It was a muggy mid-monsoon evening in July. More than two and a half months had passed since Manipur was ripped apart by the ethnic savagery that rapidly grew into a full-scale civil war between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo people.

I was in Manipur in our societal initiative for healing, solidarity and justice, the Karwan e Mohabbat. We had met many internal refugees in Meitei camps in the valley and now were in the hills.

We were seated on benches in the courtyard of the Songgel Evangelical Church in Churachandpur district of Manipur. Here the church had organised a relief camp for around 150 Kuki-Zo refugees who had fled after their villages had been attacked.

This was one of the few hundred similar camps, all established in church campuses in the hills. The state was completely absent from the relief camps. An uncompromising border, guarded by a succession of check-posts of both military and civilian militias, had been established between the Imphal valley and the hills. It was dangerous for the Kuki-Zo people to travel to the valley as it was for the Meitei people to journey to the hills.

In the Songell Church relief camp, we met a young man in his early 20s, Thangboi Singset. Pastor Hemkhomang Haokip translated as he spoke. Thangboi’s speech was halting because he was still to recover from the many blows with iron rods that a mob had pounded on his head.

What he told us was an extraordinary story of near-death and resurrection, of hate and forgiveness.

I record this in his own words:

I am finding it difficult to put my thoughts together into words. I was injured too much. I was unconscious for too long.

I was born and raised in a village Kangchup Gejlang which lies some 15 kilometres from Imphal, in the foothills between the Imphal valley and the surrounding hills.

My village was small, with mostly Kuki residents. But we were surrounded by many Meitei villages. I studied in a Meitei school in village Singda not far from my own village. I had many friends there. Some among them were Kuki, but many were Meitei and Pangal [Muslim].

It was a happy childhood. But my parents were very poor. I had to drop out of school after Class 9, to help my parents who were small farmers, to cultivate their farms. They were ageing, and could not manage any longer on their own the hard labour that their farm demanded. Outside the farming seasons, I looked for work in Imphal. I did many odd jobs, such as on construction sites where I worked as a mason.

But all the time I earned too little to bring home to my parents. I was hopeful therefore when I got a job in a petrol station in Imphal. There was less hard labour and I would get a salary every month to put into my mother’s hands.

Happy with my new job, I joined my employment at the petrol station on April 30. This was just three days before the May 3 attacks.

A burnt vehicle and rubble on a street in Manipur's Churachandpur on May 9. Credit: AFP.

On May 3, I was busy all day at the petrol pump, pumping fuel into vehicles. There was a huge rush. But I was not aware of the reasons for this. I had no idea that Manipur had begun to burn.

Night fell. We petrol station workers had a small room to sleep in at night at the station premises itself. The crush of vehicles had ended. I retired into our room with some of the other petrol station workers to cook our dinner.

Suddenly, there was a knock on our door. It was around 9 pm. We thought this would be another rush of people wanting petrol for their vehicles. But instead outside the door we found a group of around 50 men armed with sticks and iron rods.

They were looking for Kuki men working at the petrol station.

There were three of us Kuki men employed at the station. We cannot know for sure how they knew there were three Kukis here. But there is a paan shop near the petrol pump, from where we would buy paan after our meals. I suspect that the man who runs the paan shop might have informed the mob.

We were terrified and tried to run away. But there were too many of them, and they caught us easily. They began beating all three of us with iron rods. I soon fell unconscious. My last memory before I collapsed was of my other two Kuki friends fighting the mob, while being brutally beaten.

I learnt later from one of the three men who survived the assaults about what followed after I lost consciousness. He was badly injured but hid. Our third friend also fell to the ground unconscious. The mob thought that I and the other unconscious man were dead. They searched for the third man, but left after they could not locate him.

I have no idea what happened to me after that. When I regained consciousness, only three or four days later, I found myself lying on a hospital bed in RIMS [the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, the premier hospital and medical college in the state].

I learned slowly from the doctors what had happened to me. After the mob at the petrol station had left, taking two of us to be dead and unable to find my third friend who survived, the police came. They took the two men they too assumed were dead to the RIMS hospital to send to the mortuary.

But fortunately, before we were carried into the mortuary, a doctor checked our pulses. One of us, he confirmed, was “completely dead”. But in my wrist, he heard a faint beating of the pulse.

He rushed me to the ICU. I am alive because of him. I met him later. He was a dark-skinned doctor from mainland India.

Imaad ul Hasan/Karwan e Mohabbat.

After I heard all of this, my first longing was to go back to my village and home. I still had no idea until then that the valley and the surrounding hills were on fire, entire villages had been burned down, and so many people were dead. It was the doctors and nurses who told me about the battle that had broken out between Meiteis and Kukis. They urged me that it was unsafe for me to leave the hospital.

But I begged and begged the doctors that I must return home. I needed to know if my parents were safe. The doctors relented finally, and called the police. The police arrived, but said they must first take me to the police headquarters.

The journey in the police van to the police headquarters was frightening. There were screaming mobs with weapons everywhere and the sky was thick with the smoke of burning houses. People had set up road blocks on every road to check if vehicles were carrying Kukis. I was saved only because I was travelling in a police van.

But even within the police van, one police guard taunted me. He kept showing me a bullet, and said that this is what I deserve to be given. However, there was another Meitei policeman who kept encouraging me, telling me to ignore his insults, the threats, the roadblocks. “Don’t react, don’t respond to him. You have to become strong again,” he said to me. “Nothing else is important”.

They first drove me to the police headquarters. But this was already swarming with escaping and injured Kukis. So, then they drove me instead to the Central Reserve Police Force headquarters.

There, the soldiers gave me a bed to rest on. My injuries were still raw and very painful. There were cuts all over my face and mouth, which made it very hard for me to eat anything. The food was hard and too spicy for me to swallow.

A sub-inspector was kind to me. He brought me bread and mango juice every few hours which I could eat and sip. I slowly recovered.

The sub-inspector also called my family on his phone. My parents could not believe when they heard my voice. They had been sick with worry because they had not heard anything from me all these days. They had finally assumed that I was dead.

I longed to see them. But my parents explained that it was not possible for the family to travel into the valley to see me. After I got better, the CRPF transported me to the district hospital in Churachandpur. From there I was brought to this church camp.

I enquired about my family and learned that had also been moved to another relief camp, again in a church compound. Slowly, my parents told me their story. Mobs of Meitei people had tried to burn down their village. But the army stationed there would not allow them to do this. However, the fear of being attacked haunted them all the time, so they had all decided to flee. They were transferred by the army to the relief camps set up by the church.

Alone in the relief camp, as I became better, I felt no fear. Instead, I was consumed by rage. Night and day, I had only one thought. I resolved that I would extract revenge, by killing at least one Meitei. I had almost died in their hands. Because of them, my parents were homeless. Because of them, we might never be able to return to our village again.

But as time has passed, I have forgiven everyone.

I had not seen anything like this in my life before this. I could never have dreamed that this could happen. Until now, for every Meitei I knew, I had felt only friendship and love.

I believe in God. It is He who gave me a new life. This is nothing short of a miracle.

Imaad ul Hasan/Karwan e Mohabbat.

“Why do you think God gave you a new life?” I asked the young man Thangboi.

He looked at me, and was silent.

I then said to him:

“It is wonderful to meet you, wonderful that your life was saved, wonderful that you are well, and wonderful that despite everything you have no hatred in your heart. May your life hereon be happy and fulfilled”.

He took many deep breaths, and then a few tears fell from his eyes.

After a while, he said only this, “I still feel a lot of pain”.

Harsh Mander is a human rights activist, peace worker, writer, and teacher. He works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, and homeless persons and street children.