“We are afraid to go back”: Refugees from Myanmar seek shelter and hope in Mizoram

A police officer who fled from Myanmar following the military coup looks out to the mountains from an undisclosed location in Mizoram. The Mizoram government estimates that around fourteen thousand Myanmar refugees are seeking shelter in the state. ANUPAM NATH / AP PHOTO
31 December, 2021

“There was shooting in the village, bullets were flying through the window, so we had to hide under the sofa,” Ngunchhan, a 57-year-old refugee from Myanmar told me. Ngunchhan is one of the many refugees who fled to India following a military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. “When it got a little quiet, we ran to the forest. We did not even eat a meal before we left, we were too scared,” she continued. “Since my husband is no more, me and my daughter were afraid of what they might do to us, we did not carry anything with us. We just ran away.”

 I met Ngunchhan in Thekte, one of the last villages in Mizoram before the Indo-Myanmar border. It takes around ten hours by car from Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, to Thekte. The village has over six hundred residents. Along with some of its neighbouring towns, it has become a safe haven for those fleeing Myanmar. According to Reuters, the Myanmar military has killed at least a thousand people and arrested thousands in a crackdown aimed at crushing local resistance to the coup. In May, a United Nations spokesperson estimated that around four thousand to six thousand refugees have fled into India from Myanmar following the coup. In December, the Mizoram government estimated that around fourteen thousand Myanmar nationals are seeking shelter in different parts of the state.

 The refugees are currently reliant on donations from individuals, churches and human-rights organisations for their daily needs. The Central Young Mizo Association, or YMA, a leading non-profit in Mizoram, has been taking the lead in gathering volunteers to build makeshift shelters for the refugees and providing them daily essentials, including food and clothing, with the support of donations.

 On my second day in Thekte, the leader of a non-profit arranged for me to meet several refugees in the village. I met them as they sat huddled on the floor and bare wooden benches at a local’s home. Thangchhina, a refugee from Lungding in Myanmar, was the first person to share his experience. He told me that on the morning of 25 March, some people started announcing that the military had come to their village. “As soon as my wife came to know that the military was in our village, she started palpitating and had a panic attack,” he said. “She has a lung ailment. I was worried, I started to realise that, even if they do not attack us, in this situation she will die very soon. So as soon as my wife became calm, we quickly ate our last meal and left our house.” Thangchhina described how they escaped. “We do not have a vehicle so we walked through the jungle with our two children, who are seven and twelve years old,” he continued. “We reached the Tiau River and crossed the border on foot. We walked all day, we started at 9 am Myanmar time and reached this village at 9.30 pm India time. We had to take a longer route to avoid the military. Sometimes I had to carry my children on my back, as they were very tired. As soon as we reached Thekte, we asked for food from the first house we saw, because my children were very hungry.”

 Thangchhina further spoke about what he envisioned for their future. “What we want right now is to be able to go to get asylum in foreign countries,” he said. As soon as he said these words, the room came alive with laughter. In that dim room, the idea of receiving asylum in a foreign country was so far from the imagination of those seated around him that, to them, it seemed like a light joke. He added that he had heard that refugees can be sent to other countries. “So I want to go to Australia or USA, please send us also,” he said. “If we cannot go, people have to take care of us all the time.”

 Each refugee’s story, though stemming from the common ground of fear of the military, had a different element of struggle. Buansanga, a 65-year-old who was also a resident of Lungding, told me that he and his family of five had to flee, in April, “because we were running out of food and resources. It came to a point where we started wondering what we would eat for our next meal. With the military creating trouble in different areas, everything became scarce.”

 For some, the journey was a risk of its own. Lawichema, a 65-year-old resident of Tahan, was stopped on his escape route by the military when he tried to flee. “Everyone from the town was running away, because the military were shooting everywhere,” he told me. “We could not sit peacefully, so we joined my friends who had hired a vehicle to go towards Mizoram. We left early in the morning and we reached Hakha”—the capital of the Chin state in Myanmar—“around 3 pm. After that, we tried to go to Thantlang”—a township in Chin—“but the military stopped us. They asked us to take out our telephone and ID cards. We got very afraid. They checked our phone and made us sit there for a long time. They did not find anything so, around 8 pm, they let us go.”

 Despite his narrow escape, after reaching India, he has been weighed down by more burdens. “We are relying on NGOs, why is the government not doing anything till now, do they not plan to do anything?” Lawichema said. “We want the government to help us—not just the state but the central government, we want them to accept us.” He continued, “I am not well, I cannot do any difficult work and my wife is very young so she finds odd jobs and feeds our three children. We need to stay in a relief camp. Is there any place where we can stay? Is there any way you can plan something for us?”

 The journey was also especially hard for Ongsu, a 25-year-old refugee who had to flee on foot with his pregnant wife and a child. I met him the day after his wife had given birth. Ongsu told me they had no place to stay and that he found it difficult to feed his family, which had now grown from three to four.

