Ngamgouhou Mate’s dreams of football glory were jolted by reality early in the morning of September 8 a couple of weeks ago. In a few hours, the 16-year-old midfielder on the Indian U-16 football team was to take to the field against the Maldives in the semifinals of the SAFF U-16 competition in Bhutan. At about 5 a.m., though, he was woken from his sleep in his hotel bed in Thimphu, Bhutan, by a call from his sister. She spoke frantically. Ngamgouhou knew it wasn’t going to be good news. “Nothing good comes from a call that early,” he says.
“She told me that our village had been attacked. At that time, my parents and five siblings were there. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
The Indian army would stave off the attack on Zion, a Kuki tribal village, next to the town of Pallel, some 80 kilometres south of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Fearing another attack, Ngamgouhou’s parents, siblings, and all the residents of Zion moved to a relief camp for displaced people in Tengnoupal. The assault on his family and their subsequent forced displacement will be recorded as yet another tragic incident in the ongoing ethnic conflict that has ravaged the northeastern state for the past four months.
Ngamgouhou’s parents would reach the relief camp safely, but he didn’t know it at that moment. “I didn’t know what would happen to them. That morning, I was just praying that they would be safe,” he says.
Then he got ready for the match at 3 p.m. “I wasn’t really able to think clearly. While we were going to the match, my head coach asked me, “Are your parents safe?” I said I didn’t know. But he said they would be safe. Then I went out and played. I don’t know how, but I was able to stay focussed,” he says.
Two days later, a much more composed Ngamgouhou, with the captain’s yellow armband, played a key role in the midfield as India beat Bangladesh 2-0. “Before the final, I was nervous because India had won the SAFF championships many times. I wanted to make sure we continued winning. I was very happy that we could do that. I felt proud of what I had achieved,” he says.
He held the SAFF trophy aloft with his gold medal, and as he danced with teammates and confetti cannons went off, just for a few moments, everything might have felt normal. They haven’t been for a long time now. The trouble started a few months ago. The events of September 8 weren’t the first time Ngamgouhou had been displaced. Three months earlier, he had been caught in the middle of the initial explosion of violence in Imphal.
Ngamgouhou had been residing with his uncle in Khongsaiveng, part of the Kuki community in the capital city. He relocated there four years ago after being selected by the Classic Football Academy. This renowned youth centre was established by former Indian midfielder Renedy Singh and has nurtured numerous players who now compete in India’s top football leagues.
Ngamgouhou wasn’t aware of any simmering tension in the state. He was a key member of the academy team that had won the U-17 Indian Club Championships the previous year. He is close friends with Kuki and Meitei teammates. His role model is former Indian captain Renedy, a Meitei himself. “I’m a midfielder just like Renedy sir,” he gushes.
On May 3, he remembers that he and his teammates had a day off following a league game., and they spent it watching a senior match. “When we came back, a lot of my teammates stopped at my uncle’s house before they went to their own homes. Then, half an hour later, we heard the first firing. We were really scared, but we were told to make our way to the church with what we could carry,” he says. Ngamgouhou took what was dearest to him. “I took my winning medal from the U-17 national championships, my football boots and kit, and my government certificates,” he says.
The following day, the community evacuated by walking to the 2nd Battalion Manipur Rifles camp, carrying only what they had with them. Their timing was fortunate, as a few hours later, Khongsaiveng was set ablaze. “We lost everything. Our home, our cars,” says Ngamgouhou’s uncle Seipa Mate. Also burned was the scooty that Ngamgouhou’s father had bought for him a year earlier. There were other losses too. “I am a big fan of Barcelona. I had saved a lot of money to buy a jersey. But that jersey got left behind, too. It must be burned as well,” he says.
Ngamgouhou’s uncle sent him from the Army camp to his parents’ home in Pallel. Despite the ongoing violence throughout the state, he tried to keep himself engaged in the relatively peaceful surroundings of Pallel. Towards the end of June, he was called for selection trial in Shillong to choose the Indian team for the U-16 SAFF Championships. Due to the lack of high-level training for nearly two months, he wasn’t initially selected, but he eventually made the cut during a second trial in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.
In the national team camp, Ngamgouhou found refuge from the tense situation in his home state. “There is no problem in the national team. You aren’t thinking about which community the other player next to you is from. Many of my teammates in the India team are from my academy team as well. Many of them are my friends. I have many Meitei friends, too. I was just happy I was among my friends again,” he says.
The sense of unity persisted throughout the camp and the SAFF competition. However, when the team returned to India, this camaraderie abruptly ended due to political circumstances. Out of the 15 squad members from Manipur, 12 arrived at Imphal’s airport, where they were greeted by officials and football fans. They were adorned with the seven-coloured flag, symbolising Meitei identity.
Ngamgouhou and two of his teammates, Levis Zangminlun and Vumlenlal Hangshing, arrived in Guwahati with little attention. They then embarked on a gruelling 15-hour, 438-km journey through Dimapur in Nagaland to reach their homes. Surprisingly, this route was longer than if they had gone through the capital, Imphal. However, the three Kuki players had no choice but to take this route. “They couldn’t have gone to Imphal. It’s too dangerous for them to be there. There is too much fear between the communities,” says Seipa.
Ngamgouhou is yet to meet his parents because the only road from Kangpokpi to the relief camp, where his parents are staying, goes through Imphal, and it’s currently considered too unsafe to travel. “It’s sad. He was in a jubilant mood, and he has a shining medal with him, but he’s not been able to share his joy with his parents just yet,” says Seipa.
For now, Ngamgouhou is trying to make the most of what he has. He says he speaks regularly with Renedy. “Renedy sir is telling me he will help me continue to train. Every time I speak to him, he tells me to stay focussed. The goal is to make the Indian team for next year’s U-17 Asian Championships. There is a football field near where I’m staying. I don’t have a lot of equipment, but I’m trying my best. I’m practising right now by myself, but it’s very difficult,” he admits. He also says he misses the camaraderie of being on a team. “I miss being part of the Classic Football Academy. Before, I was training with my teammates. Now it feels lonely and boring to train by myself. Maybe after all this violence gets over, I will be able to train with them again,” he says.