Sixty six-year-old Awan Konyak last saw her 25-year-old twin sons, Langwang and Thapwang, on November 29. It was a Monday and the young men were heading back to work in a coal mine about 6 km from their village Oting in Nagaland’s Mon district.
They usually spent the week at the mine before returning home every Saturday in time for Sunday church service. That Sunday had been even more festive: along with the rest of the village, they had attended the wedding of 38-year-old W Hokup.
A week later, on Saturday evening, December 4, as the twins were returning home from the coal mine, the vehicle they were travelling in came under fire from personnel of the Indian Army. Of the eight passengers in the mini-truck, six died, including the twins. The army said it had mistaken the civilians for insurgents.
“The Army should have known they were normal civilians,” Awan Konyak said. “How can they kill my innocent sons?”
She was fighting back tears. “They were the best,” she said. “They were working hard to feed us. Now both are gone, what will we do?
In a statement on Sunday, the army said its personnel had launched the security operation based on “credible intelligence of likely movement of insurgents” and expressed regret for the “unfortunate loss of lives”.
But the residents of Oting village are angry – they allege that the army personnel attempted to hide the killings, and when confronted by local residents, they opened fire at them, killing seven more people, including newly married Hokup.
The aftermath of the ambush
Such was the intensity of the gunfire on Saturday evening that it was heard by those far away from the spot.
A student leader said he was at Tirun, about 6 km away from the spot, when he heard gunshots around 4.15 pm. The leader, who is in his thirties and did not want to be identified, said he went to Oting village where he was told that some young men from the village were yet to reach home from the mine. “We realised something was amiss,” he said.
He accompanied the village residents and guards as they went in search of the mine workers. They also took some food as it was getting dark.
“When we reached the spot we saw four vehicles,” he said. One of them was a van, which looked suspicious. “One of our guys overtook the van and parked his bike in front of the vehicle.” When they asked the security personnel what was inside the van, they were told it was carrying injured people who were “being taken to the hospital”, he said.
A short distance away, the residents of Oting village spotted the vehicle in which the coal mine workers used to commute, the student leader added. It was empty and marked by bullet marks and blood.
When he and the other confronted the security personnel, they claimed they did not know much “as the army party who fired have already left and they have come as a reinforcement”.
“We were shocked and unable to control our emotions,” the student leader said. “We had brought food for our brothers but instead found their bodies. How could they do this? Why were they lying?”
He said the village residents then punctured the tyres of the security personnel’s vehicles, to stop them from leaving, “following which they started firing blanks and got aggressive”. The village residents then set three vehicles on fire.
What followed was indiscriminate gunfire from the security forces, eyewitnesses said. “It was horrific. We were speechless and helpless,” said a resident, who did not want to be identified. Among those caught in the gunfire was Nyawang Konyak, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mon district unit, who was on his way to the spot. One of his companions was among those killed.
Konyak alleged that the soldiers continued to fire at him and his companions despite his vehicle’s bonnet bearing the BJP flag. “They should have at least seen that, but instead they punctured my car’s tyres,” he said. “How will the world run if the Hindustani Army kills civilians like this?”
The Indian army said one soldier died and another was injured in the aftermath of the ambush.
A village in mourning
On Monday evening, as 13 coffins were brought to the village compound, Hahshahapang, over 700 people gathered to pay their last respects to the dead. Many held aloft placards that said, “We condemn human genocide”, “We want justice”, “Stop killing innocents and atrocities”.
At one of the entry points of the compound, a banner read: “Welcome Back Home, Brothers. The Warriors.”
Those who died on Saturday were all young men in their twenties and thirties. The youngest among the six who died in the ambush was Yinjong, aged 23, the oldest was C Shomwang Konyak, aged 33.
Shomwang’s father, Chenwang Konyak, said that whoever had directed the botched-up security operation should be held accountable. “They should give the name of officials or commanders or majors who ordered the so-called operation,” he said.
He pointed out that the ambush happened in daylight, on a regular commuting route used by workers, not in “an unknown and dense forest”. “Such daylight killing is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Shomwang’s cousin, Minpang Wangshu, said, “We are unhappy not just as a family but as a community. We all are devastated. If they are really the army, why they could not differentiate between insurgents and civilians?”
“People are born to die but we don’t deserve this kind of death,” Wangshu said.