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Mizoram's unwanted citizens

By Jayanta Kumar Bhattacharya

Thirty-seven thousand people violently displaced in ethnic clashes in Mizoram have been living in miserable conditions in six makeshift camps in neighbouring Tripura for over a decade. Despite having documents to prove their citizenship, the Mizoram government doesn’t seem to want them back

Mizo Bru Refugee

Forty-five-year-old Tajirung Reang, who was once a happy resident of Bhangmun, a picturesque hilltop hamlet in western Mizoram, is now a refugee in her own land. 

One winter night 12 years ago, hundreds of Mizo youth armed with machetes, and a group of Mizoram armed police, attacked her village, torching houses, killing people, raping women. 

“They broke into my house, raped me and hacked my husband to death. They threatened us with dire consequences if we did not leave our village,” Tajirung says with tears in her eyes. “The young men and members of the armed forces looted our chickens and pigs and the grain that we had stored. The orgy continued for a fortnight.” 

When the family went to lodge a complaint with the police at Kawrthah police station in Mamit district, she says, the officer in charge advised them to leave Mizoram, saying they could be attacked again. “I fled my village with my family that night, with hundreds of neighbours, and took shelter in the jungles of north Tripura district. We got relief material from the Tripura government around five to seven days later.” 

Recalling that night of horror, October 15, 1997, A Sawibunga, advisor to the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF), told visiting journalists that Mizo youth and members of the Mizoram armed police attacked 44 villages in Aizawl and Mamit districts, torching houses, looting cash, belongings and domestic animals. 

Nine villagers were shot dead and an unspecified number of women raped and molested on that fateful night. Zonunsanga Meska, a resident of Bhangmun village in Mamit district, witnessed his wife and daughter being raped before his very eyes. 

Mizo Bru Refugees

Today, Tajirung lives in an evacuee camp at Naisinghpara in the Kanchanapur sub-division of north Tripura district bordering Mizoram. She is not alone: 37,000 people displaced in the ethnic clashes live in six makeshift camps. The camps are made from bamboo and straw collected from the surrounding forests. Families of five to seven huddle in a single room. Life is miserable: “We shiver in winter, and sweat in summer. There is no electricity in the camp,” says an inmate. 

The Mizoram government has apparently agreed to take back 35,000 Bru/Reang refugees sheltered in the camps. The decision was taken at a meeting in Aizawl, on April 31, 2009, between representatives of the Mizoram government, headed by Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, and members of the MBDPF. (A Congress government headed by Lalthanhawla came to power in the state defeating a coalition of the Mizo National Front (MNF)-BJP, headed by Zoramthanaga, in the last assembly elections held simultaneously with the recent general elections.) 

Despite this decision, Bru leaders remain sceptical. 

“Unless the repatriation starts we are not sure whether we are returning, and we doubt whether the government will abide by all the conditions of the agreement. After all, the government is run by Mizos who treat us like tuikook, meaning ‘insects of water’,” said one refugee leader who preferred to remain anonymous. 

According to the president of the Mizo Bru Refugee Committee (MBRC), Bruno Mesha, the trouble started when the Brus (as the Reangs are known) demanded an autonomous district council (ADC), under the sixth schedule, to protect and safeguard their language, culture and ethnic identity. Mesha argues that if the Lais, Maras and Chakmas living in Mizoram are able to enjoy the benefits of tribal district councils, why shouldn’t the Brus? Why should the Brus, who constitute a substantial number and have a distinct culture and ethnic identity, not be recognised? The Mizoram government has ruled out the possibility of a tribal council for the Brus claiming it will lead to the state’s division. 

Mesha claims that the names of a number of Reangs were struck off the voter lists before the assembly elections of May 2009 to prove that the Reangs were not original inhabitants of Mizoram. 

