Purnima, a faith healer in Imphal, Manipur, and Ribini, a nurse in a hospital in Assam. Unlikely occupations for women who once lived life on the run: the former as the fearless Nalini, a member of the rebel Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), a crack shot much in demand as an assassin and extortionist, and the latter as Lance Corporal Raisumai of the Bodo Security Force (BdSF), a banned militant separatist organization in the northeast.
In faraway Kashmir, Khalida was just another schoolgirl till 21 January 2007, the day she was found with a bullet through her head—gunned down by the Baramulla police who believed she was going to meet her comrades in the dreaded militant organization, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Or by the militants, who suspected her of double-crossing them? No one will ever know who killed Khalida, but hers is a fate often met by the women of this embattled state.
Since the time that LTTE operative Dhanu, the first known human bomb in India, assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in a suicide bombing in 1991, women have been crucial operators in insurgencies in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir. Given the same rigorous training as their male comrades, they carry AK-47s, rob banks, ambush security forces and play the game of subterfuge with amazing élan. Through the stories of Purnima, Khalida, Ribini and others profiled in this book, Rashmi Saksena attempts to get under their skin and fathom what goes into the making of a woman militant. What motivates them to abandon the traditional playbook for girls and embrace the uncertain life of an insurgent, and, equally, how easy is it for them to return to the ‘normal’ world, when age, or the desire for marriage and motherhood, makes them want to give it all up?
‘[Omer] produced eyewitness dispatches of such clarity and brilliance that, almost single-handed, he reclaimed the honour of real journalism.’
Operation Protective Edge, launched in early July 2014, was the third major Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in six years. It was also the most deadly thus far. By the conclusion of hostilities some seven weeks later, 2,200 of Gaza’s population had been killed, and more than 10,000 injured.
Journalist Mohammed Omer, a resident of Gaza who lived through the terror of those days with his wife and then three-month-old son, provides a first-hand account of life on-the-ground during Israel’s assault. The images he records in this extraordinary chronicle are a literary equivalent of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’: children’s corpses stuffed into vegetable refrigerators, pointlessly because the electricity is off; a family rushing out of their home after a phone call from the Israeli military informs them that the building will be obliterated by an F-16 missile in three minutes; donkeys machine-gunned by Israeli soldiers under instructions to shoot anything that moves; graveyards targeted with shells so that mourners can no longer tell where their relatives are buried; fishing boats ablaze in the harbour.
Throughout this carnage, Omer maintains the cool detachment of the professional journalist, determined to create a precise record of what is occurring in front of him. But between his lines the outrage boils, and we are left to wonder how a society such as Israel, widely praised in the West as democratic and civilized, can visit such monstrosities on a trapped and helpless population.
War reporters tend to have shorter lives than many others in the same profession of journalism, simply because they are exposed to more day-to-day risks in remote parts of the world where timely help is a prized commodity.
Shyam Bhatia is one of the lucky few who has lived to recall and recount unique survival stories, including his eyewitness experience of a mini massacre on the Kabul to Kandahar highway, followed by his own detention, torture and daily threats of execution by the mujahidin.
The Afghan experience was followed by an equally chilling episode in southern Sudan where Bhatia’s media convoy drove over a carefully concealed landmine, resulting in one colleague’s death and injuries to several others. In the ensuing chaos Bhatia and his friends cradled their dying friend and recited what they remembered of the last rites following his passing.
Just as gripping is his account of uncovering mass murders in Delhi, breaking the story of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, as well as his encounter with the besieged Marsh Arabs of Iraq that won him the Foreign Journalist of the Year award.
In a lighter vein Bhatia also talks about his first major interview with the late Yasser Arafat and how he secured more long-term access to the Palestinian President by capitalizing upon his passion for honey.
As you read this first-hand account of life as a foreign correspondent, it becomes obvious that regardless of professional skill, luck or good fortune is all too often what makes the difference between life and death.
In her powerful, poignant book—one of the best non-fiction works from India in recent years—Anubha Bhonsle examines the tangled and tragic history of Manipur, and of much of India’s North East. Through the story of Irom Sharmila—on a protest fast since 2000—and many others who have fallen victim to violence or despair or stood up to fight for peace and justice, she shows us an entire society ravaged by insurgency and counter-insurgency operations, corruption and ethnic rivalries. Drawing upon extensive interviews with personnel of the Indian army and intelligence agencies, politicians and bureaucrats, leaders of insurgent groups, Irom Sharmila and her family and ordinary people across Manipur, Anubha Bhonsle has produced a compelling and necessary book on the North East, the Indian state, identity politics and the enormous human cost of conflict.