The crack and whizz of bullets pierced the quiet evening. Some school students took cover along a treeline behind a stream. In a video, with the sound of rapid gunfire audible, one of them is heard telling his friends, “That was very close”.
The incident happened on a day when Manipur reported gunfights at many areas between rival armed groups – who call themselves “village defence volunteers” – amid the ethnic tensions between the hill-majority Kuki-Zo tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis.
The students in the video said they were playing football in a field near the foothills in Pukhao when they first heard the whizz of bullets flying near them, followed by the crackling of bullets as the rounds got nearer and nearer.
“We were playing football when they shot at us,” a boy is heard saying in the video. His muddy feet extended over the stream, with no more space to move back.
Another boy in a yellow T-shirt, his back pressed on a groove of bamboo trees, clutched both knees and looked ahead as a bullet landed across the stream and kicked up dust.
“There, there, right there,” one of the boys pointed at the spot.
Pukhao in Imphal East is 15 km from Khamenlok, a village under the hill district Senapati, which has seen intense violence in the past nine months. The topography here is dense with both valley and hill regions.
Man killed, army officer injured
A 25-year-old man was killed in a gunfight between two armed groups in Pukhao, the police said today. An army officer was injured while approaching an area on the outskirts of Imphal East district from where gunfire was reported, the police said.
“The Junior Commissioned Officer was airlifted to a military hospital in Leimakhong. He is out of danger,” a police officer said.
The ethnic violence in Manipur between the Kuki-Zo tribes and the Meiteis over disagreements on land, resources, political representation, and affirmative action policies has dragged on for nine months now.
With the two communities sharply divided on ethnic lines, the Centre has enforced some semblance of a “buffer” zone between the hill areas where the Kuki-Zo tribes live, and Imphal valley.
The Kuki-Zo tribes say their “village defence volunteers” have been repelling attacks by armed groups from the valley, who come to the hills across the “buffer zone” with obvious intentions.
The Meiteis, however, maintain all fertile agricultural lands in the foothills are under the range of the “so-called Kuki-Zo volunteers”, who allegedly have been shooting at farmers to prevent them from harvesting.
Four civilians – including a father and a son – from the valley who had gone to collect firewood on a hill near Bishnupur district were allegedly tortured and killed by suspected insurgents on January 11.
A similarity between the village defence volunteers of both sides is that they appear to be well-armed and well-equipped with modern battle gear. The security forces have frequently recovered Russian-origin AK and US-origin M series assault rifles, and gun models commonly used by both the junta’s army and pro-democracy insurgents in neighbouring Myanmar.
The Kuki-Zo tribes, who have 10 MLAs in the 60-member Manipur assembly, have been demanding a separate administration carved out of Manipur since violence broke out in May 2023. They have cited complete breakdown of trust between them and the Meiteis as one of the key reasons behind their push for a separate administration. Over 180 have died in the violence, and thousands have been internally displaced.