Friday, March 05, 2010

Tales of Agony from Relief Camps of Western Assam

Urmimala Sengupta
[This write up is a part of a study on a project titled” An initiative for peaceful co-existence: a look into the conflict profile in the bodo heartland and capacity building needs among the displaced populace in bodoland territorial autonomous district council” sponsored by National Foundation for India. ]

The conflict in BTAD area threw open, the flood gates of challenges to the affected lot in general and more particularly to the most vulnerable section of the society i.e. women and children. More than a decade has passed since the conflict took place in May 1996 and May 1998 but a large number of the victims belonging to both Bodo as well as Adivasi community continue to live a life devoid of any access to basic services such as health and education, coupled with continuous state of acute fear and uncertainty about future.

According to, “Action Plan for Rehabilitation of the Refugees, 1993, 1996 and 1998 Ethnic Violence”. Kokrajhar (1998) in May 1996 a total of 42,214 families consisting of 202684 persons were rendered homeless. And these displacees were sheltered in 61 relief camps. The report further states that the resumption of the conflict in May 1998 added to the number of displacees. Out of 48,556 families consisting of 3, 14,342 persons who were displaced from their native places, a total of 34,3,48 families consisting of 2, 19,108 inmates were sheltered in 63 relief camps in Kokrajhar and Gosssaigaon area.

Presently the number of relief camps in the BTAD area stands at thirty three (33). The total population of the relief camps as per government records is seventy one thousand six hundred and thirty (71,630). Out of the existing thirty three (33) relief camps the team research tried to visit as many camps as was possible. A total of twenty three (23) relief camps were visited during the course of the study.

The camp listed in table 5 and 6 were visited since August 2007.▄
Table: 5

Sl. No. Names of the Relief Camps District/ Circle
1 Joypur Kokrajhar revenue circle
2 Bishmuri Kokrajhar revenue circle
3 Vety.Complex,Bengtol Sidli – Chirang revenue circle
4 Joypur (A) Kokrajhar
5 Joypur (B) Kokrajhar
6 Bishmuri (B) Kokrajhar
7 Runikhata & Bhurpar Sidli-Chirang
8 Serfunguri (SATC) Gossaigaon
9 Hazarkia Gossaigaon
10 Golajhar Gossaigaon
11 Bhumka-Maligaon Gossaigaon
12 Santipur Gossaigaon
13 Kachugaon Gossaigaon (Encroacher)
14 Sapkata Gossaigaon (Encroacher)
15 Hakama Gossaigaon
16 Alengibazar Kokrajhar
17 Anthiabari - Tinali Kokrajhar

Table : 6

Sl No. Partly Rehabilitated Camps District/ Circle
1. Patgaon(Adivashi) Gossaigaon
2. Deosri(B) Sidli-Chirang
3. Alengibazar Gossaigaon
4. Dhanpur(Karigaon) kokrajhar
5. Athiabari-Tiniali Gossaigaon
6. Simbergaon Kokrajhar

The following section will deal at length with the many difficulties faced by children youth and women living in the camps. During the course of the study it was observed that the conflict which brought along the pangs of displacement had some direct effect on the education, nutrition and health of the children, youth and women.

1.1 Education


Prior to the conflicts too the education scenario was not satisfactory. Nevertheless, villages in the area had excess to at least primary and at many places secondary schools. But the functioning of the existing schools began to be hampered as the Bodo movement changed its techniques and started taking resort to violence and bandhs (closure of schools, colleges, offices and business establishments) for achieving its goal. Owing to frequent bandhs in the area schools as well colleges were unable to cover their syllabus on time. This backlog became an obstacle for many who desired to further pursue their studies elsewhere.

Soon after the inter-ethnic clashes there was further deterioration in the over all educational scenario of the area. The following section accounts for the challenges, which some of the victims of the conflict continue to face even today.

Field Findings

One of the immediate effects of conflict on the education of the children is disruption/discontinuation of schooling. Here too the situation is not different. Soon after the conflict erupted, schools were closed down not for security reasons alone but also because schools were been used as shelters by those affected by conflict.

A sizeable number of young boys and girls living in the relief camps were school goers when the unfortunate incident took place. The conflict which was followed by displacement, to be more exact continued displacement did not give them any chance of resuming their studies. However, Runikatha - Bhurpar camp is among few camps which have access to government school. The school is in fact situated at a stone throw distance from the camp but the children of the camp are unable to avail the benefits of education. The research team was surprised to come across children who were in standard II and III but were not in a position to recognize alphabets from their text books. Explaining the reason as to why children could not recognize the alphabets Dara Kisko an elderly camp inmate said,

“They cannot learn anything, their teacher speaks in Assamese and they do not understand Assamese. We can speak in Assamese because we had Assamese friends and neighbors. But these children grew up speaking only their mother tongue. They just go to school for the sack of it.”

