Muzaffarnagar:The cold ground beneath their feet
The woes of the Muzaffarnagar riot victims are far from over, with the camps now turning into deaths traps for children who are succumbing to illnesses due to the inclement weather and the cold. A ground report by Hardnews
Souzeina S Mushtaq Muzaffarnagar
While a truck unloads gunny bags of relief material outside, Irshad, 34, holds up a photo of his 10-year-old girl. That’s all he has left of Nayeema, his firstborn, who never recovered from the shock of the brutality that had descended all around her.
Now he and his wife, Parveen, from Kakda village, along with their five other children, have taken shelter in a camp in Shahpur village. They say their daughter had gone into a shell and often used to be terrified at night. “Usko dahshat hua tha (She was terrified),” they say, referring to the killings. She couldn’t get proper medication and died a month-and-a-half after staying in the camp. They deny receiving any compensation from the government. Nayeema’s sisters miss her and cry often.
It has been three months since the communal violence hit Muzaffarnagar, killing more than 50 people. Since then, people have been braving the odds of life in the makeshift camps in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts. The tents are cold, damp, and desolate, even with the numbers. Dupattas and blankets have been stacked at the entrance to keep the cold at bay, but the ground beneath them gets covered in dew every night. The cold has claimed children and adults, and with hardly any provision for medicines or doctors, the death toll could keep climbing.
The refugee camps housing the displaced people in the Muzaffarnagar riots are buzzing with activity. At Basi Kala, in Muzaffarnagar’s Shahpur village, where around 250 families are taking shelter, women are busy with chores. Men are eagerly awaiting the next round of the relief material. A newborn’s scream rents the air. Hasida runs to attend to the baby girl. Her granddaughter has developed some skin infection and “she is crying in pain,” she explains, “I cannot afford to take her to the hospital.”
Afsana from Lakh Bawdi village was in the eighth month of her pregnancy when they had to flee the village. A month later, she gave birth to a baby girl. Already a mother of four girls and a boy, she says it is difficult to make ends meet now that her barber husband is jobless. Her newborn girl has problems in the mouth, making feeding difficult, but there is no doctor in the camp.
“These doctors come once in a while. People are terribly sick here, from infants to adults, but they always give the same medicines. It doesn’t help. It only weakens us.”
Sabira, a mother of four, lost her nine-month-old son Sufyaan. “He had pneumonia but the doctors did not treat him properly. He was referred to the Budhana hospital but they had no medicine there,” she says. From there, he was referred to another hospital, and he died midway. “If we were in our home, and not in this forsaken land, he would have been saved.”
According to people, many children died on the way to the hospital. The hospital in Budhana is about 10 km from the camp, which is not a lot, but most people took the children to the hospital only in the end, as they had no money to pay for treatment.
Some who even begged for medicines did not receive help. Mano and Intezar from Dan Nangda village lost their month-old child to pneumonia. “The doctors in the camp asked us to take her to Muzaffarnagar. We had no money. We begged them for medicines. That did not help. She died the next day.”
There are numerous such stories. Shahnaz, from the camp in Loi village, who lost her 14-year-old son, Tasleem, to a deadly mix of typhoid, malaria and jaundice. Or Khurshida, from Fugana, who lost her seven-year-old son, Anas, to fever and malaria. With no doctor available in the camps, they decided to take him to the hospital.
He died on the way. Irfana, also from Fugana, lost her two-day-old girl on November 23. She died because no doctor was available, and they could not take her to the hospital.
The medical negligence and lack of facilities is glaring and infuriating. This is the least the administration could have done, ensured that the sick are taken care of. Rukhsana, 30, lost her four-year-old son to fever. Doctors at camp gave him some medicines but to no avail.
He was then shifted to Meerut Hospital. “He was in a coma; he was bleeding profusely from his mouth. After keeping him in the ICU for two days, the doctors told us to shift him to Delhi. But we couldn’t, and he died in the morning.”
Every day, as people wake to another day of struggle, the wounds of the past refuse to heal. Hasida, from Kutba village and a mother of three, recalls the horror on the night of September 8. “Loot machi thi, loot. Mitti ke chulhe ko bhi nahi chhoda (There was loot everywhere. They did not even spare our mud stoves),” she says. Many who came here had a narrow escape that night. They survived by throwing bricks at the attackers from the rooftops. And now, there are thousands of such families who have left their homes, property and land, vowing never to return.
They talk about the betrayal by the neighbours, how friends did not spare friends, and overnight the communal cauldron had spilled over. Shameema, an elderly woman from Kutba village, blames the village pradhan for not helping them. “We do not want to go back, and we will never go back,” she says. Others argue that it was a premeditated attack, targeting Muslims. “Sampradayik ladai thi (It was a communal fight),” says Idu Khan, local leader.
Mohammed Tasleem, a local from Shahpur who had offered his house to the refugees, recalls the night of September 8 and the following days. “The entire ground was occupied and people kept pouring in. Most of them were mourning their dead family members. The locals gave them space in their houses and arranged food for them. There was mayhem all around. People had no idea about their family members. The dead were being brought in by the police. They had lost count of them.
Shabnam, another local who let many people stay in her house, recalls that the children had no clothes and the women had no headscarves. “Men helped men while women helped women,” she says.
