Imphal, Bishnupur, Churachandpur: Seventeen-year-old Marvin Manglenthang’s ambition was to become a mechanical engineer--but that was before May 3. Today, he holds a weapon and is getting trained to kill.

When violence first erupted in Manipur on May 3, Manglenthang’s father was among those killed. Manglenthang gave up on education--his sole purpose in life, he says, is to seek revenge for his family and his homeland.

The ethnic clashes between the majority Meitei community and the minority Kuki-Zo in Manipur has turned into a full-fledged civil war. Despite four months of turmoil and the presence of over 40,000 security forces, as reported by the state government, violence continues to claim lives in Manipur. And ordinary citizens from both sides, in increasing numbers, have been taking matters into their own hands, with the most vulnerable victims being the children.

In August, Union Minister of State for Education Annapurna Devi, in a written response in the Rajya Sabha, stated that 14,763 school-going children have been displaced as a result of the ongoing situation in Manipur.

She further noted that over 93% of these displaced children have successfully enrolled in the nearest schools, aided by designated nodal officers appointed for each relief camp to streamline the admission process for such students.

Manipur government data, shared by a state home ministry official, reveal that there are over 22,000 children residing in 351 relief camps in Manipur. Among them, 76 orphaned children are living with extended families, while 121 have been relocated to children's homes.

IndiaSpend, however, discovered that this claim does not align with the realities on the ground when we visited schools and relief camps in three districts between August 25 and September 5. A significant number of students from the Kuki-Zo community, particularly in Churachandpur district, remain out of school. The reason is that many of the schools they were supposed to attend are currently serving as relief camps. Further, private schools are charging half the tuition fee, which parents are still unable to afford due to the loss of financial resources in the violence.

We have asked the education minister about the discrepancy between the official numbers and the reality on the ground, and will update the story when he responds.

Reliving trauma in relief camps

Marvin Manglenthang, in the camouflage t-shirt, an 11th grader, getting weapons training in a training centre in Churachandpur. Before the conflict began, he wanted to become a mechanical engineer.

Nine-year-old Lalboi (he uses one name) from Kangpokpi district was once a top student in his class. However, he now grapples with even basic math problems. Most of his days are spent gazing at a picture of his mother, who was killed in front of his eyes while the family was attempting to escape from Kangpokpi.

Lalboi survived and is now in a relief camp in Churachandpur, but the loss of his mother has left him with an abiding sense of grief, to the point where he cannot focus on anything else.

“Lalboi arrived at the relief camp with his father in a distressed state during the initial days of May,” says Gracy Samte, a 28-year-old college student who is volunteering to teach students for free in Churachandpur’s relief camps.

“Initially, he was completely silent, but as we started counselling him, he gradually opened up. That's when we learned about his mother's tragic death and how he witnessed her being killed by assailants right before his eyes. Lalboi had a strong bond with his mother. His father, an alcoholic, was absent when the violence erupted near their village.”

Samte says that Lalboi’s father has now been deployed to the frontlines. Meanwhile, the nine-year-old broods on his slain mother. “Lalboi can't even attend school, because the school linked to him in Churachandpur is situated in the hills, making it inaccessible and dangerous due to its proximity to the frontline where gunfire occurs daily.” So Samte and other volunteers do the best possible to provide education to the children, with the limited books and study materials available.

Samte told IndiaSpend that Lalboi was once caught behind the camp, using drugs in the company of some college students. Following this incident, he has been placed under close supervision by the relief camp's caretaker.

There were 55,950 students studying in government and private schools in Kangpokpi district before the violence began, said zonal education officer Lhingtinneng Singsit, adding that they do not have data on how many students have come back to school after the violence.

"There are 3,532 students living in relief camps across Kangpokpi, out of which 3,351 have been linked to schools in the district, which means more than 90%, however, we don't know if all of them are actually attending classes due to the tension in the area. We have 421 government schools in Kangpokpi, out of which only 366 are functional."

The zonal education minister of Imphal has not responded to our request on data of displaced Meitei students, and the number who have gone back to school.

Drug abuse and rampant indiscipline

Lalboi is not the only child drawn towards drug use due to the absence of education and the abundance of trauma. The head mistress of the Young Learner School in Churachandpur said that the conflict, which initially began on the premise that it was an effort to curb poppy cultivation, has unfortunately led to an increase in drug usage among children.

"The ongoing conflict has eroded the sense of discipline among students,” says Ramsiemzo Tusing, headmistress of the Young Learners School in Churachandpur. “We receive calls from concerned parents reporting that their children are reluctant to study and attend school. Instead, they spend their days watching videos of violence and are leaning towards drug use as a means of seeking refuge from the relentless conflict. The government has not provided any therapy for these children, and while teachers are doing their best to help, they are limited in number and are not professional counselors.”

