My preparation for an assignment to a rebel base in Myanmar's Sagaing Division began seven months in advance, soon after receiving confirmation from the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a banned insurgent outfit in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Its elusive chief of staff, Paresh Baruah, one of the most wanted men in the country, had warned that the journey would be strenuous and fraught with risks. He advised me to walk daily for at least 5 miles, in the hills if possible, but did not disclose exactly where I would be taken.
On 11 October 2011, my journalist colleague Pradip Gogoi and I were instructed to reach a village in Nagaland near the Indo-Myanmar frontier, and we crossed the border two days later with three locals. We were received by a group of ULFA rebels and began trekking in the hilly terrain on 14 October. We marched through the hills in the Naga-inhabited region in Myanmar before reaching the ULFA camp in Hukwang Valley. This was a region hardly known to the world and one of the last unexplored frontiers. It was home to some of the world's fiercest tribes and even the British had followed a policy of noninterference. Myanmar's government doesn't allow anybody to visit the area.
After a few days came the bombshell in the Indian media that I had been apprehended by the Myanmar army somewhere along the Sino-Myanmar border!
My estimate was that we would be able to return after one-and-a-half or two months. But never had I imagined that completing the assignment would take nearly four months, peppered with incidents that amazed and enlightened me. The trip kicked off, in fact, with me tumbling off a cliff. Luckily I landed on a patch of flat, grassy land and continued the journey far more cautiously.
Our day began early at 4am and it was a struggle getting out of bed due to the cold. After breakfast half an hour later, we would begin the march and try to cover as much a distance as possible by noon. Then we would rest for a few minutes and eat a small quantity of rice that we would carry in our bags. The destination would either be a village, a spot in the jungle where water was available or the river bank where camps were erected with bamboo and tarpaulin. Sometimes we walked until late afternoon, and quite often the evening, and I had to drag myself due to exhaustion.
The Nagas were and are still self-sufficient and every village was sort of a small republic ruled by the chief and assisted by a council of elders.
Some aspects of the socio-economic conditions that I observed among the locals did not tally with the earlier accounts that I had heard. Headhunting, the practice of decapitating and bringing back human heads from the neighbouring villages, had been banned by the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) about three decades ago because it fuelled clashes. The NSCN is a militant outfit campaigning for the independence of the Naga-inhabited areas in Myanmar. I had seen photographs of topless women in the villages years ago but clothes were now easily available from the border towns in India or from the military townships in Myanmar. And though money was virtually unheard of until about three decades ago, this was no longer the case and people could buy essential items. The Nagas were and are still self-sufficient and every village was sort of a small republic ruled by the chief and assisted by a council of elders.
A consignment of European weapons reached the camp one night and we were allowed to take photographs in the morning.
We reached the ULFA camp after 43 days that were rife with moments of uncertainty and anguish. But chief of staff Paresh Baruah was nowhere to be seen. The senior functionaries did not have any inkling when he would arrive and we were simply told to wait and enjoy ourselves. So we soon adjusted to the camp routine - two meals a day, a bit of football or volleyball in the evening and walking around in the sprawling campus, which was a mix of jungles and small hillocks. After a few days came the bombshell in the Indian media that I had been apprehended by the Myanmar army somewhere along the Sino-Myanmar border! Even senior officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had confirmed the incident to be true. We were watching the fun on TV through TataSky. I thought Baruah would be upset and might not turn up for the interview but I was proved wrong. He arrived, gave a detailed interview and also facilitated my meeting with S S Khaplang, the chairman of NSCN(K), and the godfather of the region.
Of course, there were other interesting episodes besides the interviews. A consignment of European weapons reached the camp one night and we were allowed to take photographs in the morning. I even tried target shooting with a Heckler and Koch assault rifle. Then just a few days ahead of our return journey, two football matches were organised among cadres belonging to nine rebel outfits including some from Manipur. This was in celebration of the United Front that had been firmed up among these groups to intensify their campaign for the independence of India's Northeast and Myanmar's Naga-inhabited territory.
Then, we began trekking home and crossed the Indo-Myanmar border on 30 January 2012, three months and 20 days after I first hit the trail.
(The account of the journey has now been published in a book Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men)