At the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh, 23-year-old Sheiwang Konyak and 30-year-old Yeiwang Konyak are battling for their lives. They are the only two survivors of an army ambush on a pick-up truck carrying coal miners in Nagaland’s Mon district on December 4.
“They shot at them directly as the vehicle moved – they were neither stopped nor signalled to stop,” said Sheiwang’s brother, Neyemkhah, who was waiting outside the intensive care unit on Tuesday evening. “This happened in broad daylight.”
On the evening of December 4, personnel from the 21 Para Special Forces of the army had opened fire on a vehicle carrying eight coal miners returning home to Oting village, killing six of them.
According to the army, they were mistaken for militants. Addressing Parliament on the incident on December 6, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said the vehicle “was signalled to stop but it tried to flee. On suspicion of the vehicle carrying extremists, it was fired upon.”
Like the army, Shah claimed the tragedy was a “case of mistaken identity”.
The accounts of the survivors suggest otherwise. According to the Indian Express Indian Express, Sheiwang said the firing started suddenly and the miners fell to the floor of the truck immediately.
They also had nothing in their hands that could be mistaken for weapons, Sheiwang said. Afterwards, he recalls, they were transferred to another vehicle.
Sheiwang’s brother, Thakwang, was also one of the miners in the vehicle. He did not survive.
Bodies ‘dumped on the road’
The coal mine at Tiru is about 6 km from Oting village.
“They left the coal mine at 3 pm after finishing work last Saturday and were returning home in a pick-up truck,” said Neyamkhah. “After crossing the Tiru bridge, they neared a drain. That was when they came under attack suddenly. The bullets hit the vehicle in the back and in the front. The firing continued for about three minutes.”
Nyemkhah added, “Sheiwang saw the body of his brother, Thakwang, being dragged out of the pick-up truck and dumped on the road.”
After news of the ambush spread, angry local residents closed in on army vehicles late on Saturday evening, killing one soldier. Security personnel opened fire again, killing seven civilians this time. Another civilian was killed on Sunday as protestors attacked an Assam Rifles camp in Mon town and security forces opened fire.
A viral poster
Soon after the two injured men were admitted to the Assam Medical College Hospital, a poster with their pictures went viral on social media. It identified them by their first names and mentioned their fathers’ names. The poster goes on to say: “They were brought by Army and dump them in AMC Dibrugarh casualty room and left [sic].”
It asked social media users to circulate the pictures so family members could be identified – they urgently needed to be contacted as Yeiwang needed an emergency operation.
The two men were recognised by Bicky Ali, a resident of Dibrugarh whose wife was from Oting. He later contacted people in the village. “We would never have known that they were here,” said Kumyang Konyak, the brother of Yeiwang.
Staff at the hospital said, “The two were left at the hospital early on Sunday morning. Their address and identity was not known and many suspected that they were insurgents.”
According to the hospital superintendent, Prasanta Dihingia, they were admitted at 1 am on Sunday, after being treated at the Sonari Civil Hospital, close to the Assam-Nagaland border. “Both army and police were present at the hospital when they were being admitted,” he said.
Dihingia said that Sheiwang was recovering but Yeiwang was still critical and went into surgery on Tuesday evening. “Yeihwang had received injuries in his scalp and near his eye,” he said. “Sheiwang was hurt in his chest and elbow. Both have received bullet injuries.”