leaving on their two-wheeler.” She said she was haunted by the memory of her brother pleading with the mob, when they were first captured. “That memory is always in my mind,” she said, tears flowing down her face. “I have not even seen their bodies till now.”

The family was beginning to get its bearings in Delhi when the video went viral. They began receiving calls from people back in Manipur, asking them to stay in hiding. They also began to receive incessant calls from journalists, seeking interviews. But the public anger in response to the video brought them some solace. “The fact that not just our people, but the rest of the country, people from so far away are angered by the video, and share our emotions with us—I know my brother and nephew would be watching us from heaven and be pleased that the country is supporting us,” the aunt said.

She said that in one edit of the video that she saw online, someone had used visual effects to cover the womens’ bodies, draping them in a traditional Vaiphei shawl. “I am so touched by whoever did that edit that I cannot help but cry,” she said. “That simple act has really struck a chord with me.” The aunt was also touched by the efforts of those who have helped settle the family here, including other Vaipheis and Kuki-Zos residing in Delhi and even those from beyond the community or the state.

“The knowledge that I lost my brother makes my heart heavy. I cannot be fully happy I survived,” the aunt said. “But we want to speak of what has happened so more help can come to Manipur.”

The aunt and uncle said they longed to be back in open fields. But returning to their village was out of the question for them. “How can we ever live there after knowing our neighbouring villagers were part of those who came to burn our homes?” the aunt. “We can never feel safe there again.”

Damlemsang Vaiphei is an independent visual journalist. His work focusses on outdoor sports, lifestyle, culture, heritage, identity and tradition.
Kim Vaiphei is a research scholar.

Damlemsang Vaiphei is an independent visual journalist. His work focusses on outdoor sports, lifestyle, culture, heritage, identity and tradition.