Moirong, Manipur, India. Credit: iStock D. Talukar

Trauma Care for Christians During the Manipur Crisis

By Achamba Lisham (name changed)

In the summer of 2023, 21Wilberforce’s Ambassador for the Asia Pacific region updated the 21Wilberforce team about the growing crisis in the northern Indian State of Manipur and the resulting widespread devastation and trauma faced by the local Christian population.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that the ongoing conflict between the state’s majority Hindu community and the Christian population resulted in the direct targeting of religious symbols and places of worship and refuge. In early May 2023, more than 250 churches of different denominations were burned or damaged across the state. It was reported by 21Wilberforce local partners that mobs killed 120 Christians, injured hundreds, burnt or vandalized homes and 130 churches, and caused approximately 50,000 believers to be displaced.

With daily reports of death tolls and property destruction, attention also shifted to thousands living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) relief camps who suffered physical and psychological effects of the violence on Christian minority communities. The experience of violence, displacement, loss, and the resulting trauma can become the breeding ground for a shattered worldview now gripped by fear, anger, suspicion, guilt, hopelessness, and confusion.

The 21Wilberforce Ambassador enlisted the Oriental Theological Seminary’s Department of Counseling to provide counseling services to Christians who lost or had been forced to leave their homes and were seeking refuge in IDP camps.

To help make this trauma care possible, 21Wilberforce raised funds through its network of churches, and Baptist World Aid (BWAid) provided a matching grant. The 21Wilberforce team collaborated with the Manipur Baptist Convention through their Executive Secretary, the Kuki Baptist Churches Association, and our host church, the Kuki Baptist Independent Church for logistics. We also worked with the local Relief camp committee and leaders, as well as the local Human Rights group in implementing the project – especially in recruiting translators and volunteers to assist the team. The United Naga Council, a civil society organization, was also notified of the project.

Nagaland Page reports that the conflict has forced over 58,000 people to leave their homes and they are currently living in more than 300 relief camps. It is estimated that 25% of those living in the camps are children.

For 13-year-old Julia (name changed), who now lives in the ITI Relief Camp in Kangpokpi, her worldview is infested with fear. The violence invaded the safety of her home on May 3, 2023, inflicting harm on her loved ones and leaving her with memories that haunted her when our team first began our interactions with her. She shared:

On May 3 the mob came to our house. I had to get my younger brother, jump over the wall and take refuge at our neighbor’s place. My mother later told me that they had attacked my father and a man who lived in one of the rooms we rent out. The man was severely injured. When my mother tried to stop them, they forced her to say ‘we are refugees’. She said we are refugees and we will leave the house that night or the next day. After this they left. I was so scared; I thought I would die that night. I feel scared of the mob. I feel like if I meet one of them now, even a small child, they will harm me.

Matt (name changed), another resident from ITI Relief Camp, is an 11-year-old boy with a cheery disposition whose exposure to the violence through various media formats fostered in him an unhealthy degree of hatred and anger. His drawings during the art therapy sessions would always depict violence of how the two communities pitted against each other in a violent encounter. His description of one of such drawings was;

This is a baby on the ground and this is me on the terrace with a gun. I am a police officer on duty and I am shooting at the baby.

When asked why he was shooting at a baby, he responded;

Because there is fighting and it is an enemy baby so it will not be spared. If you (the counselor) were an enemy, I would kill you too.

Moreover, the violence in Manipur caused secondary trauma to its citizens.

When the displaced people first arrived in our church I could not even look into their eyes. They looked so lost.

A community leader in one of the churches in Kangpokpi narrated how in the wake of the crisis people flocked to Kangpokpi, and the church he served in became a shelter for them. He experienced immense frustration and guilt when the church ran out of space to accommodate the hundreds of people coming in and being witness to the reality of the displaced people of his community became overwhelming.

When the violence broke out, I did not feel like coming to church or even praying. When the displaced people came to our church, I remember there was an old lady with two young boys, probably her grandsons, who arrived without the proper registration that was supposed to be done on the local ground nearby. The church was already so packed and she did not have the registration so someone had sent her away. Some of the youth members brought this to my attention and we called them back to at least have a meal and pick some clothes which had been donated as relief. She left with the boys after this. I felt so bad because we were not able to help everyone who came to us and it kept haunting me.

