By Rupa Jha
BBC News, Manipur
Nitan and Tony are two of the many young widows in Manipur
For about 50 years, the Indian police and army have been battling separatist insurgents in the north-eastern state of Manipur, a conflict which human rights groups claim leaves at least 500 women widowed each year.
There were 10 of them. They were strikingly beautiful. They were all sitting chatting in a regular room in a regular house.
Nothing about the way they looked prepared me for the sad story they had to tell.
I only realised later that the book each of them was holding close to her was a family photo album. And that was the clue.
The album was full of pictures of their husbands and of their short lives together as families.
Edina, a young widow in her mid-20s with two children, is eager to show me her photographs.
Edina has two children including six-year-old daughter, Angelina
She struggles to leaf through the pages. She suffered a stroke after hearing the news of her husband's death and her left side is now paralysed.
She told me how she had heard what happened to her husband on a chilly morning back in January 2009.
"He was a driver, and a very loving and caring father," she said. "That day after lunch, he went out and not long afterwards I heard, on the television news, that he had been killed by the security forces. They said he was an insurgent."
I asked Edina if the security forces had shown her any evidence for that claim?
"No," she replied in a choking voice, "and I know they are lying." Tears rolled down her cheeks, as she caressed a photograph of her husband, which she had arranged neatly in the album.
Stories of loss
These young widows meet every second Saturday to cry their hearts out and exchange stories about their losses.
It is a particularly strong image of this, one of the world's longest running insurgencies, here in the north-east of India.
The fighting has left many dead and injured - rebels, army and police officers, as well as innocent bystanders.
These young women have all lost their husbands, killed by the security forces.
They all insist that their husbands were innocent and had been picked up, under the special powers, and accused of being insurgents.
Being a widow with children in small towns in India means an extremely tough and deprived life.
Edina, Nina, Tony, Nitan and others became friendly with me after several hours talking, and began to open up and tell me a bit more about their lives.
"You know, we are young and beautiful and that makes our lives as widows even more tough," said one.
"Our in-laws and parents put a lot of restrictions on us. They don't like us to go out and work, as people start saying bad things about us.
"They are afraid we may remarry and that is considered very bad in our society."
I ask them if they would like to remarry, to fall in love? For a moment, they don't know how to react.
It is an option they are not really able to consider. They blush and start laughing.
Irom Sharmila's protest began after the killing of 10 young men
The sense of loss and void that one feels in Manipur is overpowering.
I wonder how much of this can be attributed to the controversial act, brought in more than 50 years ago, which gives these sweeping "special powers" to the armed forces.
They are regularly accused of abusing these powers.
For 10 years, activist Irom Sharmila Chanu has been demanding that the act be repealed.
This 38-year-old woman has been on hunger strike, and is alive only because she is force-fed at the hospital where she is kept in judicial custody.
I was allowed to meet her in 2007, but this time the authorities would not give me permission to see her.
But I went to the hospital anyway.
As I walked down a corridor, I caught a glimpse of her as she passed by on the other side of a big iron gate, as she made her way to morning exercise.
"Sharmila," I called out. She was extremely thin and frail. She had a drip-feed hanging from her nose - but she smiled at me.
"How are you?" I asked. I heard her whisper: "Fine."
India introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958 covering northeast states including parts of Manipur
At least 12 insurgent groups of various ethnic and tribal origins operate in the state, supporting their claims for a separate state and minority rights.
The special powers were extended across the whole of Manipur in 1980. The state has been administered since that time by a huge force of army, paramilitary and state police.
The government and the army maintain the special powers are necessary to restore normality in the state but human rights and civil society groups allege gross human rights violations including torture
Our exchange was cut short by a security officer, but I managed to thank her for answering some questions I had sent her in the post.
In one, I had asked was she not scared of death? "No," she had answered. "For me death is not a punishment."
It is a lonely fight for Sharmila and yet I sense she feels no anger towards the rest of the world and no desire to hit back for the years she has lost.
I went to visit her mother. She has not been able to meet her daughter for 10 years, because she feels that may weaken Sharmila's resolve.
But she told me she was waiting to welcome Sharmila home in that moment of victory, when the government finally agreed to repeal the act.
But in the very next sentence she adds: "I don't think the government will listen to her demand. Can you make it happen as a journalist?"
Rupa Jha's documentary
The Silent War
broadcast on the BBC World Service on 7 March 2011 can be heard online at the above link.
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