‘There is no home to return to. I saw it burn’: A young victim’s tale

The volatile context in Manipur has impacted violently the young minds, especially those in the relief camps.

ByGeetanjali Heigrujam

Updated 14 Mar 2024, 11:15 pm


Six-year-old Malem held on to his mother’s hands as they walked the sunny street of the relief camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Akampat, Imphal East, Manipur to collect their share of essentials allotted by the camp managing committee.

Malem, whose name has been changed, walked quickly towards the committee camp with the familiarity of someone who lives those streets every day. Amid the faces of hope and despair, he unknowingly picked up two boxes of toothpaste for his family against the rules.

When his mother gently reminded him that he could take only one, he immediately dropped one toothpaste box and held on to the other he chose.

Malem is originally from Moreh Khunou Leikai, Moreh. He is an only child. Unprecedented and unprovoked attacks by kuki militants on the evening of May 3 forced him and his family to leave their homes and their belongings. Undefended, Malem and his family fled for their lives, and hid in plain sight in the IDP camp opened at Ideal Girls college, Akampat.

The volatile context in Manipur has impacted violently the young minds, especially those in the relief camps. “I don’t want to go back home. My house isn’t there anymore. I saw it burn," Malem told the Imphal Free Press during the visit to the relief camp.

“And even if the war ends, I still would not go back because we would be attacked by those who have guns and bombs and be killed,” the six-year-old continued, speaking calmly, braving emotions.

For Malem, the memory of his hometown has been sullied by a memory of profound violence that he would rather keep buried. In talking about what he misses about his home, he shares how he misses his toys, cycles and clothes bought by his parents, finger counting it, all the while wishing he has all of the toys and clothes now, which were left back in their home, unable to be rescued from the fire.


Two young girls from Malem’s group of friends at the relief camp also said they left their ‘Laidhi’ (dolls) back home. ‘We miss it’.

For kids like them, displacement has truncated their rites of passage to childhood as the centres of reinforcement have been replaced with a way of life that is altogether jarring and confusing. The ones born in displacement or too young to remember rely on the stories of older children and adults, and they are constantly befuddled by what they think are tall tales about a home they have never known.
Malem’s mother wore a tired smile as she came out and greeted us.  

Her face reflected the sadness that prevailed among the residents of the camp; nevertheless, there was a flicker of hope in her eyes as she watched his son play with a group of kids, without a hint of worry.

Young Malem, during the initial stay at the relief camp, used to ask his mother when they will go back; however, he has stopped asking about his home.

“My heart breaks and I am not able to console my child when he asks for home. The feeling of being uprooted from my home, in my own state, is difficult to digest. The sights and sounds, look and language of the new settlement here is somehow becoming familiar yet they trigger a sense of alienation. I know where we are is temporary and I have never forgotten my home. I can see the image of it burning vividly,” the 44-year-old told the Imphal Free Press.

She manages their makeshift home at the camp where they have been seeking refuge for over 10 months. Her husband is a daily wage earner, employed under skill development programmes initiated by the government, working odd jobs to sustain his family and fulfil his young son’s dreams.

“Malem being the only child, his father and I tried our best to give him everything he wished, be it toys, books, clothes even though we didn’t earn much. I care about my sons’ proper education. However, it seems to be non-existent here and above all, we don’t think we can afford it,” she commented. Malem studies in a nursery located nearby a government school. He cried inconsolably the first day of school after his stay at the relief camp. However, he seemed to have grown into it, she added.

Aside from the daily compensation provided to them by the authorities, Malem’s father’s daily earnings are all what the family of three is relying on, even though oftentimes the income was not enough. Like the rest of the families at the relief camps, Malem’s situation is no different; living one day at a time, with uncertain thoughts if food and safety would be their privilege for the next day.

This became her family’s reality after May 3, 2023, when her town, Moreh, a vibrant and thriving town nestled in the Indo-Myanmar border, was attacked by heavily armed militants.


Malem’s family was about to have fish curry his mother had prepared for dinner, unknown to them the horror that lay ahead. However, Malem refused to have his dinner, stating that he would not have until Echan (a neighbour’s daughter) had it too. Amid the debate, the attack occurred, forcing them to leave their meals untouched and flee their home, which was set ablaze before they could even catch their breath.

“I was engulfed in fear as I ran. All my thoughts were rolled into one: How to save myself, my son, my family. My child asked me what was happening, who was burning our house. But no words came out of my mouth except ‘I don’t know, we have to run’,” Malem’s mother recounted the harrowing incident to the Imphal Free Press, with her breath shuddering. Fragile, vulnerable, and disoriented, my son did not speak a single word throughout the journey and remained silent, she narrated.

They fled their home, which had fallen prey to violence, to Moreh KLP. It was where they claimed refuge for a few days before they were rescued and shifted to the relief camp on March 10. The relief camp was where the family was given a new identity: Internally Displaced Person (IDP). Though violence and death did not meet them in their homes, their lives were just as ruptured as they were forced to flee to places unfamiliar.

‘Living in the relief camps, our condition is similar to that of refugees as we are forced to leave our homes resulting in severed ties with the community, getting disintegrated above facing unemployment with limited or no access to land, housing, food and education’, Malem’s mother noted.

‘The feeling of returning home gives a sense of respite and belonging to many. But how does one feel when the home does not give a sense of belonging, and it is just a mere lifeless structure that one endures every day, for the simple reason that, what was once upon a time their home, today no longer welcomes them. The IDPs live with this dilemma every day,’ she continued.

What home is, as a concept, can sometimes be difficult to articulate. But somehow, we know that regardless of whether it is our experience or not, home is a place where we feel nurtured, where we find order amidst chaos, and where we are equipped with the tools with which we make sense of the world. Then how do people, whose lives have been upended from months of enduring displacement, think about the concept of home?

The relationships built, the memories created, all fused together to create one’s identity, solidify one’s attachment to a place has eventually become a blurry memory for young victims of the conflict like Malem that the journey back to lost normality and seeking a new balance almost seems impossible to comprehend.

After having already been torn from their homes, livelihoods, and support networks, IDPs should not have to endure further fear for their safety and well-being. It is here that the State Government and the authorities concerned need to take steps to heal the wounds of war and displacement among young survivors of traumatic events. Compensations being provided by the state might not be sufficient if the underlying issue remains unresolved.


First published:


manipur violenceInternally Displaced Personsrelief camps in manipur

Geetanjali Heigrujam

Geetanjali Heigrujam

Imphal Free Press Sub-Editor, Imphal, Manipur


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