We were already late as the Manipur DGP met us 45 minutes behind schedule. India Today Photo Editor T. Narayan had already arrived from New Delhi and was waiting for me and Chitra Ahanthem, our guide and interlocutor.
At almost 12 we left for Churachandpur, a two-hour-drive from Imphal. Lunch was out of the question as the Kuki rebels had told Chitra that they would meet us at 2 pm. Driver Abung was fast but sane and the road was good with picturesque landscape on both sides. We reached a good 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
At the Churachandpur junction, a white Honda City was waiting, which guided us to the home of Thongsei Haokip, the "defence secretary" of Kuki National Organisation (KNO), one of the two umbrella groups covering 21 armed Kuki rebel outfits in Manipur. It's a palatial house with a manicured lawn, solar lamps, and high walls surrounding the campus.
A 42-inch Sony Bravia flat screen TV dominates his living room; a six-seater table and a double-door 340-litre refrigerator adorn the dining room.
We were served chilled mango juice. In 10 minutes, Seilen Haokip, the London-educated spokesperson of KNO, joined us. He hopped into a Tata Safari with three armed guards and we were asked to follow.
After crisscrossing some dusty lanes, we ascended a small hilltop, some 73 km from Imphal. We were asked not to disclose the actual location and name of the place. So, let's call it Y.
Here, we found two small concrete structures, which the rebels used as transit camps. There was a water tank, a small make-shift kitchen and two wooden beds. For an uninterrupted and safe discussion, we trekked to the peak.
The cadres, dressed in olives and totting AK-47s, M-16s and 9mm pistols, ran to the top with plastic chairs.
As we interviewed Seilen and Winson Kuki, a 60-year-old rebel, who earlier had fought for the dreaded MNF of Mizoram and was called a lionheart, the cadres took their positions to check movements down the hill.
Seilen told us how some bureaucrats and state politicians were blocking the path to a final solution to their demand for a Kuki state.
He even called Union Joint Secretary (North-east) Shambhu Singh disparaging names and asked me to note that on record. Once the interview was over at 4.30 pm, we were escorted down to the camp where we were served tea without sugar in aluminium mugs.
The protocol was strictly maintained as Seilen and Winson got to sip tea from ceramic cups with saucer. It was dark already and we rushed back to Imphal.
The next day, we were taken to another place, 35 km away from Imphal, in the exactly opposite direction of Y. The last seven km of the road was a dangerous drive up to a hillock along a muddy road crisscrossed by a rivulet.
It was a proper camp, inhabited by 40 gun-toting rebels. Winson, who was with us from Imphal, insisted that we shared a meal with the rebels as they had prepared it with great love and affection. It was chicken curry prepared with Bhut Jolokia, the hottest chilli in the world.
After one bite, I had to give up and shared the bland chicken curry specially prepared for Winson. But the bigger scare was still awaiting us. Out of curiosity, I wanted to peep into the arms store of the rebels through the gap between the tin roof and the brick walls of the room.
As I was trying to climb atop a table and a chair to reach that gap, I heard a gunshot behind me.
I'm told a rebel had misfired while cleaning his equipment but I could sense something else. The camp inmates, mostly in their teens, lead a hard life, far away from other people and tempers run high there.
As we were almost done with our inspection, one rebel slapped another for some mistake which none was ready to disclose to us. The next moment I heard a gun being cocked. Without wasting a second, I hopped into our car and told the driver to hit the pedal.