Our reporting found that nearly all 105 drug rehabilitation centers across Manipur are operating at full capacity. In recent months, there has been a significant decrease in the average age of addicts, dropping from 20-21 years to around 14-15 years indicating that younger children are now taking to drugs, mostly as a coping mechanism.

Broken education infrastructure adds to trauma

Many government schools that could provide free education to children and potentially offer a respite from the trauma are non-operational in Churachandpur, despite the government's claims to the contrary. Even the schools that have reopened are struggling to attract students back into the classrooms.

Rejoice Camei, principal of the Royal Academy in Churachandpur, broke down while sharing the plight of his students. He revealed that their school, which used to have 300 students before the conflict, now only has 50-60 students. "Many students have left the state, others have been displaced, or they are on village volunteer duty, and some are simply too traumatised to come back to school.

A school turned into a relief camp in Churachandpur.

“Our school was vandalised, books were burned,” Camei said. “We had to rely on NGOs for study materials, because government support is lacking. Six students from relief camps arrived at the school without shoes last week, they told me everything they owned had been burnt, including their footwear. I bought them shoes with my own money.”

Jangkhohao Haokip, the Zonal Education Officer for Churachandpur, told IndiaSpend that, as of August 31, of the 212 government schools in the district, only 44 are functional as the rest of the schools have been turned into relief camps housing over 22,000 people.

Haokip told IndiaSpend that 17,525 students were enrolled in government schools in Churachandpur before the violence began, but as of August 31, a mere 3,700 students continue to attend school.

“Many have moved out of the state,” Haokip said. “Those who are still here are not able to go to school because they live in relief camps in town while most of the functional government schools are in the hilly areas--sending children there is a security issue, since there is almost continuous firing, and also because of the distance.

“We cannot send these kids to private schools because they are charging 50% of the tuition fee to pay salaries to their teachers and, for obvious reasons, kids in the relief camps cannot pay.”

Jessica Chanu, 12, studying at a relief camp in Imphal. She is finding it hard to keep up with studies as she says the teachers use a different language than the one she used to study in, and schools are shut most days because of violence or curfew.

A similar situation prevails in Imphal, where the majority Meiteis live. Twelve-year-old Jessica Chanu longs for her best friend, who was left behind in Moreh, a small town on the border with Myanmar, which used to be Chanu’s home as well.

In July, Chanu attempted to contact her friend, but she was reprimanded by the relief camp's caretaker. Chanu, unable to comprehend why she was being scolded, broke down. She was then shown a video of her house in Moreh being set ablaze and people being killed, after which she was instructed never to communicate with her best friend again. The reason? Chanu is Meitei and her best friend is Kuki.

“I miss my friend, but people here at the camp tell me it is a bad thing to even love any Kuki,” Chanu told IndiaSpend. “I used to study in a private school in Moreh, but now I have been admitted to a government school here which also operates as a relief camp. Mostly, teachers explain things in Manipuri language, which I cannot understand, and anyway they are talking about the conflict half the time. Because there are few teachers, only important subjects like Math, Hindi, Science are being taught. I feel like I am lagging behind. And half the days the schools are shut anyway due to violence in nearby areas or curfew. This is as good as no education."

Education sacrificed due to fear of sexual violence

Seventeen-year-old Kimhoilhing (she uses one name) was readmitted to a government school located in the Naga-dominated region of Kangpokpi, approximately 8-9 km from her relief camp. However, a few days before the government reopened schools in August for grades IX to XII, she watched a viral video of two women being publicly paraded naked and reportedly raped. These women were from B Phainom, the same village as Kimhoilhing. Since then, she has not attended a single class--she is not afraid of death, she says, but is terrified of the possibility of sexual assault or worse.

“I aspired to become a doctor, and I was diligently preparing for it,” Kimhoilhing says. “However, due to the conflict, my dreams have been shattered. I haven't attended classes for the past four months, and even though schools have reopened, the violence hasn't ceased. Every day, people are losing their lives, and considering the horrific stories I've heard and seen on social media about women enduring unimaginable horrors, I don't want to take the risk. No girl or woman wishes to be subjected to rape or sexual assault, and what's particularly disheartening is that in Manipur, women have been betrayed not by outsiders but by our own people. We've lost our trust, and until the government can ensure complete peace, I don't foresee myself returning to school."

