14-year-old Alice (right) with a cousin. File photo
Alice Kamei had been missing for two days when Sundari got the call. What the voice on the other end said about her 14-year-old daughter has turned the world of this family living in Chingphu Kabui village in Manipur's Bishnupur district upside down. "It was a call from the RPF (Revolutionary People's Front). They said that Alice had come to them of her own will," says Sundari. "They asked to speak to her father. My husband wasn't home at the time. I asked for my daughter and they said they would call the next day at 6 in the evening. They told us not to go to the police or the media, or we would not hear from her."
When they talked the next day, the 35-year-old says, both she and Alice were in tears. "I asked her, 'Don't you love us, don't you love your younger brother? Why did you leave?'," says Sundari, breaking down. According to her, Alice replied that she loved them all very much and "desperately wants to come back". "'Please please come and get me. I don't know where I am but come and get me'," she told her mother. The phone got disconnected before her father, 45-year-old Chakri Kamei, could speak to her.
That was March 13. The family hasn't heard from Alice in the 45 days since.
It was at 6 pm, March 10, that the Kameis first had an inkling that something was wrong. They received a call from Grace Reach Academy in Thoubal district of Manipur, a boarding school where both their children studied, asking if Alice had by any chance come home. "I was shocked... They told me they couldn't find her," says Sundari.
As the reports filed by the Kakching police station in Thoubal district earlier this month say, Alice and her 15-year-old friend Sanakalbi Khaidem went missing from the school at 11.30 am that day. It was a Sunday and most officials were not present on the campus. The girls were accompanied by a school helper, Elangbam Rojita Devi.
Since then, Rojita (35) and the school cook, 48-year-old Elangbam Thoinu, have been arrested and have reportedly confessed to being "overground workers" of the RPF, the political wing of the banned underground group, the People's Revolutionary Army. The PLA is an active militant group in Manipur. Police are now hunting for a warden of Alice's building, who is absconding.
According to the FIR lodged against Thoinu and Rojita, the two reported to 29-year-old Ranjana Devi, known as a child recruiter for the PLA. Police say Thoinu and Rojita had confessed that on March 3, they met Ranjana and two male members of the PLA in Myanmar and were instructed to specifically recruit Alice and Sanatalbi. They were allegedly given Rs 30,000 for the recruitment — Rojita got Rs 20,000.
But as far as tracing the girls goes, there has been no progress. Two weeks ago, the RPF released a statement reiterating that the girls had joined it "of their own free will".
Chakri Kamei, who has withdrawn his son as well from the boarding school, disputes that. "There is no way that Alice would join a militant group — that too a Hindu Meitei valley group. We are Zeliengrong Nagas. Why would we support their movement?"
The Zeilengrong Naga community has been holding protests for the release of the girls. "We submitted demands to the Home Minister and even President Pranab Mukherjee when he visited Manipur recently," says Zeilengrong Youth Front president Titus Kamei. "The RPF has told the family they are willing to release Alice if their underground and overground operatives are protected and the police take no action against them. They have said this is the family's responsibility. How can the family be responsible for police action?" Titus asks.
Thoubal Superintendent of Police A K Jhalajhit, who is in charge of the Alice case, says Manipur militant groups routinely induct children and such cases were difficult to crack. "Most of the children inducted are from poor families. As soon as the militant organisation threatens them, they don't even report the disappearance. In Alice's case, three operatives had been placed in a school as scouts," he says.
Jhalajhit doesn't blame the school, noting that it is difficult for them to check antecedents of their employees.
The police officer also admits that chances of the abducted children returning home are slim. Most disappear for good.
Alice's parents hang on to hope. Chakri talks about her daughter's "big dreams". The family had scrimped and saved to send their two children to the Thoubal boarding school. The Kameis grow and sell vegetables to sustain themselves.
Alice, a keen sportswoman, wanted to become a national-level archer. A bronze medal and plaque that she won at the 15th International Tribal Archery Competition, held in Vijaywada last year, occupy pride of place in their modest mudcaked thatched hut.
Their Chingphu Kabui village is known for its archers, with a local boy recently selected for an archery competition in Korea. Chakri believes Alice too would have made it to there.
Sundari has now locked up Alice's notebooks, filled with her neat, precise handwriting, safely in a trunk. Her prized possession was a yellowing, cover-less book on birds.
"The lord is my shepherd" is scribbled on her algebra copy. Alice also had a book of hymns that Sundari now takes out and opens to a psalm, 'Rescue the Perishing'. They would often sing it together, she says.