Victim as volunteer

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Yusuf (standing, third left) with children at the Naroda camp. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Yusuf (standing, third left) with children at the Naroda camp. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Yusuf, a victim of the post-Godhra riots, instead of wallowing in hatred and self-pity, chooses to help fellow victims get over the trauma.

TEARFUL relatives visited them at the Shah Alam relief camp in Ahmedabad, during the weeks after the post-Godhra carnage had devastated their home and neighbourhood in Naroda. Like the thousands who had sought refuge in the courtyard of the medieval dargah, Yusuf's family owned nothing except the clothes they wore when they escaped the massacre. In muted voices, many supportive relatives commiserated with them and offered them money to tide over these sombre times. Yusuf's father, Bhikabhai Mansuri, responded by stretching out his arms and pressing close to his shoulders his four sons. "I need no help," he told them proudly "Allah has given me four cheques, each of one crore rupees. My cheques are my sons."

Mansuri moved to Naroda in Ahmedabad more than half a century earlier, from a village in Sabarkantha district. He was still an infant. His father had died suddenly, and his widowed mother sought out support from her brother, a cotton mill worker in Ahmedabad. Naroda in those days had very few houses; the co-operative societies and the hive of one-room tenements were to come up later. Bhikabhai's mother worked as a farm labourer and raised her son, sending him to school. Even as a child he worked with his mother after school hours. After he passed his high school examination, he found full-time employment, first sweeping factory floors, later plying a hired auto-rickshaw. When he was recruited as a driver by the Ahmedabad municipal transport service his family regarded the permanent government employment as its good fortune.

Yusuf's grandmother, now in her seventies, continues to live with their family. Bhikabhai married Khalima Bahen, who came from a village near Gandhinagar. She bore him four sons. Yusuf was the eldest.

By the time Yusuf reached Class X, his father apprenticed him to a tailor he knew, to learn the craft of machine embroidery. The tailor exempted his friend's son from fees, and the boy learnt quickly. Within months, he began earning Rs.50 during the half-day after school. On holidays, he earned twice this amount.

Yusuf's friends, both in school and college, were all Hindu. None of them had to work like he did while they studied, but the comrades found time to go out together. Some of them had two-wheelers, and they often went to the cinema or just stood chatting for long hours at pan and cigarette stalls.

Halfway through college, Yusuf's father learnt that the bus company he worked for had a shortage of bus conductors. It was an opportunity they could not afford to miss. Yusuf applied, and was selected. He left his studies so that he could contribute more substantially to the family income. His younger brothers studied even less. One passed his Class X, the second failed even this, and the youngest gave his secondary school examination while at the relief camp. One brother, Salim, works as a tailor and stitches men's shirts and trousers. The other, Mushtaque, works as a driver for a private bus company.

Yusuf earned around Rs.500 a week as a bus conductor; a 100 he kept for himself, the rest he gave his mother. His bus ran on route number 112, from Lal Darwaza in Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar. He often worked on the evening shift, which continued up to midnight. He enjoyed his work most of all because it gave him the opportunity to help people. Often he would guide people who could not read, and would not know which bus to take. Sometimes destitute people would get on to the bus with no money in their pockets to pay for their tickets. He would see other drivers humiliate them, but Yusuf would respectfully invite them to travel in his bus. "I would feel that I have done something good."

He was retrenched in the winter of 2001, and went back to a tailor's shop and earned well from his skills in embroidery. By now, his responsibilities at home had increased. At the age of 22, he married Zarine, who bore him a son. His father named the little boy Adil, which means one who dispenses justice.

ON February, 27, 2002, Yusuf was working at the tailor's shop at Thakkar Nagar, five kilometres from Naroda. Around noon, hordes of communalists gathered and began setting fire to shops owned by Muslims. The news that a railway compartment had been set alight in Godhra railway station, and that kar sevaks, women and children returning from Ayodhya had been burnt alive swept the humble settlement like a sandstorm. Yusuf's co-workers were all Hindu, as was the owner of the shop. They hid him until the mob dispersed, and then stealthily he returned home.