Based on observation and interaction, the IDPs were receiving substantial humanitarian help from churches, NGOs, and government agencies in the form of material needs – clothes, blankets, food, and other essentials. However, no agencies were providing psychological aid in the manner that our team proposed in the IDP camps. The need for Psychological First Aid (PFA) services was evident.

In the fall of 2023, we conducted a three-month project focusing on psychological and spiritual care. Our team spent the first month raising awareness about the importance of Psychological First Aid (PFA) and building rapport with Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). It took only a few hours of being with the residents in the camp to notice how trauma started to manifest in the lives of the people there. Although the people of Manipur were going through traumatic situations, counseling as an aid to support them through this crisis was very new to them.

Behavioral issues like aggression, difficulty paying attention and following instructions, anger/irritability, throwing tantrums, resistance, and withdrawal are common and rampant in children. Most children in the camp resort to hitting one another or speaking in harsh tones during play or other activities. They are easily angered and react aggressively. They are also restless and do not listen to or follow instructions well. Some children are withdrawn and do not interact with others and are easily overwhelmed when attempts are made to connect. Adults are suspicious, resistant and would mostly avoid interactions and keep to themselves.

Through the ministry of presence and active listening, the team was able to make a breakthrough, first with the children, and gradually with youth and adults. The team provided psychoeducation to small groups as well as to individuals. We also utilized the help of the translators/interpreters in communicating with the beneficiaries. Over a period of three months, those we served included eight businesses, two churches with all the men, women, youth, and children’s ministry, the Village Chief and his family, and the Haipi village youth club members — a total of 748 people.

A counselor noted, “Our initial interaction with the people in the camp revealed that the concept of counseling was relatively new to them and they understood it either as spiritual counseling or support for people with severe mental illness. Raising awareness about the impact of trauma on mental health was one of the priorities that guided the team’s work throughout the implementation of the project. We did this through casual conversations, community events like “Hygiene and Self-care Day,” commemoration of “World Mental Health Day,” and through our group therapy sessions.”

The team was hosted by the Kangpokpi Independent Baptist church, therefore the team ministered to the Church members on the weekend.  Apart from the IDPs, the counselor team reached out to the neighboring village called Haipi and ministered to the Village Chief and his family, as well as the youth club members. The Human Rights Organization members also constantly collaborated with the team.

“The people in the camp had frequent visitors who would come, take photos, have initial conversations and leave but none who would take time to sit with them for an extended period, noted a counselor.” “It was rare to have outsiders commit their time to listen to their stories and engage with them in their seemingly mundane daily activities. One of the goals we set as a team was to foster a safe relationship with them where they felt heard, understood, valued, and cared for. This was what we referred to as the “ministry of presence.” This ministry of presence and the power of deep human connections proved to be the key factors that led to a breakthrough in our counseling work with them.”

Another counselor shared: “Amidst the unsettling situation, there is always light peeking in through the cracks and it offers a sense of hope that God is at work. One evening, as some of us spent time listening to a man in his mid-50s, he shared this – ‘this circumstance is as much spiritual as it is political. There will be high-handedness on our part too by some folks but our community advocates the idea of not being recipients of God’s wrath so we do not glorify enemies’ deaths.’ A mother of three showed me her diary where she writes the names of the people who helped them during this ordeal and details of all that she and her family receive. She expressed how she prays for them.”

Key milestones attained over three months included creating awareness of trauma’s impact on mental-emotional health, restoring a sense of structure and predictability by the counselors’ consistent presence and care, creating safe spaces and trusting relationships, and transforming maladaptive behaviors into healthier, adaptive ways.

We have observed a gradual transformation in the lives of the IDPs with whom we worked. People who avoided us initially became friends. They shared their stories of hurt and pain freely with us. We listened. We prayed. We visited them as planned. Such gestures allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their lives as well as ours. We came away feeling gratified for God’s guidance and revelation amid chaos. We believe God will continue to work in their lives.