For Anita, the day began like any other normal day, as the housewife went about her chores. She was care-free and happy; four years into her marriage, the 29-year-old felt she had all she could ever wish for - a caring husband, a loving mother-in-law and two young children who were the apples of her eyes. She was also three months pregnant, and eagerly expecting the addition to their family. Their economic fortunes were looking up too; as she swept and cleaned her house, she could hear her husband, about fifteen footsteps away by the gate, watering the newly-constructed concrete pillars that were to be the foundation of his - and his younger brother's - shops and livelihood.

Little did she know as she brought a pail of water and got ready to mop the floor that in a few minutes she would join the hundreds of women in the state who have been widowed by the ongoing conflict.

The five days of festivities for the Yaosang spring festival of colours had just ended. "I was about to mop the floor when I heard the gunshots, and his call "Anita!" I ran out to the side door just as he fell down. They fired again at his fallen body. I somehow dragged him up the two stairs. There was blood everywhere," she said. Three bullets had hit his chest; he died soon after in a nearby hospital. To date, no one has been arrested for the crime.

Anita's husband, a teacher by profession, was reportedly a calm and tender person, with no enmity with anyone. About a week before his murder, on the third day of the Yaosang festival, some young men - who claimed they were members of one of the many underground outfits operating in the state - had come to the house and demanded Rs.2000 for a feast. Anita's husband had asked them to come back after two days, as he still hadn't received his salary. On the appointed day they returned, and when he didn't give the money they had asked for, they killed him.

"We asked for clarifications through the newspapers too, we asked what crime of his, against which person or organisation, had warranted such a death. There has been no response till date," says Anita, cuddling up her six month old baby born after her husband's death.

During the last few decades thousands of men have been killed, either as actors in the conflict or as innocent victims, raising the number of 'gun widows' dramatically. Very often, as in Anita's case, the killing and the motive behind remain unaccounted, and the assailants remain free. Anita says, "I am not alone, there are so many like me whose husbands have been gunned down, and so many others who have remained silent, without clarification."

For the widowed young women, their husbands' deaths have deeply impacted their social and economic roles in the household and community, and also altered the structure of their families. Their husbands' murders have invariably raised questions about relationships with underground outfits - whether they were pro-insurgency or against. Added to this shadow looming over them is the suffocating societal, cultural and economic roles that are demanded of a widow. The women's relatively young ages at the time of widowhood further worsens their situations.

Fear is again another limiting factor that accompanies such unaccounted killings. "It is not so difficult to investigate and find the killers. But these are bad times. We are afraid to ask around too much also. What if they target us again? The gun can always turn on us again," says Anita.

No place to call home

Bina too was widowed by the gun eight years back, although in a different way. On 4 April 1999, her husband, who ran a pharmacy at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital gate was killed in retaliatory firing by CRPF jawans posted at the hospital, following an attack by some unidentified youths in which two CRPF jawans were injured. Bina had heard the gunshots from afar. "A pulse was throbbing in my arm and I was worried at the ominous sign," she recalls. "Soon after we received a call saying that he was injured. But the area had been sealed off for search operations, we couldn't go out. When we did managed to reach him, he had already passed away."

Bina was about 29 years old at that time. She was the fifth daughter-in-law among six in the family. Soon after her husband's death, she began seeing the worse facets of life. The state government announced an ex gratia of one lakh rupees and a small government job on compassionate grounds for her. But as many such gestures go throughout India, the realisation of the compensation was exceedingly difficult. She was accused of having an affair with a male friend of her husband who helped her obtain the money. Most of the money from the ex gratia in any case went to her in-laws, who claimed that they had borrowed money for the funeral and other customary religious rites. A few days after the shradh ceremony, she was asked to separate her kitchen from the rest of the family.

"I was so shocked. I just refused to cook and eat on my own, preferring to starve. This went on for nearly a month. I became very weak and ill. Taking advantage, they took me in an auto rickshaw one day on the pretext of taking me to a doctor, and sent me back to my mother's house".

