Zuan Vaiphei is armed and ready to kill. He is also ready to die. Vaiphei spends most of his days behind the sandbag of a makeshift arena, his fingers fixed on the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun. About 1,000 yards (914 meters) in front of him, in the middle of a field of tall green grass and wild flowers, is the enemy, watching from the side of the same sandbag fence, armed and ready.
“The only thing that crosses our minds is, ‘Will they reach us?’ Will they come to kill us?’ So, if they come with weapons, we have to forget everything and defend ourselves,” says the 32-year-old, his voice muffled amid the cicadas in the village of Kangvai, which is located in the foothills of the remote Indian state of Manipur. .
Many such sand dunes are one of the front lines that do not exist on any map but divide Manipur into two ethnic groups – between the tribal people of the hills and those of the plains below.
Two months ago, Vaiphei was teaching economics to students when the conflict between the two villages erupted so fearsomely that thousands of Indian soldiers were sent in to quell the unrest.
Inter-ethnic clashes have occurred at times in the past, particularly between the minority Christian Kukis and the majority Hindu Meiteis, who are a minority in the state. But no one was ready to kill, burn and destroy the hatred that followed in May, when the Meiteis demanded a special status that would allow them to buy land in the mountains inhabited by Kukis and other tribes, as well as a share of government services.
Witnesses described how angry mobs and armed insurgents invaded villages and towns, burning down houses, killing civilians, and driving thousands from their homes. More than 50,000 people have fled to aid-filled camps. Those who fought were killed, sometimes beaten or decapitated, and the wounded were thrown into the raging fire, according to witnesses and others with firsthand knowledge of the events.
Fierce fighting, which has killed at least 120 people according to government estimates, continues despite the presence of the army. Villages have become ghost towns, burned by fires so fierce that they left tin roofs melted and bent.
“This is as close to civil war as any independent Indian state has ever been,” said Sushant Singh, director of the Center for Policy Research in India and a veteran of the Indian Army.