The next day the entire family stayed away from work and remained indoors. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had given a bandh call, and tension was palpable. The news poured in feverishly all morning. Muslim eateries and shops had been gutted, and the mosque attacked. It was still morning when a menacing armed mob led by local VHP, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal leaders advanced towards their homes. Yusuf recognised many of his neighbours in the crowd, but none of his childhood Hindu friends joined in. The Muslim colony was surrounded on three sides by Hindu households. The mob advanced, setting fire to autorickshaws and handcarts. The invading men then entered the Muslim houses on the periphery. The homes were looted, and television sets, small refrigerators and furniture smashed. Cooking gas from cylinders were leaked and set aflame to blast the concrete walls of the small houses. Four men were burnt alive, a woman was stabbed in the stomach, and a young girl was raped and burnt. All the women and children had already been gathered in two houses further down the road for safety. One of these homes belonged to Yusuf's family.

The entrance to the main Muslim locality was blocked by Yusuf and other young men with an autorickshaw and handcart. Behind these stood a shield of young men, including Yusuf, determined to defend their homes and families as long as they could hold out. Stones flew from both sides. They were no match for the heavily armed mob, which set aflame the autorickshaw and handcart and smashed through their feeble defences.

As mobs began to loot houses, elders negotiated with them to save the lives of the survivors. An agreement was reached to give the residents half an hour to escape. They turned their backs on their homes and savings, and hastily escaped with their women and children to the Naroda police station.

They begged the sub-inspector to protect their properties, but he refused. They watched the flames rise to the sky from the direction of their houses, and the chilling tumult of explosions and rampaging mobs. Late that afternoon, a senior police officer drove in and directed that they should be transported to the Shah-e-Alam dargah. They were packed into police vans and driven in shifts through a burning city to the sanctuary of the dargah. That night, the people of Naroda counted their losses. Eleven lives and all their properties. The people of neighbouring Patiya had been much more unfortunate in that many more lives were extinguished.

The first night at the dargah, there were no sheets and many stretched out on the cold stone floor, others kept awake tending to old people, children and the bereaved. Food was cooked in hundreds of homes in the neighbourhood of the dargah, so that no one would go hungry, although many could not eat because of the horrors of what they had witnessed, and lost forever.

Yusuf lived eight months in the camp. "I learnt in those months what it is to subsist in complete penury, in conditions worse than that of fakirs." Yusuf looked down at his trousers as he spoke - buff-coloured, faded and badly frayed. "I was given these used trousers in the relief camp," he said. "Whenever I wear it, I am reminded of all that we went through. We had lost everything. People donated old clothes to us. I never knew a day would come when we would have to depend on charity even for the clothes we wear."

Yusuf's two-year-old son was constantly sick in the camp, so when his wife's parents offered to take them home, he readily sent his wife and child but, he stayed back, to look after his parents and grandmother.

Conditions in the camp were straitened and grim. On the fourth day, a head-count revealed that 11,537 men, women and children had taken refuge in the cramped confines of the camp. There were barely 18 toilets, which were rarely cleaned. Sometimes nine days passed before one got a chance to bathe.

In the early days, there was weeping all around. Yusuf's family was also inconsolable. Many people kept searching in the camp for missing loved ones. They hoped desperately that they had taken shelter in some other camp, and waited with dread for the news that they had not survived.

One afternoon, Yusuf and three other young men were taken by two police inspectors to identify the dead of Naroda. They found themselves in the burial ground at Dariyakhan Gumbath. In a large shallow pit, there were around 300 grotesquely mutilated and burnt bodies. One of Yusuf's companions identified the body of his khaala, or aunt. Yusuf felt his head spin, and began to retch. All other bodies were beyond recognition. "An ordinary person would have had a heart attack," he told me. He will struggle with the memories of this nightmare for a lifetime.

Curfew persisted for several weeks, therefore the camp became like a jail. But once peace was restored, Yusuf spoke to his Hindu friends on telephone. They often visited him, at the `borders' that had now been drawn between Muslim and Hindu settlements. Each time his friends met him, they pressed money into his hands to help him take care of his family. During the months that he was in the relief camp, they gave him a total of Rs.17,000.

IN the graveyard adjacent to the dargah, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) began classes for the children in the camp. Yusuf volunteered to work for them, and was rewarded by the laughter of children who forgot their hours of trauma.

Another organisation, under the umbrella of the Citizen's Initiative, made an appeal for peace volunteers or aman pathiks, young people from both communities who were called upon to pledge to give a year of their lives to help the survivors and rebuild harmony and trust between the estranged communities. Yusuf was quick to sign up.

The aman pathiks were trained in psycho-social counselling, as well as legal matters so that they could help the brutalised survivors come to terms with the enormity of their suffering, and file legal claims and police complaints on their behalf. They tended to the sick and wounded, built rain shelters, and identified the most vulnerable survivors for livelihood and shelter assistance.

