By Nita Bhalla
As you drive along the main roads of lower Assam in India’s remote northeast, the small, dusty towns appear deserted -- almost like ghost towns -- despite it being the middle of the day.
There are no children in uniforms returning home from school, no street vendors selling quick and tasty fried snacks, not even the familiar stray dogs have made an appearance.
Doors are padlocked, windows boarded up and hens, goats and cattle are kept inside compounds. The only movement are the convoys of paramilitary trucks or 4X4’s filled with government officials who sporadically race down these roads, with screaming sirens and red flashing lights.
A month since deadly riots between Bodo tribes people and Muslim villagers erupted in Kokrajhar and its surrounding districts, curfews have become the norm, and fear now stalks this lush, riverine region which borders Bangladesh.
More than 85 people have died – shot or hacked to death with machetes. Hundreds of thousands of people from both communities have left their homes, seeking refuge in schools which have been converted into camps for the displaced.
In the suffocating humidity and high temperatures, women sit on school benches with limp babies in their laps, while men languish cross-legged on stone floors with their heads in their hands – unwilling to be reminded of the terror that made them flee.
But then there are others who do not want to forget. They eagerly crowd around, relieved to have found someone who wants to hear their harrowing tales of death, destruction and displacement.
Their stories are similar. Equally brutal.
They speak of large groups of armed men, sometimes up to 200, surrounding villages in the dead of night and going on the rampage. Those that could run or hide in the nearby mangroves or rice plantations were lucky. But some were just too slow.
“They came wearing military uniforms to confuse us and just started shooting,” said Ohila Bibi, 49, from a village near the town of Gossaigaon. “They killed my neighbour and ripped the gold earrings out of her earlobes. I took my child and ran through the forests.”
Others witnessed members of their families hacked with machetes and sickles or beaten to death with rods. Young men lift their t-shirts to show wounds on their back of their shoulders where they were attacked. Some have bandages covered with dried blood on the back of their heads.
In other camps, survivors show me chilling videos on their mobile phones of bodies of dead children. I have no way to verify if they are genuine.
Some weep as they tell me how days after fleeing, they are forced to return – escorted by paramilitary – to retrieve the bloated bodies of their loved ones so that they can perform their last rites.
I visit a village where three young men, who were guarding their community, were shot dead two days before. The blood stains in the ground are still visible.
The father of one of the dead young man weeps uncontrollably. His son was 20-years-old and had plans to join the army. He wanted to protect his country, he says.
With the deaths has also come destruction.
Hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground and possessions looted as the rioters have gone on the rampage. Their rage has also hit urban areas like Kokrajhar town, where the charred shells of homes remain.
In the compound of one abandoned up-market house in the town, a car parked in the drive way is completely gutted and the house uninhabitable.
Each room is a blackened mess, few items are distinguishable – a melted television set, the frame of rocking horse and a baby walker. A half burnt CD with the handwritten words “Anisa Weds Abeda” lies amidst the thick ash on the floor.
The family who lived here, I am told, got out safely when they heard the mobs were on their way.
But it brings to bare a terrifying fact which has made these riots unfathomable for many who live here.
Those that went on the rampage, in many cases, were known to the victims.
“I know those men. They are my neighbours. How is it possible that those who you know can do this?” said Barendra Bramha, 70, a retired school teacher in a camp in Kokrajhar town. “How can we go back and live amongst them?”
The government says many of the 400,000 displaced have been able to return to their homes, but there are still over 275,000 people – mostly Muslims -- who continue to live in the camps, which are overcrowded and squalid.
Drinking water is a serious concern, as well as poor sanitation with few toilets. Women have little privacy and have to wait for dawn or dusk to defecate outside.
Mothers give birth to babies to the camps with no medical support and are weak and unable to produce milk, forcing them to give their babies cow’s milk or water to stop their wails. Some new mothers are still bleeding profusely three or four days after delivery.
Many children are sick with diarrhoea while others sit in long lines on the ground with empty steel plates waiting for their lunch – a mixture of rice with lentils.
More nutritional food, medicines, better hygiene is needed, say aid workers, adding that almost 30 people have died in the camps due to various illnesses.
“We are proud people and don’t want to beg. It hurts a lot that we have to live like animals here,” says Noral Islam, 42, in a camp in Assam’s Dhubri district. “But we are scared. If we go back, they will kill us.”
Even in the camps, there is a feeling of insecurity.
The rate of murders has slowed in recent weeks, but killings still occur every few days, despite the heavy presence of police and paramilitary who are seen patrolling the area with red flag tied the sides of their side mirrors – a warning sigh to rioters.
At night, men in the camps sleep outside in the compound on school desk and benches, taking shifts to guard, while women and children sleep on the floors inside the classrooms.
Many will be unlikely to return given the extent of violence, fear and mistrust between Bodos and Muslims.
They will need to be relocated and rehabilitated. Only then will they be able to at least attempt to rebuild their shattered lives after such horrors.