The group took refuge in a large room in the dwelling pointed out by the manager and after a meal of a bowl of salt and rice lay down on the earthen floor intending to rest awhile. A group of around six to seven people were already occupying one corner. The travellers experienced stiffness in their limbs, weakness in their bodies and a general breakdown in morale. Their existence was defined by agony and exhaustion. After many days, their exhausted bodies and minds had garnered a smidgeon of rest and peace in this refugee camp in Mogaung.

Dreams produced by deep slumber had just begun unspooling rapidly like a film reel, driving away the terror-filled realities from the vicinity of their tired eyes when suddenly thousands of sirens began a massive cacophonic din on all sides. The people sat up suddenly, the web of dreams enveloping them shattering in an instant. Stunned by the noise and frenetic movement, they began examining their unfamiliar surroundings confusedly.

“La-byiyo! La-byiyo!” The Chindit and Kachin soldiers guarding the refugee camp suddenly began shouting in unison. Suddenly there was chaos and tumult everywhere. Unable to make sense of anything, the occupants of the camp began scattering in all directions as if the gates of a madhouse had suddenly been opened. The upper garments of mothers suckling babies at their breast fell away as they made a mad dash for safety. People who had dozed off leaning on the walls and were still enmeshed in the web of sleep suddenly jumped up, began running, and fell to the ground as they bumped into others. Small children suddenly separated from their parents began to wail loudly. Sick people who could not get up began supplicating their gods loudly from where they were.

Suddenly, the terrifying drone of the Japanese bombers pierced the skies and blotted out the tremendous cacophony created by the screams of afflicted humanity and the screeching, sustained noise of the wailing sirens.

Scores of people jumped into the trenches. Quite a few of them stumbled in the stampede and lay where they fell. Some of them were quite close to the trenches, but couldn’t get in and laid face- down wherever they were. A lot of them remained rooted to their spots in confusion. Others ran out of the shelters, and not knowing what to do, went back inside once again. Nitu’s group too ran out of their shelter and scattered in all directions. Everyone ran, with the only intent being the preservation of their own lives.

The bombers suddenly swooped down like eagles and flying in a zigzag fashion began dropping bombs, first on the military encampments and then on the refugee shelters. The soldiers responded with anti-aircraft fire which probably missed their targets which were manoeuvring themselves in a zigzag pattern. Within a minute, the bombers completed their orgy of destruction and disappeared into the skies.

Smoke and fire had enveloped the refugee camps. Loud screams wafted in the air as the bombs exploded one by one. The scorching light of many fires were visible all over. The world seemed to have churned within the space of a minute. After wreaking destruction on the Mogaung military camp and the refugee settlements in a jiffy, the Japanese planes disappeared in the horizon of the hills lying towards the east.

The sirens began wailing once again, but this time they were the sirens of peace.

The red, clayey soil in the undulating pathway between Namiya-Ra and the Nong Jong river had become very slippery. In that steep incline, it was difficult to get a foothold while climbing or descending. By the afternoon, a mass of black clouds covered the sky and the peaks of the hills. Darkness fell during daylight; it was as if the world in front of their eyes was shrouded in a veil of darkness. After a while, it began drizzling. It became difficult for the travellers to press forward.

In that unfortunate situation, the travellers scrambled and wound their way with a wooden stick in their hands. An uncountable number of corpses lay prone in various positions in the spaces between the pathway and the edges of the hills ringing it, and also in the fields that had been cleared for jhum cultivation. They seemed to be flashing their teeth and grinning at the travellers. Almost all the corpses were swollen and puffed up, and scores of brightly-coloured butterflies illuminated them further, covering them like a shroud. There was no other sign of life in those virtually unsurmountable hills other than those butterflies.

In fact, birds too were absent and no encouragement could be found from them either.

The butterflies did not move away even when the travellers moved closer. They had no knowledge of humans, and hence no fear of them. They had unlimited sovereignty in that field of nature, an absolute monarchy! There were no signs of any villages or human habitations in the blotches of open areas cleared for the purposes of tou-iya that they encountered sporadically on the way. A thin layer of green vegetation had grown and become yellowed in the older fields used earlier for jhum cultivation.

In that cloudy weather, the deepest part of the Nong Jong river emerged glittering in their field of vision, and appeared like a vast round entity when viewed from the peaks of the Tandun hills. Occasionally white rays of light shone through the bosom of the clouds even though it could not be said with certainty where the sun hid itself behind the black clouds. Signs of round blotches for tou-iya were visible in the peaks of the hills which were now a playground for the clouds. Tall platforms were visible in each blotch of cleared ground. Frighteningly tall hills on every side, tableaus of death and destruction visible with each and every step!

A group of uprooted, helpless people were proceeding through a territory that even wild animals had abandoned after losing a titanic struggle with nature – as if this were nothing but a cruel joke! An exhibition of shiny jewellery, priceless rubies, jade stones and expensive apparel in the numerous bags and trunks lying open near the corpses seemed to be going on; however, the innumerable refugees who travelled through this pathway did not even stop to cast a backward glance at these. In fact, the wild bloodsucking butterflies did not attempt to alight on these objects even momentarily. They were busy in the search for nourishment. Life, only life – in this endless journey, inertness and stillness were of no value. This was just a carnival of movement, to halt meant death and futile, meaningless silence!

Excerpted with permission from Jangam: A Forgotten Exodus in which Thousands Died, Debendranath Acharya, translated from the Assamese by Amit Baishya, Vitasta.