Previously in Refuge#35 The difficulties of being Chin: After taking part in the 1988 anti-government protests, Za Dim had to flee Myanmar and started travelling westward to the Indian state of Mizoram. Za Dim’s daughter, Ah Len, translates for her and they start telling me about a time before the English colonised Myanmar, a time when was no Mizoram.
Mizoram used to be part of the Chin state. The Chin people had lived for centuries in the lush, mountainous region where Bangladesh, India and Myanmar share national boundaries today. When the British gave India her independence, the Chin people on the Indian side of the border became known as Mizo. ‘Ram’ means ‘land’. Mizoram directly translates as the Land of the Chin people.
Relying on the cloak of darkness to avoid detection, it was eight o’clock at night by the time the group surveyed the rushing waters from the banks of the Tiau River. Not many were able swimmers. One of the stronger men reached for a vine dangling from one of the trees. He tied it around his waist, crossed the river and secured it to a tree on the opposite bank. Holding on to the vine, people began making their way across the river in single file. The rushing water came up to Za Dim’s chest. She clutched the vine, her feet legs and feet numbed by the freezing water.
Merchant trucks plied these steep and winding back roads, carrying goods between Indian and Myanmar. Za Dim and her girlfriend, Nu Vang, paid one such merchant to ride in the back of his trucks to the flat plains of Champai in India. They caught a bus and walked the rest of the way to Aizawl, the capital of the Indian state of Mizoram.
In Aizawl, they rented an enclosed space under a concrete rainwater tank from a Mizo family for 800 Rupees per month. Za Dim’s head almost touched the ceiling when she stood up. It was a garage with no electricity or running water. It had one window. The landlord gave them four buckets of water a day. They used one bucket each to wash, and two buckets for drinking, cooking and cleaning. They placed these two buckets of water beside their stove burner. For ten Rupees, Za Dim bought some bamboo sticks and plastic sheets and built a cubicle beside the outdoor toilet where they washed themselves with water from a bucket.
‘So they had hardship feeding themselves. So my mum did sewing to feed herself. She work in Mizo people’s shop,’ says Ah Len. The Burmese are not allowed to set up shop in Mizoram. By working as a tailor, however, Za Dim earned 20 Rupees for every shirt she completed. Nu Veng did not have the skill to sew shirts but Za Dim would bring back work for her – finishing hems and buttonholes – and in this way, they produced four to five shirts a day.
Za Dim was working at the shop one day when a busload of Burmese refugees pulled in to the bus stop. Someone from the bus recognized Za Dim and called out to his friend. Chan Hmung appeared from the crowd. Za Dim and Chan Hmung had not had any contact with each other for nine months. They had not even known if the other lived.
Chan Hmung explained that he had fled to Laitlang in Myanmar initially, before travelling to Lawngtlai in India around November 1989. In Lawngtlai, he found a job organizing and helping Burmese refugees. He was only stopping over in Aizawl, on his way to Champai. After escorting the refugees to Champai, Chan Hmung returned to spend two days with Za Dim in Aizawl before he had to return to work in Lawngtlai.
In 1990, Za Dim and Chan Hmung move to a rented home in the suburb of Electric Veng in Aizawl. Chan Hmung worked for a Chin Refugee Organisation. On 1 January 1991, their first child, Ling Ling, a son, was born.
I meet Ling Ling during my second interview with Za Dim. He has a round, cherubic face and it’s his turn to interpret for his mother. She continues her story from the early 1990s.
‘During that time, there were a lot of Burmese people who came to Mizoram because there was a forced labour environment.’ Men were press-ganged by the army and women were sexually abused or forced to become the wives of soldiers. Out of desperation, many Burmese Chin people fled to India, worked on Indian farms, in private homes as maids or in small loom weaving factories.
‘But the Indians sometimes don’t give money for the work because they are illegal,’ says Ling Ling. Girls as young as twelve were sexually assaulted and many maids were ill-treated in private homes.
‘During that time, many people came to my mum for help,’ says Ling Ling.
‘Do you remember the first time someone came to you for help?’ I ask.
With startling precision, Za Dim replies, ‘7 February 1993.’
Early on a February morning in 1993, frantic knocks rattled Za Dim’s door.
‘My friend, Sung Sung, is going to be transferred to the Central Jail if no one bails her out,’ said Nu Kip, the young girl at the door. Za Dim and Nu Kip hurried to the Bawngkawn Police Station. When they got there at around nine in the morning, the Chief Police Officer was not in so they sat in silence, waiting for him.
‘Who is this?’ a junior officer asked Nu Kip. They knew Nu Kip because she had been visiting Sung Sung every day since her arrest three days ago.
‘She is my sister,’ said Nu Kip, using the Chin term of respect for an older person.
He turned to Za Dim, and asked, ‘What is your name?’
‘Za Dim Sung,’ she replied. Mizo names invariably end with either an ‘i’ for female names, or an ‘a’ for male names. This practice has not been adopted by the Chin people of Myanmar. Za Dim’s name therefore confirmed what the police officer suspected on account of her accent, that she was Chin, not Mizo, and most likely an illegal migrant.
The young officers burst out laughing.
‘Is this a joke – two illegals coming to bail another illegal? Why did you come to Mizoram?’
‘I had to leave my country because of the political situation.’
‘You came here not because of the political situation. You came here because your country and your government are not doing well. You come from a poor country and you don’t have enough food.’ he said. Za Dim thought of all the food in her hometown, much more than she could eat, and a hard knot of anger tightened in her chest. ‘Do you realize that we can arrest you for entering India illegally? Give us some money and we’ll let you go.’
‘Arrest me if you want, but I have come to take the girl out,’ said Za Dim, the knot of anger within her growing; if policemen were trying to extort money from her, a middle-aged woman in a police station, surely far more terrible things took place in private homes where young girls worked as maids. ‘Sung Sung is innocent. She is only fifteen and ran away because she has not been paid for eight months. Her employers made up a story about a stolen watch and you arrest her. How long are you going to imprison her on false charges? If you want to put her in jail, you can put me in jail too, but remember that you are still our people. We are the Chin people. Our homeland has been divided in two – you happen to be on the Indian side, but you’re still our own people.’
‘Can you guarantee that she didn’t steal the watch?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Za Dim. ‘Why don’t you ask her?’
The officers led Za Dim and Nu Kip past many rooms. Finally, they stopped and opened a door made of iron bars. They stepped into a small concrete cell with no windows, nothing other than a hole in the corner that served as a toilet. Sung Sung recoiled like a caged animal as the officers pawed her, ‘Sleep with me and I’ll bail you out tomorrow.’
‘Did you steal the watch?’ Za Dim asked. ‘If you did, we’ll pay the cost of the watch and give it back to your employer.’
‘I didn’t steal,’ said Sung Sung.
‘Come back at three o’clock,’ the police told Za Dim. ‘We’ll ask her boss to come here and to present their case. If they ask you for the money, just give it to them so that it won’t become a bigger case.’
Feature Image of Mizoram by Joe Fanai from Flikr. Creative Commons.