 The refugees, including many senior citizens, also expressed concern about the availability of healthcare. Parmawia, a 70-year-old refugee who fled to India in late March with his wife, told me they are in need of medical care. “We fled because we were hungry, we were running out of food and there was shooting going on,” he said. “After we arrived, when we fell ill and went to the local hospital and saw the doctor, we could not talk to them about our afflictions. They didn’t understand what we are saying. Moreover, the medicine is different from our country.” What they needed most, he added, was for health personnel to check on the refugees at least once a month, and for someone to translate for them. “We don’t know how to describe our illness. We are in bad need of health facilities, or at least visiting doctors.”

 The refugees who fled Myanmar crossed the Tiau, a river that forms part of the international border, and then walked or rode in vehicles provided by nonprofits to reach makeshift relief camps and shelters in Mizoram. After you cross the Tiau, you are met with steep terrain going uphill for about six kilometres. The road leads directly to the outskirts of the town of Farkawn, which is about ten kilometres from Thekte. I had driven with a friend to the Mizoram side of the river on a bike. When we were returning, our bike’s tyre gave out due to the poor road conditions. While we waited for the repair, I saw a couple of thatched houses near Farkawn that had been loosely but newly constructed and inquired about its residents. An Assam Rifles personnel keeping guard at a nearby post told me that it was occupied by refugees.

 I knocked on the door of the first house I could see and was welcomed by a 28-year-old mother of three. She was cooking while her three children, aged nine, seven and three, slept on a mat on the floor. “I came around June with my three children and husband,” she told me, on the condition of anonymity. “We were staying in Hakha. There were so many bullet sounds and we were not living in peace. The hills were resounding with bullets. My husband used to be a computer teacher in a private school but, because of COVID-19 and the military takeover, the schools were closed, so he had no work.” She continued, “We don’t have any work now, we just eat what we already have. The NGOs give us rice and dal, and we are just relying on that. We wish that the government will give some kind of help, because there is no work for us and we have come with children. I am worried about how they will study, because schools are expensive and they did not go to school for so long because of the military rule.”

 I continued knocking on doors and walked across to a house on the other side, where a mother was holding an infant in her arms while cooking in an outdoor fireplace. I later learnt that the fireplace was their kitchen and that the three pots and pans they had lined on the corner were their only cooking utensils. I introduced myself and asked her when they came to India.

 The 30-year-old told me she had fled her village with her husband and their four children, the youngest of whom was a one-month-old baby. She also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Our baby was born in May, we came running while she was just one month old,” she said. “We were 15 people who ran away because we were afraid of the soldiers. The military comes around often, there is a lot of unrest in our village. We had a farm back at home, we planted rice fields. Though we were not rich, we always had food on our plates.”

 I asked her how they manage with food now, being a large family. “We don’t have money to buy food, but the NGO is distributing food to us,” she said, referring to the YMA and other non-profits working with the refugees. “There is no place for us to work or earn any money. We don't know how we are going to make a living. Some people rented this house to us for six months for free. After that, we might have to start paying rent but we don’t have money for rent.”

 As I entered their house, I saw a wooden shelf with four steel plates, four bowls, a dented hot water flask and a few old candy jars. Apart from a couple of rice bags left by the original owner of the house, the only property that the family owned is a mat on the floor and a few clothes hanging by a rope on the wall. The woman said that her family may consider returning to Myanmar after six months if they are unable to afford the rent. “We are confused whether to stay or go back after six months,” she said. “We are afraid to go back,” she added, “but here we do not have money to pay for rent.”

 I walked to a third house in the neighbourhood and met Lalrimawii, a 31-year-old refugee who had arrived two weeks earlier. “There are four of us: me, my husband and two children,” she said. “We looked after a farm back at home but we often heard gunshots from the neighbouring village. So we decided that our whole family should run away and escape to a safe place.”

 I asked her about the family’s financial condition. “We have not found any work, except on one or two occasions, some people pitied us and gave us some small tasks like cutting weeds,” she said. “The NGOs distribute 20 kgs of rice for around three–four people on a timely basis. It is not enough for us, but what can we do? We just rely on what little we earn to buy. We came without any money just with hope. When we fled from our village, whatever little money we had we spent on buying ngapi”—a fermented shrimp paste eaten with rice—“salt, and rice for our provisions in the forest. When we arrived, we did not have a single rupee. After we reached here, the NGO distributed rice, and we asked around for jobs saying we are refugees. To tell you the truth, I do not even have a hundred rupees.”

 Lalrimawii said that that she had recently earned Rs 350 from a task assigned to her. “I bought some essentials and it ran out,” she said. “We are not worried. We are just living with the hope that, if the local community has food, we will not go hungry either.”

 In the town of Zawlsei, about forty kilometres from Farkawn, the YMA has set up a makeshift refugee camp in a vacant plot to house mothers and children who have fled without their husbands. Here, a group of around seventy mothers and children were cramped into a large thatched hut. The children in this camp are given educational classes in an outdoor seating area covered by a tarpaulin sheet, which acts as a cafeteria and a classroom.

