Sixteen graves, fresh mounds, lie forlorn in the Malakpura camp in Shamli district. These swellings in the earth, mere knobs, enclosing within them the bodies of sixteen infants who succumbed to the winter chill of the refugee camp, were visible to all who cared to look. The government officials sitting at the other end of the camp however focused on their files, refusing to see that death was stalking this camp.
Malakpura camp is pitched some eighteen kilometers away from Shamli, the epicenter of the communal riots earlier this year, which shattered its glorious legacy of inter communal peace. The camp accommodates more than 4500 people, all in extremely grim conditions. Three months after the riots, around 15000 people continue to live in the camps – basic facilities are absent. The camp is overflowing with human excreta; you can barely walk without stepping into it, no matter how careful you are.
Md. Usman, whose staple in the camp has become plain chapattis and salt, offered to share his mealwith us. “Had you people come to my village in Tagan before the riots, I had more to serve you with, but now I have only this for you,” he burst into tears. Usman is living on one kidney, which too is acutely affected by stones. He told us thatever since he arrived in the camp, he has not received the required medical attention essential for his survival on one damaged kidney.
Twenty deaths have been reported so far from this camp: some due to exposure to cold, others due to diseases and infections in the dearth of any medical care available to them.
Adjacent to the camp, was a tent of the Government officials, who had come on a visit to these camps –the first in the past three months, alleged, the people living in these shelters. After our persistence, the team of government officials headed by the Chief Medical Officer, Lokesh Kumar Gupta and Dr. A.S. Rathor, Director General of Medical Health, agreed to visit the other camps located in the district with us.
Dr. Rathorshrugged his shoulders, disregarding our query on the number of deaths in these camps; the media reports we cited,which claimed that more than 100 people had perished in these camps so far, were dismissed as a farce by a vindictive media bent on defaming the government of the Uttar Pradesh. Later when he was taken to the graveyard in the camp, which screams of the death of several children due to cold and infections, his was a standard bureaucratic response: “we need to investigate into the matter”. It was a Kafkasque moment: the state refusing to recognize the death of citizens on grounds that it had not issued death certificates to the deceased.
On reaching the Nurpur camp, located some few kilometers away from the Malakpura camp, which houses thirteen hundred people, we witnessed even worse conditions, there was no medical camp, no sanitation facility, no water supply – all we could see was dilapidated tents, terribly exposed to chilly winters which has already set in, and the gloomy faces with no hope for a better future.
Confusing our team of Jamia Students’ Solidarity Forum to be a government delegation, one of the inhabitants burst out in anger:“we have no hopes from you, if you have come here to give us consolations,I request you to please make an arrangement for us so that we can go back to our villages safely and stay there as we did before.”
It was only after we convinced them that we were not part of any government body that they opened up to us and spoke frankly about the gross negligence they have been enduring since they moved into the camp.
People at the camp told us that the government had made absolutely no arrangements for medical aid – and the CMO and the Director General were the first high-level government officials to visit the camp. They of course did not know that even today, these officials had only reluctantly dragged their feet here after we had more or less forced them to come with us to acknowledge the deaths which have taken place so far.
Two deaths have been reported from the camp; both of them were children of fewer than five years of age. The government officials in explanation could only give an assurance of medical facilities reaching here. Those living in this camp also claimed that this relief shelter is not registered in the Government books, which alienates it further from any kind of relief reaching here.
As we then moved towards the Suneticamp site, the burden of what we had seen that day weighed heavily on our minds, tales of horror layering our sub conscience. We braced ourselves for what we were to see in Suneti. But nothing had prepared us for the horrendousness of the Suneti camp.
There was filth and grime everywhere. Infants lay on the muddy ground, a thin sheet serving as bed. People refused to speak out in front of us fearing repercussion from the side of government officials with us. An old women spoke bitingly: “Everything is good here, for the past three months we are having a life of luxury which we could have never imagined in life before, so please go from here, we don’t need any one’s help.” Shockingly,Dr. Rathor chose to take these words at their face value, refusing to recognize the pain hidden in the old woman’s remark, and directed his people to move to the next camp, until we stopped him from proceeding.
Our Investigations revealed that so far six people have died in the last fifteen days here, the names are as following: Fatima (4 years); Firdaus (6 days)Zoya (5 years) Firoz (20 days) Umar (8 days) Sadil (4 years). However, the government officials turned a deaf ear to the parents narrating the tragic stories of their children killed by cold and disease in the camps. This ignited anger among the victims living here and they surrounded the vehicle of the Chief Medical officer and threatened not to leave until he acknowledged the death of their children.
The CMO fled the area in another car but he was chased down by the villagers and our team, and was stopped at distance of two kilometers from theSuneti area. He was let to go only after an assurance that he wouldtake into cognizance all the deaths and complete all the legal formalities in establishing the deaths at the soonest.
It was already past ten in the night when decided to return to Delhi after concluding our relief operations for the day. The sky was pitch dark and the fog came in thick and fast, enveloping us, as if in a cocoon. And yet the images of misery and helplessness we had witnessed today, the graves, the gaunt faces of those who had lost first their homes and hearth and then their children, pierced through the fog like lightening, almost blinding us, filling us all with frustration and despair. But then, quickly and quietly, we renewed our resolve to fight.