Bina chose to fight back; after her recovery, she returned to her husband's house and stayed there. But there was simply no way to find a dignified space for herself once more. "My brothers-in-law made passes at me. I was afraid to stay alone at home and would stay in my room behind closed doors always. They also started fighting amongst themselves for my husband's share of the family land, which was now to become mine". Faced with such harassment and humiliation, two years back, Bina ultimately became the 'second wife' of the same friend she had been accused of having an affair with earlier.

"I agreed to become his wife, with the permission of his first wife and children for 'survival.' A woman needs a man around, for respect. I wanted just the name that I'm 'under' a man, like fencing to keep the cows away from the crops. It is not for my own pleasure."

Sita (name changed on request) too faced the vulnerability of being a woman without a husband. "About ten days after the shradh, my brother-in-law attacked me with a knife after I refused to comply with his demand to cook dried, rotting yendem (a variety of taro) leaves." Sita returned to her maternal house when her son was around seven months old.

A culture of death

Death has been an unbiased leveler. There are countless men, employed in state and central security forces who had been killed as a result of the conflict situation in the state. Lamthang Doungel, Amuyaima and S. Daiha, both in their mid-thirties and fellow batchmates of the 15 IRB forces in the state, were among sixteen persons killed in an ambush by underground outfits early this year while returning from election duty. For their wives Ningboi Doungel, Jamuna and S. Asha, the wound is still raw and bleeding.

Ningboi recalls, "He called me and said they'll reach Kangla around 11 in the morning. So I went there and waited. When I heard that there had been an ambush, somehow I knew it was his party. I called him. His mobile phone rang and rang but he didn't pick it up. I called all other numbers that I knew were in the group, no one picked up."

Death has been an unbiased leveler. There are countless men, employed in state and central security forces who had been killed as a result of the conflict situation in the state.

 •  Women in the line of fire

"Yesterday all of us women, widows of that ambush, went to Churachandpur, and on the way we were talking only about them. We saw the place where the incident occurred and some of us were crying. I think if there had been speedy relief action, some of them could have been saved. My husband was wounded in the stomach, so obviously it meant that he didn't die instantly. When we were preparing him for the funeral, blood was still seeping from his ears," she adds. The disbelief is acute for the women, as they lost their husbands so suddenly and due to unnatural causes. So are the remorse and the discontent. "Why did they kill him like that?" asks Anita. But usually they are left with no explanation.

Life has to go on, and the struggle for survival for these women is fraught with newly added responsibilities, for which many of them are ill-prepared. "I had only studied till Class X but didn't pass high school. When he was alive he used to scold me, saying I should study further, saying that since he is a siphai, nothing is predictable, anything could happen to him suddenly, and if I am qualified I could at least get a job under a die-in-harness scheme. Now the only job I could possibly get is as a peon," says Ningboi who now relies mostly on her brother-in-law, and buying things on credit. Like Ningboi, Anita depends on her mother-in-law for maintenance.

For some of the widows, there are ex gratia payments from the state - especially for widows of security personnel, or those killed in police custody, or in the crossfire as innocent bystanders. For many others, however, state help is the proverbial pot of gold at the rainbow's feet. Anita didn't get any aid. And for those women like Sita whose husbands died fighting against state forces, even the nominal protections of law do not exist.

The psychological impact on the gun widows and their children is something that has often been neglected. When Anita's husband was killed, their four-year-old son Deiop and three-year-old daughter Sayu were playing in the courtyard, about fifteen steps away from where their father was fired at. Deiop thinks that his father went somewhere by air, and every time he sees a plane he'll go out and wave, and ask his father to come home soon. The sound of crackers - or anything that sounds like a gunshot - terrifies Sayu and she will tell her mother to hide with her and keep quiet until the noise dies down.

Yet the hardships make them more determined to fight on, despite their fears. "Just the thought of living on scares me. But I am determined to live on, cuddling my son to my bosom," says Asha, smiling amidst her tears as she watches her 18-month-old son Richard play blissfully. Jamuna is more practical, but forward-looking in her own way. "What is the use of crying? Of course I love him. He was my husband, but crying won't bring him back. Instead it would be better to look after my children properly."

The women share one other thing, a harsh realisation that while their personal experiences vary, the death around them has simply become part of their reality today. "If the gun culture weren't there, he wouldn't have died and I won't have suffered as I did," says Sita.