 A former medical worker from Kalai Meuh was one of the families at the camp with his family of four. When I talked to him, he raised concerns about identification cards for the refugees. Even if the current Mizo National Front government in the state provided them refugee cards, he said, a future Congress government might render them invalid. “Since we are not from this place, will there be any warranty for our security? If there are situations where they give us ID and they cancel it again, then it will be difficult for us.”

 On 12 September, 26 Myanmar nationals were arrested in Guwahati for carrying fake identification cards. A case was registered against them at the Paltanbazar police station under sections of the Indian Penal Code, as well as provisions of the Foreigners Act and the Passport (Entry into India) Act. One month later, on 1 October, 14 Myanmar nationals were arrested at Imphal airport for attempting to board a flight with fake Aadhar cards.

 Nutei, a businesswoman from Guwahati, has been looking into the case of the arrested Myanmar nationals on behalf of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, an advocacy organization based in America. “Out of the 26 people who were arrested, ten are female and 16 are male,” she told me. “The last time I went to meet them, they said they were not feeling well and were facing difficulties because of their illness. These refugees are nurses, some of them are teachers, they were supposed to be shot dead for joining CDF,”—the Chinland Defence Force, a local ethnic militia that has been resisting the military—“and they were given a warning so they ran away. They were going to Delhi to apply for refugee asylum. I told the authorities, ‘If we deport them, it is dangerous for their life. They will be shot dead. So please give us a chance, even if you have to put them in a detention center in Assam or Delhi, that is better for them than to be deported to their country.’”

 I spoke to Chungdawt, the in-charge of Chin Human Rights Organisation, on the refugee crisis. “The refugees are not safe so they fled,” he said. “After fleeing, they have no place to stay. They had to create fake IDs because they had no other choice.” Even though India is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, he added, “we need help. We are not becoming refugees by choice, we are running away because there is so much bloodshed going on in our country. The central government cannot just stop us, because we will all die. Even if not from the angle of the UN, they need to look at it from a humanitarian ground. We want the central government to take action. Please help us as we cannot reach the central government from our side.”

 The Mizoram government has so far sanctioned sums of Rs 30 lakh and Rs 50 lakh on two separate occasions for the refugees. A YMA official spoke to me, on the condition of anonymity, explaining the stance of the organisation. “When the refugees were coming, we passed a resolution that our brothers are coming as refugees,” he told me. “We will try our best to take care of them. All the YMA branches fully accepted this. We accept them even though the Indian government does not accept them.” He continued, “At the same time, the YMA cannot preside over the government. So, when the refugees started to come, we told them, ‘We will talk to the government first and prepare ourselves,’ but they said the Myanmar military was getting intense with their use of violence. We told them, ‘If you come, the Indian soldiers may shoot you,’ but they said, ‘We don’t care. We would rather be shot by Indian soldiers than Myanmar soldiers.’ So whole villages started coming. Even if the government cannot accept this fully, the YMA decided to accept them. Even the Mizoram government said we should push back, but they said, ‘If you are taking this initiative on humanitarian grounds, we cannot hold you back.’”

 H Rammawi, the vice chair of the Mizoram State Planning Board who oversees the issue of refugees, told me that the state’s chief minister, Zoramthanga, had written and spoken to the prime minister, as well as the ministers for home and external affairs, regarding assistance for the refugees since March 2021. “During March and April, he had sent his emissaries and adviser to Delhi,” he said. “The emissaries had sought the ministry of home and external affairs numerous times. However, till date, Mizoram government hasn’t received any assistance from the centre.” Rammawi added that the people of the state “support Myanmar refugees in every sphere. All NGOs and churches have come together providing aid in the form of money, food, clothing. The state government has also given monetary and other assistance. It is an uncalled situation for the government of Mizoram. However, it cannot turn blind on humanitarian ground as it is a life-saving situation.”

 An official from the Mizoram government’s home department further told me, on the condition of anonymity, that Zoramthanga had written around five demi-official letters to the central government, while the chief secretary had written three times, requesting assistance for the Myanmar refugees. He said they had not received a response. He told me the only response they received when corresponding on the issue of the refugees was a cautionary response saying that “the state government cannot grant a refugee status.” 

 In an interaction with the press on 6 December, Zoramthanga announced that he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi, where he was assured that measures will be taken to assist Mizoram in helping the refugees. “The prime minister assured me that they will make a plan to enable us to continue with our assistance to the Myanmar nationals,” he said. “The centre is willing to help, but it cannot directly help the Myanmar refugees because India is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention of 1951 and its 1967 protocol.” The official in the state home department told me that the central government had neither provided any assurance in writing nor followed up on the issue since the meeting.

The oldest refugee in Thekte is a 74-year-old man named Zatluna. His skeletal structure and saggy wrinkles made him look even older. When I met him, he was holding a sickle in his hand as he was on his way to find pig fodder. I asked him if he plans to seek any aid from the government as a senior-citizen refugee. “It is not for us to say what we need,” he said. “They know our problem. There is nothing more for me to say.”