Since the children from this Adivasi camp speak only Adivasi languages (Santhali, Orang etc.) they fail to comprehend the medium (Assamese) of instruction and the language of their teachers who speak in Assamese. Hence, they lack interest in their lessons and most of them end up learning nothing.

According to UNICEF report on the “The State of the World’s Children 2001”, the period from birth to three (3) years age is a very crucial period in a child’s life. It says that this period “influences how the rest of childhood and adolescence unfolds” 1. However this important phase is more then often neglected by policy makers in this part of the world.

On a visit to Golajar camp in Gossaigaon which has a population of four thousand one hundred and seventy three (4,173) out of this the population of minors stands at

seventeen hundred (1,700), the research team noticed similar neglect on the part of the policy makers. Most of children in the camp aged between 2.5-8 yrs were playing with piglets and chicks. When the team expressed its surprise on the way the children were playing, Kunti Besra an old lady and grand mother of two of the children playing said:

“These piglets need supervision and our children need recreation, so I allow my grandsons to play with them. Otherwise in this place they have nothing else to do.”

Not only this, in the absence of any educational package that could allow the conflict-displacement induced school dropouts to resume their studies the number of frustrated, unskilled youth has reached an alarming level. The level of dissatisfaction among the young brigade could be well estimated from what an inmate of Vet. Complex Bangtol camp Sibu Besra, a 20 year old, high school dropout said:

“How can anyone think of going to school it such a situation. We could not come out of the horror of conflict, and attend schools. And after so many years I don’t want to study any more. Our lives will continue to be as it is. No one ever did any thing and they will never do any thing for us.”

This is not the voice of Sibu alone; his frustrations are echoed by his counterparts living in similar situation elsewhere. Dhiru Madri from Runikatha –Bhurbar camp echoes the sentiment of Sibu Besra. Madri says:

“I was in class 6 when the conflict took place. I was the brightest of my six siblings. My family had high expectations from me. But today everything has changed, I could not complete my studies, tell me who can study when there is constant fear and uncertainty. I could not fulfill the expectations of my family. I have no work here so I and my friends loiter around the whole day.”

The position of girl child and her accessibility to education needs a special mention here. During the conflict as well as in the post conflict situations girls not only lose their freedom of mobility; they also have to compromise on certain other spheres of life, education is one such sacrifice which is both expected and made mostly by the female child of the family. Bimla Murmu of Runikatha-Bhurpar camp is one such case. In spite of the easy accessibility of education, Bimla is not in position to avail it. When the researchers enquired as to why Bimla did not go to school. She said:

“How will I go to school, my mother has gone out to work and I have to look after my siblings and my ailing grandmother. My father died few years back. He died of dysentery.”

However in camps like Kasugaon the education scenario is not as deplorable, thanks to the initiatives taken by Lutheran World Service (LWS). Rupa Tiru’s success is a testimony of healthier education environment that prevails in Kasugaon camp. Ms. Tiru a standard X student harbors a positive attitude towards life. She says:

“I know there are many problems in our lives but I think if I study well things will change for better, Even our teachers say so.”

When she was asked about her aim in life she promptly replied that she wanted to be a teacher. Braving the daily hazards of camp life Ms. Tiru attends her classes regularly and she was found to have command over the subjects taught to her. English been her favorite subject she un hesitantly recited some lines from Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.”

However, the research team learned from the elderly persons of the camp that the school service provided by LWS would end in 2007. Besides the ray of hope which was more than evident in the bright eyes of young Rupa, the overall education scenario in the camps in BTAD area wears a gloomy look

1.2 Health and Sanitation

The boons of popular health schemes like National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) are yet to be received by the relief camp dwellers. Most of the camps do not have access to health care centers. However, Vet. Complex Bangtol camp, which shelters five hundred and twenty eight (528) inmates, is an exception. The health center of the area is situated just opposite to Bangtol Vet. Complex camp. But surprisingly the camp dwellers prefer quacks to doctors and indigenous herbs to medicine. When the team desired to learn as to why things were so, the president of the camp Damu Besra informed the research team,

“When anyone in the camp falls sick they don’t go to the health centre, because there is no medicine there. So, the inmates prefer to be at home rather than going to the health centre. The health centre staffs suggest us to buy medicines from market. Tell me what is the use of going there?”

Moreover, the nutrition level of the inmates needs a thorough study. Presently the camp inmates are entitled to ration for only 10 days in a month. The ration consists of only rice. There is no especial consideration for pregnant women or growing children. Biru Hasda from the same camp complains:

“In a month we get ration for 10 days only. An adult gets 600gms and children get 400gms of rice. We don’t have any means of livelihood here. Some inmates fish from the nearby lakes, pond etc. Some work in small business establishments. This is how we have been surviving all these years. No one thinks for us. When you return to the city please tell someone to help us.”