Eight months after thousands huddled for safety in the Shah-e-Alam dargah, the relief camp was disbanded by the State government. The camp organisers abruptly gave them a day's notice to leave the sanctuary of the camp. Yusuf and his family found themselves back at Naroda. Their homes were razed or gutted, their neighbours still hostile. A small unrecognised makeshift camp came up in Naroda, where the residents gathered at night to sleep amidst the safety of numbers. In the light of day, they tried to rebuild their homes and looked for work. Yusuf's father returned to his permanent employment in the municipal bus company. Yusuf helped run the Naroda camp and formed a group to support the widows and their children.

It was just days before Id in December 2002 that Yusuf's family was devastated once again. His father, Bhikabhai was arrested on the charge of abetting the murder of the one Hindu man who lost his life in Naroda during the massacre. Whereas the majority of those who led the mobs that massacred innocent people and who were named in police complaints and statements still roam free, the death of one Hindu member of the mob led to a flurry of arrests, including that of Bhikabhai, who most residents agree is the gentlest of men who played no part even in the defence of the besieged Muslim settlement at Naroda.

The family learnt that Yusuf had also been charged with the same offence. He went and hid at the Vatwa camp at the other end of the city. Twenty days later, Yusuf furtively visited his bitter and disconsolate mother at Naroda, and was arrested.

It was the longest night of his life. Eight men were packed into the lock-up cell of the police station, a bare cold room, not much larger in space than could have fitted in two cots. In a corner, an unbearable stench emanated from an open chipped enamel bucket swarming with flies meant for them to urinate and defecate in. A naked bulb smouldered through the night, as the bleary-eyed inmates vainly tried to get some sleep.

The next day, December 23, 2002, the court ordered his remand to jail. It was the first time Yusuf had seen the inside of either a police station or a jail. "As I went through the tall gates of the Ahmedabad Central Jail, I learnt what slavery means. To have no freedom, no rights, no dignity, no protection."

He was stripped to his underwear and searched. His wallet was seized. He spent the first night in a cell for new entrants. Each inmate was given two thin blankets. Yusuf wrapped them around him but could not keep out the hard bite of the cold. He could not sleep because of the buzz of mosquitoes. The next morning, he was led to the jail hospital ward, where he was advised about the dangers of contracting AIDS in jail. He was then allocated his place in the barracks.

He was grateful that he was not sent to the same barracks as his father. It would have been too painful for both of them. They met during the few hours in the morning when men from various jail barracks were let out into the jail courtyard enclosed by high walls. His father would always try to prop up his spirits. "Think of it, Yusuf," he would tell his son, "Even Gandhiji was locked up in this prison. Who, then, are we?" Pointing out where Gandhiji was incarcerated, he would say, "Since we are innocent, Allah will protect us."

The jail itself was divided on communal lines. The VHP organised the supply of food for all Hindu prisoners charged with rioting and violence. Similarly, the Muslim inmates, including Yusuf and his father, were fed by the Jamaat.

Yusuf's barracks were mostly peopled by men accused of the Gulbarga and Shahpur slaughters. In the weeks they lived together, Yusuf developed some bonds with them. He found that very rarely were the leaders of the mobs arrested. The jails were full of the foot soldiers of the wars of hate. As they found themselves denied bail month after long month, they became increasingly restive and frustrated. They claimed that promises to engage the best lawyers to secure their release, and to take care of their families were not kept. Many vowed angrily that they would not allow themselves to be used as pawns again.

Yusuf's bail application was rejected by the sessions court. It was only after his charge-sheet was filed that his bail was sanctioned in an appeal to the Gujarat High Court. Yusuf walked out of the prison gates 91 days after his arrest. He appears in court every fortnight as his case is being heard. His father has also been released on bail.

Yusuf's greatest joy after his release was to be able to hold his son Adil to his chest again. It was agonising to watch him through the mesh of the screen that separated him from his wife, who would struggle to fight back her tears in the few minutes each week they were permitted to meet.

Yusuf's resolve is to continue to work as an aman pathik for the rest of his life. "I liked my work both as a bus conductor and embroider," he said. "But my life has changed. Being in jail has freed me from fear. The worst that can happen to me has happened, and I have survived it. It could not break me from within. I want now to spend my life helping innocent people get justice."

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