Manipur, 10 months after: 'The violence still haunts us but our family is finally moving on', says footballer Chinglensana

More than 70,000 people in Manipur, including Chinglensana Singh's family, have been displaced from their homes. Baranidharan M/Focus Sports/ISL

Exactly ten months ago, on May 3 2023, violence erupted in India's North-Eastern state of Manipur. As per government figures (the most recent are from September), 175 have been killed and 5000 houses have been burned down. More than 70,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The violence has continued and many of those who had to move out of their homes remain stranded in refugee camps or makeshift accommodation.

One of those displaced, his family home burnt down, is India international and current Bengaluru FC footballer, Chinglensana 'Sana' Singh. Sana talks to ESPN about the past ten months: the trauma he and his family underwent at the time, the struggle since then to set things back to normal and the realisation that, though they lost almost all their material possessions, they have each other.

'I was in Kerala; it was a very scary moment to get the news about Manipur'

Sana, playing a match in Kerala, finds out about the violence. All he can do is keep talking to his family through the night and try and arrange their rescue.

It was May 3. I was playing a game in Kerala against Mohun Bagan in the AFC Cup playoff; right after the game, I got a lot of missed calls and messages from home [in Churachandpur], my family, and I was worried about what might have gone wrong. It was a very scary moment until I called them - and when I did call them it was more scary. They were inside the house, they'd locked themselves up, they were quiet, not making any noise because there were people with guns on the roads and they were firing, there were many things happening.

For me to be on the other side of the call in Kerala was so difficult. I didn't know what was actually happening, but it was a very scary moment. My brother's son, one-and-a-half years old at the time, he [obviously] didn't know what was happening, he was crying, and they had to cover his mouth to stay silent. They had to turn off the lights. I don't know how to explain the feeling I had when I was in Kerala. It was very scary.

I made a few phone calls to my friends in the Army and people around Manipur, trying to find out what's happening. I got to know that there were Army trucks going in to rescue people, but I also heard about the roads being blocked... but God's blessing I would say, they lasted the night, and I was on the call until 4.30 am after the game. I told my mom, please whatever [happens] don't hang up the phone, I want to be on the line, I want to be part of what's happening. I couldn't sleep also because it was that scary.

There was one major in the army, Major Ajay, I think if I'm not wrong, I spoke with him and next morning they arranged for army vehicles to rescue them from our houses and take them to a nearby army camp. From there they were taken to another district, Moirang... so that rescue operation was on. They were taking out all the people from there and their lives got saved and I was happy. Likewise, it was happening in Imphal as well, the Kukis were being brought to Churachandpur.

On May 4, around noon, after they were all rescued and [our houses] were vacated, we started getting information about our house being burned down and stuff being taken out. I had a lot of friends there, I'm still in touch with them, they told me what was happening, they sent me videos, they video-called me and I saw smoke coming out from my house. Imagine... the house that we lived in for so many years in peace, in love, in harmony; I could see with my eyes the smoke and the fire coming out of my house and it was painful. It was painful. It was a disastrous moment.

'I went home, I tried to make them see the important thing is that we're alive'

Sana had commitments with the Indian national team but went home when it was possible to do so.

My family was telling me not to come since the India national team camp was due to start on May 15, but I went home because I had to be there for them. I'm happy I did. I stayed with them [in Moirang] and I tried my very best to make them know that the most important thing is that we're alive. What's gone is gone, but of course my mom, dad, my brothers my sisters... they were all very emotional because it happened to them, it was very scary in terms of their life being in danger and how they had to get out and they saw with their eyes what was happening. It was a very scary situation for them, and I had to be there for them to make them realise that in a positive way they were alive, I was there, we could build another house and life would go on.

It wasn't easy being there - my mom was crying as the days went by, I had to be with the national team from May 15, and I couldn't just leave. I thought I'd be able to go [to the camp], of course, playing for the country is my top priority and it's a dream for everyone. I [did] not take it lightly, but at that point of time I felt my family needed me most and I had to make a very tough and difficult decision. But I'm sure everyone would do that, because to see your family in such distress... I couldn't leave my mom, dad, and couldn't see them in tears every time and I couldn't go to the NT camp. I was with my family, and I made sure that everyone was alright.

We stayed in my uncle's house for about two weeks and then I tried to arrange a house for my family to move into; I was looking to rent but in Manipur it's very difficult to find a house for rent for a big family like mine... luckily my friend Salam Ranjan (the Gokulam Kerala defender) had built a new house so he moved in there and we moved into his previous house. We are still living in that house. We are 15-20 people in a joint family, my brother, my sisters, their families... we all live together. Now I'm building a house in Moirang.

'I'd love to return to Churachandpur but it's not safe, everything we had is destroyed'

Sana talks about his home in Churachandpur, growing up there, and why he can't go back.

We are still not able to go back there, the situation is still bad. The fighting is still on, there's always gunfights, there's always [bad] news. Also, what we had over there has all been destroyed. The houses have not just been burnt, the entire building has been broken down, the structure doesn't exist.

The government has still not informed us [about when we can return]. We have to plan, we can't still live in the way we are living now, it's just for the time being. The only way forward is to build a new house in a new place and that's Moirang... we have our (dad's side) ancestors' land there so over there we are building a house. That's the plan until things get better.

I was born and brought up in Churachandpur so I would love to go back there once things are normal, but nobody would like to step a foot there without assurances for our safety. We don't want to live in an environment of fear where anyone can attack us or vice-versa, that's not an ideal place to live in. I thought it's more than 9 months, if it had to be fixed it'd be fixed by now and we can't go on with our lives like this, living in the way we are living. So, my plan is until things get better, we have to build another house, make sure the kids are going to a good school and try and bring back our lives to normalcy, which it's not at this moment.

