(States of Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland, India: November, 2000): What had been an insurrection power play had now escalated into a military nightmare. We now had dead soldiers. We now had dead civilians. Nightfall was coming and we were supposed to be in our hotel in Imphal. But the roads were blocked and we couldn’t get out of Sielmat. We were in trouble. There was no such thing as safety on the roads, especially for out-of-compliance- foreigners.
Our people fanned out to try to glean as much valid information as possible. We all waited at the main house of the mission compound in Sielmat. After dark, we decided to load up into different cars and cautiously proceed along the back road we had taken earlier in the day. Everything was very quiet as we motored through the villages.
Our first stop was at a military checkpoint, where we could talk directly to the soldiers and try to determine whether we could make it all the way back to Imphal. With the insurgents out in the fields and along the roads, it wouldn't be a safe trip. It would have to be a calculated risk. The civil unrest had been brewing, and now it could easily escalate into even more violence.
The spirits of everyone in our group were staying high as we tried to grasp what was happening. Then one member of the group, whom I’ll call Fred, contracted a case of verbal diarrhea. He began telling everyone else how important it was for him to get back to Imphal to rest up. He had to be physically and mentally fit to meet a project contractor on a job he had in Colorado, and how the pressure on his wife was already unfair. He unwisely began to verbalize to the other group members all the terrifying possibilities of what could happen in such a volatile situation. As he spewed out his own selfish insecurities, I could just feel the confidence and stability of the group slowly ebb away and fear seep in.
At the first military roadblock we talked the officials into letting us proceed down the road to the next military checkpoint. It was getting quite late, and there was talk that roving bands of gypsies were taking advantage of people who were caught out on the road at night by the strike. More military guards were being dispatched regularly as the night wore on. No one, not even the military, could give us advice or clearance. By that time, we were about one-third the distance back to Imphal, but the closer we got to the city, the more dangerous the situation became.
At one stop we were informed that a curfew had been imposed on Imphal, and the airport had been indefinitely closed. Flights were being diverted around the airport. At that point we made the decision to turn around and go back to Sielmat and stay the night at the compound. It wasn’t legal, but we’d tried the other options, and the choice was defensible.
On our return trip to Sielmat over very dark roads through dark villages, the military stopped us several times. At one point our group was surrounded by soldiers with guns aimed into our car. As the officer in charge yelled out his commands, a soldier jumped back into the machine-gun crow’s nest of his armored minitank, buckled up his helmet, and sighted down his machine gun right at us. It wasn’t a game for them. They were all very serious. After searching the women’s bags, the soldiers returned them, and we proceeded back to Sielmat.
Back at the mission compound, we were assigned beds, ate a little snack as quickly as possible, and went to our rooms to sleep. Our clothes and toiletries are still back at the Imphal hotel, but we’re all safe and together.
Friday, November 3
To add to our excitement, this morning we heard the news that a Singapore Airlines flight had crashed at the Taipei airport in Taiwan, killing an undetermined number of passengers. The 757 Boeing aircraft was on its way to Los Angeles. That was the same type of airplane and the reverse route we had taken to India ten days ago.
I continued to quietly watch and evaluate the interesting dynamics of our team. By morning “Fred” had several of the group pretty scared about their safety and the anxiety our situation here might be causing for their families back home. He seemed to enjoy using the situation to direct attention to himself and, through fear, make those around him dependent on him. I was real happy that it wasn’t my problem or Project C.U.R.E.’s problem. But it was a great case study to observe “action manipulation,” as I think it’s called.
Our group got up at 4:30 a.m. and was soon on the road. We figured we’d take advantage of the insurgents and the military being up all night. Early morning would be the best time to get back to Imphal. We didn’t know which of the two roads would be open, if either one. We just had to go and try. We employed the same strategy as last night: Go to one military post, talk to them, and try to get permission to go on to the next military post. We kept moving forward and finally passed the spot where our bus had broken down. It certainly seemed as though a lot more than a day had passed since we crowded into the heave-green-colored jeep.
At the military post, just past where our bus had broken down, we were stopped, and it didn’t look like we would be allowed to go on. We were told that Imphal was virtually under military siege. Everyone was forced to go to their homes and stay inside. No one was allowed to be on the streets—no buses, no cars, no taxis, no rickshaws, and no pedestrians, just military-enforcement patrols.
But a strange thing happened at the checkpoint. Instead of detaining us, they put an officer in the backseat of our car and gave us a three-car escort all the way back to Imphal. We sailed back to the city! If the soldiers at a checkpoint tried to stop us, our escort would pull up, shout an order, and wave us through.
As we entered the city of Imphal, we experienced another strange phenomenon. It was as if the plague had hit or the second coming had occurred. Nothing was moving. People peered at us through the shaded windows of their houses. I couldn’t imagine a busy, crowded city in India with no one moving.
We were escorted right up to the front door of our hotel. The city was under siege, but we were safely back inside the concrete hotel compound, with military guards out at the gates and foot platoons marching in front of the hotel periodically.
Imphal certainly is a city under lockdown. But the lockdown works both ways. We’re protected from any random violence in our guarded shelter. But likewise, we aren’t going anywhere. The streets are under military control, and no airplanes are flying out of Manipur. I don’t like to think of it that way, but we’re also under siege because we aren’t going anywhere.
The government and the military are so preoccupied with their own problems that no one even thought to hassle us about staying in a restricted area without proper paperwork. The military is worried about a grassroots uprising in reprisal against the blatant shooting of civilians at a bus stop. The military strategy is to clamp down on everybody so no adverse momentum can get started. There is enough movement for independence in the hearts of the people of the northeast border states of Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland, and there have been enough human-rights violations not only on the part of the Assam Rifles group but also by the Indian National Army and the different police forces that the shootings may well have pushed the emotions of the people over the threshold.
Next Week: Some taken, Some Left