Viral stories of sexual abuse have created a situation where parents are apprehensive about sending their daughters to school. Zeba Thoiba, a 16-year-old in grade XI whose family resides near the buffer zone separating Churachandpur from Bishnupur, an area that witnessed violence resulting in at least eight deaths as recently as August 31, has daily arguments with her parents regarding attending school in Churachandpur.

Seventeen-year-old Kimhoilhing at a relief camp in Kangpokpi, is too scared to go to school, because of the fear of sexual violence.

To reach the school, she must pass through four layers of security and encounter armed village volunteers on both sides. Despite her willingness to make this effort, her parents removed her name from the school's roster due to concerns stemming from reports of sexual assaults in July.

“We sent our eldest daughter to Assam to our relatives for her education,” Zeba’s father Mohammad Thoiba said. “However, we can't afford to send our other two daughters out of the state, and we're uncertain about the situation here. The situation is so volatile that anything can happen at any time. Every day, we see people carrying sophisticated weapons, and we don't know if these individuals are commandos, militants, or civilians. We can’t send our girls to schools in the hills, where they have to cross layers of security and face armed men. Many families like ours have withdrawn their daughters from schools.”

Guns, trauma and revenge

On a recent Monday morning, 12-year-old Authouba was sitting at the crossroads of village Naranseina, Bishnupur, among hundreds of Meira Paibis, also known as the Mothers of Manipur. His mother was one of them. Alongside him were hundreds of armed men in camouflage uniform carrying sophisticated weapons, preparing to head to the frontline where the fighting was ongoing. Some said they were part of the armed militia Arambai Tenggol, some said they were village volunteers and others, villagers said, were militants from Meitei insurgent groups. IndiaSpend could not independently confirm their identity.

Authouba appeared comfortable in the presence of the armed men. He admitted to skipping school to observe these armed men, with whom he has been spending time for the past few months, learning how to handle weapons and hoping to get one of his own so that he too could “protect my people from these illegal immigrants who are harming us”.

When asked who told him this, he said, "Everyone says it, so it must be true."

In the three days between August 29-31 alone, at least eight were killed at Naranseina and Thamnapokpi villages near the Bishnupur-Churachandpur frontline. Sounds of firing are an everyday occurrence.

“We want peace, but the Kukis want the conflict to never end,” says 42-year-old Mema Saikhom, a Meira Paibi. “Kids are also being brought into a situation like this--how much ever we want, we cannot keep them away from the conflict, they get to know and we also have to tell them because we are preparing them to fight these outsiders.

“My [12-year-old] son saw his uncle's body--he was one of the village volunteers who died at the frontline on August 31. When my son saw his aunt, his cousin sisters and me crying, he came back home and told me that he will take revenge for his uncle's death,” said Mema. “As a mother I should not be happy, but now we are not thinking as mothers, we are first Meiteis, even if we have to see our sons as martyrs, we will sacrifice them for our homeland. This is the reason I encourage my son to see the armed volunteers, Arambai Tenggols, and learn. Schools will not teach them to defend and protect.”

Seilalgon with a single barrel gun at the frontline near Bishnupur and Churachandpur. He took up arms after his father was killed in the conflict.

Such sentiments are common as you travel across the region. Eighteen-year-old Seilalgon (he uses one name), a Kuki who is currently in grade XII, meets his English teacher from St. Paul's Institute in Churachandpur every day. However, their meetings aren't in school but at the frontline, where they have become colleagues in a fight within the state. When IndiaSpend met him, Seilalgon was on a two-day break from the frontlines to meet his mother. Seilalgon's father was one of the casualties in the Manipur violence.

"I was posted at the frontline in the third week of May,” Seilalgaon told IndiaSpend. “I have seen people die, but I think I will not die because I want to become an Army officer one day and protect my country. The only difference is that right now I am doing it for my homeland in Manipur. It was my father's dream. I did not want to ever pick up weapons, just like my father, who was peace-loving and a farmer. But after he was killed for no fault of his, on the rumor of being a 'narco-terrorist,' I took up arms.”

The conflict has made young children grow into maturity far faster than usual. “A dead person,” Seilalgaon says, sounding very adult, “is no good to anyone, so I take all precautions not to die because I want to study. There is no such thing as a schoolboy now. Every man or woman capable of fighting is going to the frontline because we do not have the weapons or forces to protect us. We have to do it ourselves.

“We are being trained by ex-army personnel,” he says. “They teach us to make homemade bombs, navigate through barbed wires, work on stamina, and to fire both soft-bore and assault rifles. My mother and three sisters are back home in Kangwai.

“I am doing this to protect them; otherwise, they will also be killed or raped.”

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