Not only this, as a matter of fact pregnant and lactating mothers did not receive adequate attention and care in the relief camps, during the months immediately after conflict. Sukumari Hasda ex-secretary of Adivasi Mahila Samity (AMS) speaks about the hazards that she and her colleagues had to take while lobbying for baby food for the new born. Ms. Hasda said:

“Expecting mothers ate nothing for days, so you can imagine the condition of babies born out of hungry mothers. These women were not in a position to feed their new-born. I am a women I could understand the condition of the mothers. So, our samity decided to do something for the new borns. Some of us even went to Dispur so that the babies have something to eat. The situation was so tensed but keeping aside all our fear we visited the administration, and ultimately baby foods were supplied to camp inmates.”

Complications during pregnancy, childbirth, claimed many lives. Narration from an eye witness of one such incident follows. Tikhri of Vet. Complex Bangtol camp said:

“Immediately after the conflict, many women had to give birth to children in the open, without any medical attention or help from mid-wives. I myself have seen a lady wailing during her labour pain, but there was no one to help her and she ultimately died. I will never forget this incident in my lifetime.”

Decades have passed but little has changed and child birth continues to take place in the dingy, unhygienic dwellings of the inmates. Vet. Complex Bangtol is not the only exception, this trend can be observed in other camps as well. However the reason for this varies. For Bangtol camp inmates the nearby health center do not have adequate health facilities to assist during child birth, according to Bismuri camp inmates the health machineries are situated too far to be accessed by a women who is undergoing labour pain. This is what Sundari Tiru had to say:

“Doctors have never visited us, though a sign board reads nearest health centre Patgaon, but we don’t go there, it is too far for us. Even male inmates who fall sick cannot go to Patgaon. How can a pregnant woman go? When we fall sick we visit pharmacists in Bismuri area. And there are dhai maa’s (mid-wives) to assist us during child birth.”

Besides this at many other camps like Hazarkia, Golajhar, Bhumka-Maligaon the inmates were found to be unaware of schemes under NRHM which gives incentives to the mother for delivering child in government health centers.

WHO defines health as, a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity 2. Mental wellness refers to a positive attribute, such that a person can reach enhanced levels of mental health, even if they do not have any diagnosable mental health condition. This definition of mental health highlights emotional well-being, the capacity to live a full and creative life, and the flexibility to deal with life's inevitable challenges 3.

Going by the above definitions the inter-ethnic conflicts not only affected the victims physically, it also posed serious threat to victims’ mental health. Direct exposure to violence may result in acute psychological disorder. Conflict victims are vernarable to some of these long term psychological effects like lack of concentration, depression, anxiety etc. the research team came across such cases of conflict related psychological problems.Surprisingly it was found that there is no provision to help victims of conflict who were battling to come out of conflict related shocks. Tuli Besra, aged 80, an inmate of Bismuri camp is one such case. As per government records, the total population of the camp is two thousand three hundred and thirty four (2334). Ms. Tuli was found to be too shocked to narrate her pains. Her, son Mangal Murmu narrated the reason behind his mother’s silence –

“Don’t ask her anything she will not reply. She has stopped talking since that fateful day when twenty (29) members of our extended family were killed. She was witness to some of the killings. And since then she hardly talks.”

The difficulties faced by these camp dwellers are many however the problems faced by women and young girls have a different dimension which often goes unaddressed. In the initial days the relief camps did not provide for the much needed private space for the female inmates. Not only this, female inmates had to compromise on such bare necessities like maintenance of hygiene. Kamli Tiru (name changed) from Kasugaon relief camp where the number of female inmates is one thousand eight hundred and ninety eight(1,898), shares with the researchers the kind of adjustments that she and other females of the camp made during their menstruation period:

“We ran out of our homes without carrying anything. I could not find anything in the relief material which could help me to maintain minimum hygiene during those days, not even a piece of cloth. With no other option I started looking for some sort of isolation where I could site the whole day. Others also did the same. Please, don’t remain me of those horrible days.”

More then ten years down the lane females in the camps continue to be devoid of their ‘space’. The study found that there were no provisions of latrines for the inmates of the camps. Even today they continue to attend to nature’s call in the open or near the banks of rivers or streams. Simri Tudu from Bhumka-Maligaon says :

“During the day time we manage to go to the nearby woods. But at night we cannot go too far. So, at night we look for isolation and sit wherever possible.”

Though, these camp dwellers survived the inter-ethnic clashes. But their struggle for life continues to these days. Their biggest enemy today is – hunger, unemployment, and lingering fear of an unsecured future.

▄ Some of the camps have been visited more than once.


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