I arrived in Imphal on May 1, little knowing what was to unravel over the course of the next few days. Of course, the tensions had already begun in the Churachandpur district of Manipur on 27 April, a day before Chief Minister Biren Singh was to visit and inaugurate a gym.

This was followed by miscreants setting fire to a Forest Office in Tuibong after an eight-hour shutdown called by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) against a land survey. At this point, things weren’t as bad as they stand today and everyone was sure that it would subside.

But this article is less about the hate being waged and more about the love and warmth I was about to be engulfed in. I was on my way to a beautiful village called Kachai, which lay in the Ukhrul district, to volunteer for a non-profit organisation called the Sunbird Trust.

The Trust which was formally launched on December 11, 2014, works towards building peace through education and empowerment of children and youth in conflict-affected areas of North East India. The aim is to foster socio-economic development through community intervention and build bridges between various communities affected by conflict and between people here and their countrymen elsewhere in India.

The trust was founded by Col. Christopher Rego (Retd) and his wife, Myrna Rego following his two tenures in conflict-affected Mizoram and Manipur serving on deputation with the Assam Rifles and the Border Roads Organisation. Both of them witnessed first-hand, the civil disturbance and the radicalization of youth with their obvious linkage to the lack of access to education and empowerment.

The Kachai sunset

While the initiative is mammoth, the Sunbird team has made a significant difference at the grassroots level impacting the lives of over 10,000 people in six North-East Indian states.

The ride to Kachai was picturesque, and time flew as I chatted with Mataisang Shirak, founder and principal of the Alpha Friendship School (AFS), and my colleague, Ayushi. Mataisang’s journey is one of resilience and dedication in the face of great odds. A native of Kachai village, he has devoted his life to education, change and development after refusing a government job in the teaching profession.

He set up AFS in March 1995 with the bare minimum and with the support of his dear wife, Mingthingla. The school exudes their labour of love, dedication and hope. The Sunbird Trust entered into a partnership with the school in the year 2021 which was an outcome of a chance meeting between Mataisang and another Army officer who was aware of the work the Trust was already doing.

Amidst the scenic sunset, I reached Kachai and was welcomed by the Shirak family and students who were playing on the ground. I felt a sense of warmth envelope me not just by the place but by its people. Everything was fascinating, be it the simple structures that were made into classrooms or the 180 kitchenettes where even children from Nursery and KG classes cooked their own food!

I spent the next few days talking to the family, teachers, students and the local people learning about their culture, the food, the different tribes and so much more. Despite Ukhrul having a history of insurgency and conflict between various tribes, it was heartening to see teachers and students from different ethnicities live and grow together.

I spent most of my mornings accompanying my colleague to the classes she taught, observing the far-reaching impact education truly has. Change begins at the grassroots and it was a breath of fresh air to see the teachers at AFS take interest to instill a value system into the children through music, activity classes, discussions and through responsibility.

Music class

Being around the children with razor-sharp minds and wit was a delight. I looked forward most to the evenings with tranquil walks to the village, spending time with the locals at the tea shops, giving digital training to the organisation’s interns and my favourite – endless conversations with Sir Mataisang and Ma’am Mingthingla sipping hot lemon tea with their ever-so-faithful Eddie by our side.

I learnt something from every person I had the privilege to interact with, whether it was about the life in the village, their local delicacies, or the fruits and vegetables they grew. Lessons I would forever cherish. I also learnt how to catch fish, crabs and prawns with just my hands on the trip down to the family’s paddy field over the weekend.

On May 3, the Tribal Solidarity March called by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) to protest against the inclusion of Meiteis in the Schedule Tribe (ST) category and what was supposed to be a peaceful rally, turned violent because of a few wrongdoers. It left in its wake the loss of many innocent lives, gruesome violence and great uncertainty. By 8 pm, on the same day, curfew was imposed and internet services were suspended in all of Manipur.

The students at the morning assembly

We were in touch with our families through normal calls and SMS services and while Ukhrul was a safe district, we were hearing the sad and devastating news coming out from different parts of the state including from the locations where our other colleagues were.

Even with the hardships, the bare minimum of resources, no electricity on most days and extreme water shortage, you would find a smiling face at every corner of the village. What sets Kachai and its people apart is a sense of family, of sharing and of compassion.

I was welcomed into their homes, their families, each tea shop I went to and by each person I met. In a span of just ten days, Kachai felt like a home away from home and in today’s increasingly materialistic world seldom can something or someplace evoke such a feeling in you.

Ms Mingthingla hard at work in the paddy field

I left Kachai with a heart full of love, gratitude and memories, and of course the famous Kachai lemons, with a promise to go back very soon.

My journey from Ukhrul to Imphal was eerie with the overwhelming presence of the Security Forces and the remnants of destruction that had been caused days ago. To see the beautiful state of Manipur burn and its people suffer because of politics and hate mongers has been disturbing, to say the least.

I salute those who are making the difference on the ground: the Assam Rifles, the Army and the other forces that are ensuring the safety of the common man without any bias. And, I doff my hat to the people of the state who are only seeking peace, development and a sense of unity.

The need of the hour is for the mainland to address the disconnect with its own people in the North East of India.

Enjoying the local delicacy of the village

Cover Photograph: Mr Mataisang and his faithful, Eddie

All Photographs Shefali Oberoi