Northeast India recalls ‘Stalingrad of the East’

KOHIMA, India (AP) : To Kuozeu Vizo, the landscape was as spellbinding as a rice field, golden and ripe for harvest, but it was her village burned black.

“I still wonder how they even knew which land belonged to whom when they started rebuilding the village,” said Vizo, 98. She and fellow Naga people in northeastern India recalled the end of World War II ahead of the anniversary of Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2.

Kuozeu Vizo, a 98-year-old Angami Naga woman, clasps her hands together as she speaks about memories of the bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces that took place in her village during the World War II, in Kohima, India, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Kuozeu Vizo, a 98-year-old Angami Naga woman, recounts her memory of the bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces that took place in her village during the Second World War, as her granddaughter sits by the side outside their home in Kohima, India, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)

In April 1944, 15,000 men from the 31st Division of Japan’s Imperial Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Kotoku Sato arrived with the aim of taking over Kohima, a hill town that was also the British headquarters in the Naga Hills. The station, on the Indian border with Myanmar, was considered strategically important for Japanese advancement into British-held India.

The face-off that ensued earned nicknames like the “Stalingrad of the East” — it was a decisive turn in the war — and “The Battle of the Tennis Court,” referring to the setting around which heavy fighting went on for days, at times involving hand-to-hand combat.

The lines of the court have been preserved in the well-manicured lawns of the Kohima War Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 1,420 British Commonwealth soldiers.

A gardener walks past the preserved outlines of a tennis court around where some of the fiercest battles were fought in Kohima, now part of the Kohima War Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 1,420 Commonwealth servicemen of World War II, in Kohima, India, Oct. 15, 2014.
Kuou Kesiezie, a 108-year-old Angami Naga survivor of the Battle of Kohima fought between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces in and around her village, smiles as she sits outside her daughter’s house in Kohima, India, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)

Adjoining the administrative center of Kohima town is the village area, home to the Angamis, a fiercely independent Naga tribe. Between April and June 1944, the Japanese and Allied forces battled across Kohima and the villages around it.

Kuou Kesiezie, 108, vividly remembers sprinting down the base of the Pulie Badze mountain. A British army porter, she had hurried back home after dropping off a load of supplies when she realized she still had an ammunition belt on her shoulder, she recalled with a chuckle.

A population that had never been exposed to life beyond the village saw battle tanks and fighter planes dropping bombs over their beloved land. 

But it was war and they had no choice, said Visakuolie Suokhrie, 83.

“They had to burn our village down to chase the Japanese out,” he said.

A woman walks past a Medium Tank M3 Grant that was abandoned when it went down this hill and crashed against a tree while climbing the Kohima Ridge to support British troops of the 2nd Division on May 6, 1944, in Kohima, India, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Angami Naga girls walk past a World War II plaque on the Imphal-Kohima highway on the outskirts of Kohima, India, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)

They returned home to total bareness — there were no seeds even to plant anew. The British provided supplies to rebuild homes. They planted “rusulho,” or ration rice, a variety that many in Kohima still cultivate.

While many Nagas supported the Allied forces, others backed the Japanese with whom they shared some physical features and in the hope that they would help the Nagas achieve independence from Britain.

B.K. Sachu, 86, recalled the kindness of a doctor who “could not watch children suffer, he would treat them. From him I understood how good the Japanese were,” he said.

But Japanese troops were low on supplies. It is said that it was hunger that cost them the battle of Kohima. Local help was imperative in this rough mountainous terrain. Anger toward the Japanese grew as the starved soldiers forcibly took away what the villagers had.

“I was carrying a loaded basket with a chicken placed on top. Japanese soldiers just lifted the chicken and took it away without even saying anything,” Vizo said.

British Field Marshal Sir William Slim acknowledged the tribespeople’s role in his 1956 book “Defeat into Victory.”

“There were the gallant Nagas whose loyalty even in the most depressing times of the invasion had never faltered. Many a British and Indian soldiers owe his life to the naked head hunting Naga,” he wrote.

The war and soldiers are long gone. But reminders of the devastation remain. A weedy plot bears the mangled bodies of eight children who were killed in 1976 when a war-era bomb exploded where they played.

Monsoon clouds form a border over Kohima War Cemetery, green terraced lawns in center, and the area which was the main site of a bloody battle in 1944 between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces in Kohima, India, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Khriepra-u Rutsa, an 85-year-old Angami Naga woman, smiles as she speaks about her experiences as a young girl during the battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces in her village in 1944, in Kohima village, India, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Kuou Kesiezie, a 108-year-old Angami Naga woman, listens to her grandson Keneipfhezo Solo ask her a question about her memories from World War II fought in her village between the Japanese and British Commonwealth soldiers, in Kohima, India, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
An Angami Naga boy Viketouzo Miachieo, 22, displays ammunition from World War II that he found a few years ago while cleaning the area beside his house in Kohima village, in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Kekhrieselie Mepfuo, a 55-year-old Angami Naga, recalls the day in Feb. 18, 1976 when a war-time era bomb exploded killing eight of his friends, in Kohima, India, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Vichuzo Rutsa, 101, shares a laugh with his daughter-in-law Nelly as he recounts memories of the bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces in his village during World War II, in Kohima village, India, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Vichuzo Rutsa, a 101-year-old Angami Naga, shares his memories of the bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces that took place in his village during World War II, in Kohima village, India, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)

For the locals, World War II was a conflict brought to their quiet lands by outsiders, and along with it, immeasurable loss. 

“We really suffered during the war,” 101-year-old Vichüzo Rutsa said softly from his bed.

B.K. Sachu, an 86-year-old Angami Naga, recounts his memories of the World War II battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces in his village, as he sits outside his house in Kohima village, India, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Angami Naga boys clear weed from the graves of 8 children, killed in 1976 when a World War II-era bomb exploded while they were playing, in Kohima village, the site of a bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces, in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
A caretaker locks the door of a house that was one of the only houses standing after British aircrafts bombed and flattened the area in a bid to evacuate Japanese soldiers in World War II, in Kohima, India, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
A Naga girl runs down a lane with a plaque planted by the British commemorating the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, an infantry regiment of the British Army, in Kohima village, the site of a bloody WWII battle, India, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
Visakuolie Suokhrie, an 83-year-old Angami Naga, recounts his memories of the bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces that resulted in his village being bombed and burnt during World War II, in Kohima village, India, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
A tombstone stands by the graves of 8 Angami Naga children aged between 8-14, killed in 1976 when a World War II-era bomb exploded while they were playing, in Kohima village, the site of a bloody battle between the Japanese and British Commonwealth forces, in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)

By : YIRMIYAN ARTHUR – AP NEWS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s