Monday, April 21, 2008

''We will have to camp here till the war lasts''

The Dornapal camp in Chhattisgarh is a temporary home to a group of people caught between fear and hope. They are civilian members of Salwa Judum who the government hopes will fight what the Prime Minister called “India’s most serious internal security threat”—the Naxals. MILIND GHATWAI spends 24 hours at the relief camp at Dornapal

A long stretch of road lined by trees leads to an abrupt bald patch. The transition tells you something: when the enemy is lurking in the forests, clearing the land of vegetation is the only way to stymie the enemy and keep death at a distance.

The road leads you to Dornapal, the biggest relief camp in Chhattisgarh, where victims of Naxal violence and members of Salwa Judum, the civil militia set up by the state government to counter the Maoist rebels, are taking shelter. Thousands of villagers have been living in the camp for nearly three years, wondering if they will ever get back to their homes.

They could return to their villages without informing anyone but that would be choosing certain death. For waiting in the forests are the Naxalites, angry that the villagers, instead of being on their side in their battle against the state, opted to live in camps managed by the government.

The Sunday Express spent 24 hours in the camp to know what this fearful existence has done to the villagers, who now find themselves trapped in a fight where the dead on both the sides are their own people, an existence so fraught with uncertainty that the Supreme Court on March 31 questioned the very grounds for the Salwa Judum’s creation.

Fear stalks the camp at night but recedes with the morning. Living in the camp for nearly three years has somewhat blunted the fear. There is instead a conflicting mix of normality and desperation.

“We are in the middle of nowhere,” says Savlam Aayetu, a 45-year-old Salwa Judum activist. “We have not covered new areas in the last few months because the state Government and the police have stopped backing us. The Government is neither talking to the extremists nor taking the movement forward,” he says.

One of the Salwa Judum’s tactics involved emptying villages in troubled areas in a bid to isolate the Naxalites. Displaced villagers have taken shelter in camps where the Government provides food rations and the security is taken care of by special police officers (SPOs) and official agencies. SPOs are victims of Naxal violence and have been trained and armed by the state to protect these camps.

“Though we are free to move around, we still feel like we are in a prison. We can’t go back because the Naxalites will kill us,” Aayetu says, recalling how the Naxals had put a gun to his head. He had been blindfolded and taken to a local politician and asked, “Is he your God?”

The idea was to instill fear among villagers to stop them from approaching politicians, taking up government jobs, sending their children to school or even voting.

This approach forced villagers to become part of the Salwa Judum but, having joined it, they feel trapped. The movement itself has come under criticism with tales of atrocities committed by activists and reports that people have been arbitrarily evicted. The Supreme Court comment was one more negative for the civil militia.

Living within the confines of the camp has not been easy for the villagers. Only the hope of returning home has kept them going. Activists like Aayetu are so desperate that they think talking to the Naxals is a good idea because it will not only stop the cycle of violence but also help end the conflict.

“Jab tak ye yudh chalega tab tak yahi rahna padega (We will have to camp here till the war lasts),” says 17-year-old Gujja Joga, sounding more cynical than his age.

In the camp, youngsters like Joga are growing in the company of guns-toting SPOs. Rifles and fatigues are a dominating feature in the camp. It’s common to find young children dangerously close to loaded rifles when SPOs are relaxing or listening to music on old transistors.

While activists talk of extreme steps, ordinary villagers have learnt to put fear behind them, at least during the day. They begin their day as early as 4 am and set out in groups for forests near their villages in search of mahua flowers, traditionally used to brew liquor and as a flavouring, and, for many, the only source of cash. It’s only in the third year in the camp that they have mustered the courage to leave its safe perimeters. But they come back by late afternoon or early evening never risking their lives in failing light. When the elders are out, UNICEF volunteers look after children, teaching them alphabets and numbers.

THE camp at Dornapal has residents from over 50 villages. Each village has its share of stories of torture and atrocities to share with the others.

Mannu, 25, a resident of Nagaram remembers how the Naxals would warn them against using tractors. “They do not want even roads. If you asked a question at their meetings, they immediately branded you a police informer.”

Santosh Nayak, among the relatively better-off tribals, has bought a house in Dornapal for Rs 17,000 from owners who did not want to live in the conflict zone. Despite owning the house he qualifies for free ration, electricity and water. He was kidnapped by Naxals from his Kosagoda village and kept in the jungle for days. “I don’t want to go back to the village because they may kill us,” says his father Vasuram. Kosagoda is far from the camp and deep in the forest so the Nayaks harbour no dreams of returning home till normality is restored, though he is not sure when that’ll happen. “There is no freedom here,” says Santosh, admitting that he feels awkward sitting idle.

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