Village in northeast India mourns after deadly attacks
OTING, India (AP) – It was in 2004 when a bear shredded Nenwang Konyak in the forest of Mon District, high in the hills along the Indian border with Myanmar. The men from his village, Oting, rescued him and took him home. He survived, thanks to them, but ended up with a ragged scar on his face.
When Nenwang learned that his village had called a search team earlier this month to search for a group of missing workers, he didn’t hesitate. He and his 23-year-old twin brothers joined them on December 4, unaware that the workers had already been killed by Indian soldiers. Later that day, seven men from the search team were killed by the soldiers – and Nenwang returned home without his twin brothers.
Like others in the village, he is haunted by the events of December 4 and 5, when 14 civilians and a soldier were killed in a series of attacks in the northeastern state of Nagaland. Twelve of the men, mostly coal miners, were from the village of Oting. The violence, among the deadliest to hit the state in recent years, sparked national anger and made headlines – and left Oting in shock and grief.
âEven Christmas will not bring any joy. Our hearts are hurting. They were our own children, âsaid Among, a 50-year-old Christian woman from the village.
This part of India has long been used to pain. The people here are Nagas, a minority group more ethnically linked to Myanmar and China than to India. More than 90% of the state’s more than 1.9 million people are Christians, a stark contrast in a predominantly Hindu country. For decades the Nagas have fought a battle for Indian independence, and there are few families who have not suffered from the violence.
In recent years, violence has ebbed, but demands for political rights have increased even as the federal government pushed for talks with the separatists. Peace negotiations began in 1997 after the Indian government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.
In Oting, many work as farmers, except during the lean season from November to March when the rains ease. Meanwhile, they work in surface coal mines. It is backbreaking work. The money earned is often used to pay for their children’s school, but when December comes, it’s all about Christmas.
On Saturday, December 4, Shomwang, a villager, left Oting with food to give to people working in his coal mine. On the way back, he was joined by seven miners on his truck who wanted to be back in the village for the Sunday church service.
Their vehicle had barely left the mine when it was ambushed by Indian soldiers. Bullets started to rain, killing Shomwang and five others. Two remain hospitalized.
Back in Oting, the villagers heard the shooting but dismissed it as a shootout between soldiers and Naga fighters or between rival Naga factions. But when night fell and no one saw the workers, a search team set off. Soon they found the truck, empty and riddled with bullets. Barely 50 meters (150 feet) away, they saw soldiers on four trucks, one carrying the corpses of their brothers, sons and friends piled up like animal carcasses on top of each other.
Furious, they set fire to three military vehicles. The soldiers retaliated by shooting not only at the crowds but also at stalls and shops about a kilometer (half a mile) away. By the time the last bullet was fired, a total of 13 civilians and one soldier had been killed. Several were injured.
Violence continued the next day, when demonstrators attacked a military camp, prompting soldiers to shoot, killing another civilian.
The military said the soldiers acted on “credible intelligence” that some of the victims were militants, but expressed regret and called it “mistaken identity.” The government has announced that it will launch an investigation. But the villagers rejected it, demanding an independent investigation. They also refused the compensation offered by the government.
âI was helping the others unload the bodies from the truck when the soldiers started shooting. I ran for my life and took refuge in an earth moving machine. Two people who were hiding with me were killed. When the soldiers started shooting in our direction, I ran, âsaid Phonai, a coal miner and part of the search team who survived.
Nearly three weeks later, Shomwang’s truck, marked with bullet holes and sealed off with crime scene tape, is still at the site of the attack as a reminder. A stench, nauseating and overwhelming, hangs in the air.
The incident struck a chord, drawing hundreds of people to Oting. Officials came to investigate, others came just to offer their support and share their grief.
âThe pain is unbearable,â said Naophe Wangcha, the village chief’s mother. “We just want to know that the culprits get what they deserve.”
Cries of anger spread beyond Oting, swelling in the towns and villages of Nagaland. Since the deaths, candlelight vigils and solidarity marches have called for the revocation of the Special Forces (Powers) Act which has weighed on the region since 1958 and gives many regions the feeling of occupied territory. The law gives the military extensive powers to search, arrest and even shoot suspects with little fear of prosecution. Nagas and human rights groups have long accused security forces of abusing the law.
One recent Thursday, in a small wooden house with dirt floors, 18-year-old Mary Wangshu was crying for her brother.
Manpeih was the only child in the family and was pampered at home. The siblings worked in the coal mines and were the only ones living in the family home with their parents. âI miss him,â she said. âHe was my only companion at home after everyone left. ”
Outside her mother, Awat, was surrounded by neighbors who tried to distract her – she once even tried to laugh.
Mourning is shared here, even though the villagers deal with the loss in their own way. Some cry silently in their kitchens, some angrily call for justice, some share stories, some seek comfort in the church. Yet they are all interconnected, and have been for generations. There are friendships, marriages, and lives that unite people here.
âHumans are not harvested from the ground. They do not grow in the wild. They come from our bowels. We treat them for nine months with physical pain, we protect them from mosquito bites, we give them food intended for us, we send them to school with hope for their future. And then having them killed brought us a lot of grief, âAmong said. âWe will visit their graves on Christmas morning and talk with them. We will ask their spirits to visit us.
At dusk a few days after the murders, Shomwang’s younger brother sits with Nenwang and his parents around the fireplace. Both families suffered losses but also found solace in each other.
âIt’s too painful. I don’t want to talk about it, Nenwang said quietly.
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