Meanwhile, conditions in the refugee camps are pathetic. Inmates suffer malnutrition and diseases like malaria and gastroenteritis, says the doctor in charge of the Naisinghpara health camp organised by the Tripura government. These two illnesses have claimed the lives of at least 200 people this year. Another doctor at the camp said 250 patients were being treated every day, although the situation is now under control. 

Camp residents also have acute drinking water problems as only four of the 13 tubewells function properly at the Naisinghpara camp where more than 17,000 refugees have taken shelter. “Before the monsoon, all natural sources of potable water like streams and wells at the foot of the hills dry up. Our children are forced to climb down 2-3 km to dig pits in the stream beds to collect water. They then trek up the steep hills with their water containers. It is not an easy task,” says an old camp inmate. 

“This is a tough time for us because no edible forest produce is available now except for some wild potato tubers,” she says, adding, “the amount of ration and subsistence allowance we get from the central government is not enough”. 

According to the sub-divisional magistrate of Kanchanpur, one adult is allotted 600 grams of rice and Rs 5 per day; minors get half this amount. Clothes are distributed to everyone once a year. He says he is unaware of any malnutrition deaths at the camps. 

When 40 huts were destroyed in a recent fire, the government promised Rs 16,000 to the victims. But nothing has been paid so far. When asked about sanitation and bathroom and toilet facilities, a lot of eyebrows went up. “We bathe in cherras (rivulets), and the open forest is our toilet,” the inmates said. 

Although there has been a huge baby boom in the camps, newborn children face an uncertain future. “The kids do not go to school because there is no school in the camps. An NGO, Banavasi Kalyan Ashram, runs a few small schools where some students study.” 

Elvis Chorkhy, President, MBDPF, explains that the state government had engaged around 72 teachers from among the camp residents. They are being paid a salary of Rs 1,000 per month, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme. But there is no school building, so the school cannot run! 

Inhabitants of the area, who are members of the state’s backward tribes, many of them Reangs, are at loggerheads with the displaced Brus over livelihood. “They get rice and cash from the government, but they still collect forest produce, cut trees for fuel, kill wild animals like snakes, wild fowl, rabbits, etc, and do not allow us to earn our livelihood from the forests,” says Subal Debarma, a local resident. 

The repatriation of displaced people hangs in the balance as successive governments have given no clear assurances of taking them back and resettling them properly in Mizoram. The state’s former Chief Minister Zoramthanga has said on several occasions that only 16,000 of the refugees are from Mizoram and that they will be rehabilitated if they are willing to return. 

Refugee leaders say, however, that everyone at the camps, except newborn babies, belongs to Mizoram and that they all have official proof in the form of citizenship certificates, bank passbooks, ration cards and birth certificates. Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has also stated that the refugees are from Mizoram and that the Mizo government should take them all back. 

At a high-level meeting in New Delhi to discuss the refugee problem, it was decided that 16,000 refugees would return by October 30, 2000. This decision followed a directive by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to the Mizoram government to take back the displaced people. The NHRC also instructed the Centre to play an active role in arranging the repatriation of the Brus. Nothing has happened since.

The Mizoram chief minister says repatriation will begin only after it is clear that the returnees belong to Mizoram. All displaced people will have to produce documents like ration cards, voter ID cards, birth certificates, citizenship certificates, etc. NGOs will be engaged to help in the identification process. It has been decided that Rs 30,000 per family will be provided as housing assistance, Rs 50,000 in cash grants, and one year’s ration after repatriation. Also that special development projects will be launched in Mamit, Kolashib, Lunglei and Aizawl districts in Mizoram. 

But, says Chorkhy, sites for the repatriation are still to be decided; the chief minister asserts that they must be carefully selected and boundary walls built to properly mark them out. 

Chorkhy adds that two extremist outfits -- the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) and the Bru Liberation Front of Mizoram (BLFM) had come ‘over ground’, following the signing of an agreement with the government five years ago. But even they were not repatriated properly.

(Jayanta K Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Tripura) 

Infochange News & Features, July 2009