Once that is taken care of by the government, I'm looking hoping that we can go to back where we were born and build a new house and live there and stay there.

'They even tried to burn down my astroturf, which I was building to give kids a chance'

Sana's Churachandpur roots run deep - he was building a football programme there to help the local children have football as a career option.

They even tried to burn down my astroturf... they broke the generator and the stands and destroyed a lot of things. For the astroturf they put petrol to burn it... the astroturf contains rubber, right, it only burns where the oil is. So, lots of parts have been burnt, but I'm told that it's there and however it is, they are using it and playing on it.

As a kid I played on the roads basically. There's a New Bazaar bus parking where the buses are parked, it was like a big parking space like a small 7-a-side football area, but it was rocky, like a road. We used to play there barefoot sometimes so I knew how hard it is to find a good pitch to play in. And even if there was a football pitch, it was of mud or even if there was grass it was not safe to play in because you can get a lot of injuries because of the nature of the pitch.

So, the plan was to start a football school. My ground was a project that was still in the works. I was trying to build a football turf, a small pool, and a gym as well so that the kids in the football school can get all the facilities that a player needs to become a professional in terms of recovery, strength... I wanted to have good coaches with a good license who are good at producing players. That was my plan, but it didn't happen.

A lot of people do football schools and sometimes it's about making money but mine was about providing a good platform for the kids and give them a chance. I'm from a poor family background and I know what I had to go through. I wanted to give them a chance where they can make a good life out of football. As you know, if someone [in India] plays professional football and earns good money, it's not just him, it's the entire family around him for whom life changes. I have seen many people wanting to become footballers when I started playing in the ISL and the NT. If there are many others playing like that it'd be good.

There were many talented boys who just needed a good platform and who didn't have the financial support to go to football schools that ask for a lot of money. My idea was to have a system where the people who can afford it pays and also the deserving players, the talented players we scout, we'll sponsor them, so that even the academy is self-sustainable. That was my plan. Eventually that didn't happen...

'We are still living like refugees in our own state'

Ten months later, Sana is still trying to come to terms with the shock and trauma of what happened, how peaceful coexistence among various communities turned so bloody.

It was a huge surprise, shock. I have a lot of tribal friends who I trained with, who I played with. They are all very good, loving people. Anytime I won a cup for my country, or when I won the ISL trophy, there would be a rally and they would all come to pick me up from the airport...they'd come to my house, present me their shawl as a sign of respect and honour, you know, for what I'm achieving on the field.

So, what happened is very surprising to all of us. Because we lived so happily, we lived in peace, love, and harmony. In fact, you can see why I have built my turf there, why we have built our house there, why my brother opened a clinic there. Because we know it's very peaceful, it's a good place to live in. That's where we are born and raised and we have a lot of friends among tribals, among Meitei... we lived so happily. We never expected this, and when it happened it shook us... I don't know how to explain this... If we had sensed this, we would never have invested anything there, or lived there.

When it broke out it was all chaos, it was scary. We just thought this was one rally on May 3 and nothing more than that, just a protest against the government. It was just a normal life until May 3 and then that evening all hell broke loose. From then until today, things haven't been fixed. We haven't been able to set foot in Churachandpur. We are still living like refugees in our own state. Relief camps here and there, and it's not ideal, it's not ideal.

'Those memories haunt us but mom, dad, they are finally smiling again'

The best way to deal with the trauma is to look ahead and count the positives, says Sana, and that is what his family is doing as they rebuild their lives.

What I can do now is try to be as positive as I can. What's gone is gone, what's lost is lost, but there's always positives in everything. I told my family that when I first met them: 'I'm so happy to see all of you alive'. I do care about what we lost as a family: we lost everything, we lost our house that we lived in, our house where there are so many memories, more than [the material possessions] in the house. We were born in it, we grew up in it, as brothers, as siblings, we lived there together for as long as I know. Those memories, they haunt all of us today. Even now when I'm speaking to you, I'm getting emotional because... [chokes up]. I can't explain that feeling, right?

I told them, 'I know it's a big loss, it's something that we can never be able to repair, that we can never get back even if we go back there and build a new house... it wouldn't be the same house. What has happened to us will hit us every time. Even going back is a big challenge, it will be a fresh wound to go back and to see that the things we knew don't exist anymore. It's like a complete new place, alien to us.

But I told them [the family] that the positive side of this is that all of them got out alive, and we'd still be able to see each other and live together. I told my mom, 'See mom, I am alive, you are alive, dad is alive. We are here, we are together and that's what we need in life.' We are blessed enough to work hard in our lives, to build a new house, to live again... because when we die, we don't take anything with us. That's what life is all about, taking the positive out of the worst that happens. My mom, my dad, now they are smiling finally...the family is moving on now which is a great sign.

Of course, it haunts them more because they worked so hard to build that house for us, for the three brothers and my sisters and for all of us to live in. It hurts them because of what they had to go through in their lives to build what they built for us kids and to lose it in the way they did. I told them, 'We are grown up, now we are there to look after you all. So, rest, stay happy, stay healthy and that's what we need and the rest we'll take care, we'll build a new house. We are three brothers; we will all work hard and we as a family will stay happy and live happily and that's important.' They have realised that and we are moving on happily.

It gives me strength, it gives me more power in life to be grateful for what I have, and also to look after my family in a better way. It's made me realise my responsibility more, towards my family and towards the people around me and so... as a professional, it gives me the motivation to look after myself better to be more professional and to do more...