Kuozeu Vizo remembers finding the sight of her village, burned and blackened during World War II, as spellbinding as a rice field, golden and ripe for harvest.
“I still wonder how they even knew which land belonged to whom when they started rebuilding the village,” said Vizo, 98, a member of the fiercely independent Angamis, a Naga tribe.
She and fellow Naga people in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland commemorated the end of World War II ahead of the anniversary of Japan’s surrender on September 2.
In April 1944, 15,000 men from the 31st Division of Japan’s Imperial Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato, arrived with the aim of taking over Kohima, a hill town that was also the British headquarters in the Naga Hills.
The face-off that ensued has been called “Stalingrad of the East” because it was a decisive turn in the war. Between April and June 1944, Japanese and Allied forces battled across Kohima and the villages around it.
The Kohima War Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 1,420 British Commonwealth soldiers and memorials for 917 Sikh soldiers who were cremated in accordance with their faith.
Kuou Kesiezie, 108, vividly remembers being a British army porter. One day she had hurried home after dropping off a load of supplies only to realise 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 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.
They returned home to total barrenness – there were no seeds even that they could plant – relying on the British for supplies to rebuild.
While many Nagas supported the Allied forces, others backed the Japanese in the hope that they would help the Nagas achieve independence from Britain.
BK Sachu, 86, recalled the kindness of a Japanese 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 – some say it hunger cost them the battle of Kohima. Anger toward the Japanese grew as the starved soldiers forcibly took 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.
The war and soldiers are long gone. But reminders of the devastation remain. A small burial plot holds the remains of eight children who were killed in 1976 when a war-era bomb exploded where they played.
For the Naga, 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 Vichuzo Rutsa said softly from his bed.