Hafiz Mohammed Abbas, head of the Jamiat Ulama Hind in Shahpur relief camp, expressed his ire over the process of distribution. “People come and distribute on their own,” he said. Those who got compensation had moved on to start a new living. He said, of the 350 families living in the camps, 135 left after getting compensation.
Those who managed to go back to their villages, where the riots had taken place, had sad stories to narrate. “They tell us our houses are in ruins; they look scary.”
Apart from lacking basic essentials, people do not have jobs to feed their families. “Dusron ke tukdon pe jee rahe hain, madam (We live on the mercy of others),” says Yamin. While the adults find it hard to live in the camps, children are also suffering. They have been missing their schools. They now go to the madrasa instead.
Rukhsana, a Class 12 student from Kutba village, is one of 11 siblings who fled the village at the time of the riots. When asked if she missed her school, she didn’t say anything. “Why will she miss them? They killed her family,” a woman nearby explained. “They killed my grandmother,” Rukhsana finally said. But she still misses her school, saying she was on very good terms with the Hindus and Jats before.
She has vivid memories of that day. “We were harvesting in the fields when we heard firing. The local masjid was broken down. We ran into the house. While they came in groups to attack us, we started pelting bricks to save ourselves. Later, the army came and saved us.”
Rubina, who lives in the Shahpur relief camp, used to work in a brick kiln in Muzaffarnagar. She now works as a labourer with others in Shahpur. “The Jats did not let us bury our dead. They started pelting stones when we went to bury the father and son.” She is grateful to the locals of Shahpur as they donated food and other items for
three months. Facing the inclement weather, people say they have nothing to keep themselves warm.
“We are scared of lighting a fire. These tents are covered with tarpaulin and dupattas. They catch fire easily. I can’t believe we left our comfortable homes behind to come and live in these tents,” says Gulshan, a resident.
However, the biggest challenge is yet to come, with the peak of winter just around the corner. The cold has already claimed many lives, mostly children, according to the inhabitants of the relief camps, who put the figure at over 15. The district officials, however, deny any “irregular deaths”.
Regarding the deaths of the children, District Magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma said investigations are on. “Eleven deaths were reported in all age groups in the last week of November. The matter has been reported to the Supreme Court as well. It is the total number of deaths in Loi camp specifically. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) team had reported four deaths of kids. We are investigating if they are true. If we find any lapse of health officials, we will take action against them,” he said. When asked if he had personally met the families affected, Sharma said the ADM had done so, collected evidence, and submitted a report to him.
“It is being wrongly alleged by the media that 14 infants died in Muzaffarnagar. Loi is the only remaining camp in Muzaffarnagar, and the total number of reported deaths is 15. No one has died because of cold in this camp. No one,” he iterated.
While people struggle to survive troubled times, they are dismayed by the attitude of the administration. Though the government had promised `5 lakh for the victims, only a few claim to have got it. “We got no assistance from them. Our Muslim brothers donate money and bring relief materials for us.” Earlier, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and party president Rahul Gandhi had visited the camps. While the Centre had offered `2 lakh to the kin of the deceased, the CM announced `5 lakh each and `25000 - 50,000 to those who had lost their property. Besides, the IG and DIG of the state had also conducted surveys but the displaced families allege that the files never reached the top officials in the administration.
Those injured in the clashes also claim they never received any compensation. Yamin, 32, who suffered injuries on his head and back, did not get any compensation in spite of spending three weeks in the hospital. “There were 30 people with swords,” he recalls. A labourer in Kutba and a father of six, Yamin says he ran to save his life but was chased down by the perpetrators. “He was unconscious for a week. He could not move and used to cry at night,” says his wife. Yamin was admitted to Meerut Hospital and later shifted to the relief camp in Basi Kala, where he is currently living.
“We are just surviving the cold. The government had assured us help but did not provide anything except one durri, one plastic bucket and one plate. One family has 25 to 40 members, what will they do?”
Meanwhile, DM Sharma claimed that compensation had been given to most of the families. “We got the families to open bank accounts and affidavits were made. We also got transfers done through e-payment, so there is no complaint of corruption. Most families got their compensation on time,” he said.
He also said that they were conducting fresh surveys and identifying people with genuine demands. When asked to clarify genuine demands, he said, “When riots happened, only 8-10 families were genuinely affected. But people from around 150 villages came to seek compensation. There are families from Meerut living here because they anticipated violence that never happened. We need to look into such cases too.”
Amidst the chaos and the mayhem, the babies who were born in the camps testify to the grit and determination of their mothers who fled their villages while heavily pregnant. “Those who could afford hospitals had the delivery there. Those who couldn’t, gave birth in the camps,” said a woman, whose daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby girl. According to her, the government had promised `20,000 for the mother and child but no assistance has been provided so far.
In Shamli district, one of the largest relief camps is in Loi village, occupied by around 450 families or 3,500 residents. According to the people, there were 34 births, mostly in the camps.
Most families do not remember the date of birth of their newborn kids. Rukhsar from Kutba gave birth to a baby boy but doesn’t remember when. “All I remember is that he was born while the clashes were going on,” she says.
As the sun begins to set, the inhabitants of the three camps prepare to brave another chilly night. The foggy evening makes way for a cold draft, as the children disappear into the tents. The speakers installed around the camps crackle to life, calling people for a meeting after dark to discuss the compensation claims with the DM. And soon enough, everyone melts into the darkness.