Oblivious to their 'refugee' status, two-and-half-year-old Tinneithem admires her pink nail polished toenails. Bottle in one hand and the brush in the other, she turns her attention to her sleeping eight-month-old younger sister, intent on coloring her nails as well.
The two little girls are with their mother, Vahjneng, 25, in the 10-by-eight room of the supermarket complex that has become their home.
Deserted by her husband a few months ago, Vahjneng does not mind the full-time job of looking after her two children. But parenting leaves her no time to go and look for work. Of course, work and money wouldn't have been necessary had she been in her own house in her own village. Instead, she now depends on the goodwill of people who donate a small amount of food to her everyday from their own pitiful share.
Vahjneng is not alone in her misery. She and her children are among the nearly 800 Kuki villagers who have taken refuge in Moreh, a small town on the Indo-Myanmar border, since March this year. Moreh is one of the most popular commercial hubs in the north-east, as the international trading centre between Myanmar and India is located here.
Belonging to various villages along the Khengjoi and Samtal hills ranges in Manipur's Chandel district, these people, mostly women and children, have been forced out of their homes by landmines - said to have been planted by underground outfits as a safety measure against counter-insurgency operations. A number of men chose to stay back to guard their fields and property.
A memorandum by the Kuki Students Organization (KSO), recently presented to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urges speedy intervention and cites that since 2001, 33 Kuki villagers have been killed and several more maimed owing to landmine explosions. Residents of 39 villages have also been compelled to flee their homes in search of safety.
According to the displaced villagers, the conflict between the security forces and underground groups has been going on for the last five years or so, but the exchange of firing intensified during the last few months, forcing the villagers to flee their homes. Indiscriminate planting of landmines around their villages and fields have hampered their movement and work, they added.
"It is not money or other gains from the government or civil organizations that we want. What we are asking for is our right to a peaceful life in our own homes, free from landmines. We will go home only after the village is cleared of all landmines," says Vahjneng.
In the Moreh relief camps at the unused supermarket complex and the PWD complex, the villagers mostly depend on relief materials provided by either the government or non-governmental organizations. "Every week, we distribute 10 small tins of rice each for a family of four or five," says a spokesperson of the relief committee.
"We get some rice and 'dal' (lentils) from the committee. But I don't have money to buy even salt, so I just boil the rice and dal and give them to my children. I eat the leftovers," says Vahjneng.
Food apart, other issues like health, hygiene and economy also remain neglected. Four-month-old Paotilal, living at the supermarket complex in Moreh ward II since the past three months, has a severe chest infection but his mother has been unable to buy the required medicines because of the lack of healthcare facilities.
That's not all. There are no proper toilet facilities for women and many of them go to the open meadows nearby or use the secluded corners under the stairways to relieve themselves. The small stalls of the supermarket serve as their kitchen, bedroom and living room. While the men go to the commercial market of Moreh in search of some work, women have to stay back to look after their children.
As is the case in conflict situations all over the world, the nearly five decade-long on-going armed clashes in Manipur between state and non-state forces -and also amongst the non-state forces - has taken its toll on women and children. Thousands have been killed, many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, and countless others have been forced to flee from their native villages and are now 'internally displaced' within their own land.
While refugees benefit from the specific attention of a number of international organizations, internally displaced persons (IDPs) receive less protection even though they are at a greater risk. Also, they tend to live with relatives or inside localities and are assimilated into the new surroundings, hence their plight often goes unnoticed.
Entire villages had been wiped out and thousands forced to abandon their homes and belongings during the operations against the Naga movement in the hills of Manipur. During the Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Paite ethnic clashes, thousands more were forced to flee and take refuge in other parts of the state.
Valley Rose Hungyo, editor of Tangkhul vernacular daily, 'Aja', published in Imphal, has her own story to tell. Her native village Chawai in Senapati district was totally wiped out in the late 1960s in army operations against the Naga insurgents. She and her family and many others were forced to take refuge in the jungles. She later came to Imphal, but the demolition of their village and property took its toll. "My father, who used to be the richest man in the village, became a refugee. My own aim of getting a good education was shattered. Unable to pay my fees, I went from one school to another looking for a cheaper option as a beggar," she recalls.
Such experiences leave emotional and psychological scars that may last a lifetime. Even after they have found safer havens, many children remain filled with rage, aggression and guilt; women and young girls, who might have at some time exchanged sexual favors for food, become full-time sex workers; and the men and boys take up arms.
The need of the hour, therefore, is a clear political will to tackle the issue of IDPs and that of insurgency in the longer run.