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Life among the graves

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST



A survivor of the Gujarat riots attempts to come to terms with the past - and the present.

IT is a searing day in Ahmedabad, in the sombre, forlorn summer of 2002. Khaled Noor Mohammed spends most of his waking hours sitting vacantly at the imposing gate of the Shah-e-Alam dargah, as he has done for more than two months since the mass violence that tore apart Gujarat first broke out. The medieval shrine has been transformed into a spartan makeshift sanctuary for over ten thousand devastated women and men, girls and boys. In its normally serene courtyards, where throngs of pilgrims used to gather for worship in happier times, these internal refugees are trying to come to terms with their sense of profound collective betrayal, horror and bereavement, and their abrupt lapse into destitution. The wounds that have ravaged some of their bodies - festering burn injuries caused by fire and acid, dagger and trishul, and amputations - are slowly healing. But not so the lacerations on their souls.

As Khaled looks back on the seventy five years of his life's journey, it is as though, for him, its most significant landmarks were a series of major communal riots. He speaks of them the way others talk about personal life events: births, deaths, weddings. He recounts their blood-splattered trail. The Partition riots of 1947, in which he lost his father, then the riots of 1969, which broke a long interlude of peace, the Jagannath riots of 1985, the sectarian violence that followed in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, and now the ferocious carnage of 2002.

"I have seen many riots," Khaled says, "and each time we have moved on. But this hullad was completely different. My body may still have strength, but this riot has just broken my back, and my spirit. In earlier hullads, they killed our men and attacked our homes and shops. But women and children were mostly spared. Never before has there been this merciless burning alive of our people, even of infants and small children. Never before this mass rape and humiliation of our women. Never before have so many of us been rendered so completely homeless.

"I have seen such things with my own eyes. Others have only heard stories of the horrors, but I have seen them. As I try to sleep, their memories haunt even my dreams. I lie awake at night, without rest. I try to find solace in prayer, and I recite my namaaz, but I hear the terrified screams of women and children and the menacing roar of the mobs. My mind is cracking up. It is beyond human tolerance. Insaan ke dimag ke limit ke baahar hai."

Khaled was born in a village in Gulbarga in Karnataka. His parents worked as wage labourers, earning an uncertain ten rupees a month. He recalls also that his father was an amateur wrestler and body-builder, and Khaled himself grew up to share this passion. Khaled was the eldest child among six brothers and sisters. The Partition riots ravaged Gulbarga, as they did large tracts of the country. The marauders killed not only his father, but all the adult men of his joint family, his father's two brothers and a cousin.

Khaled, unschooled, still in his teens, became the head of the family. Work was scarce in the endemic drought fields of Gulbarga, therefore Khaled migrated with his widowed mother and five younger brothers and sisters to seek his fortune in the prosperous industrial city of Ahmedabad.

There were many odd jobs that he did in the early years. He worked in hotels, in melas, even dug graves in the cemetery at twelve annas (roughly the equivalent of 75 paise) per grave. He recalls with satisfaction that as a young man, he had acquired no bad habits. He would eat whatever was cooked in the house and outside it he only drank tea and ate paan twice a day. He saved money. In 1962, Khaled was married to his first cousin, the daughter of his father's elder brother. They moved to Naroda, and as the years passed, he built two homes. One was in the name of his wife, the other was for his son Sharmuddin.

Khaled specialised in house painting. He taught his son the same trade, initially just white-washing, later colour painting as well. In time, he became a small contractor, and employed two or three workers. He was particularly sought after by the Patels. "I never had any enmity with any Hindu all my life," he recalls.

His mother lived with him to the age of hundred. Khaled married off his two sisters, one in Mumbai, the other in Ahmedabad. He also got his brothers married, mostly within their own family: because who else would give their daughters to boys who hardly knew where their next meal would come from. He found work for two of his brothers, one in the cotton mills, one in a hotel. The mills closed down, and one brother bought a rickshaw. The other, Ibrahim, took to drink and eventually died. "My brothers turned away from me as they grew up, and have lost contact with me. It is only Ibrahim who would visit me every week, but he is no longer alive," said Khaled.

Khaled found a bride for his son six years ago. They had two children, one five years old and one two years younger. "My daughter-in-law was a fine woman, very simple, and she read the Koran daily. My son Sharmuddin too was regular with his namaaz," said Khaled. Khaled's daughter, who was nine months pregnant with her first child, had come to her parents' home for her delivery. Close to their home lived his wife's younger sister with her husband and children. The three families slept in separate homes, but they ate and lived together, sharing all their joys and sorrows.

This was Khaled's world. Today nothing of it survives. It was annihilated by the murderous frenzy of the carnage.

THE news of the horrific killings in Godhra on February 27 reached them at Naroda. There was palpable tension in the air. However, they did not believe that they would be attacked. Khaled said, "After all, we in Naroda were mostly working class people. We had lived together in peace for so many years." Khaled and his large family were in their homes on the morning of February 28 drinking tea, preparing food. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had declared a bandh in protest against the Godhra killings, so they were all indoors.

The attack was as brutal as it was unexpected. Three truck loads of young men arrived, dressed in khaki shorts and saffron vests. They were armed with swords and trishuls, and raised slogans, shouting "maro, maro".

It turned their blood cold. Everyone ran out of their homes in a blind panic, and Khaled was separated from the rest of his family. Some young Muslim men tried to muster a resistance by throwing stones, but they had no weapons, and were no match for the ferocity of the attacking mobs.

Khaled, petrified, hid himself the whole day on the roof of a dhaba. The young men who had arrived on trucks were joined by employees of the State Transport workshop, who supplied diesel and petrol to the attackers. The crowd of attackers swelled further with the accretion of strangers, criminal gangs and a few local people. Houses were looted and scorched and the air was dense with smoke, the screams of people set ablaze, women being assaulted, children dying, and the gut-churning odour of burning human flesh. It is the nightmare of those hours that continues to haunt Khaled in his sleepless vigil at the relief camp.

In the evening, the dhaba where Khaled crouched was also attacked, and detonated by releasing the contents of its cooking gas cylinder. Khaled escaped just on time once again, and choking in the thick smoke, he groped his way to their home.

Near his house, he found still alive his five-year old grandson Asif. The little boy's body was almost completely burnt, and dripping with blood. Khaled carried him into his home, which had still not been attacked. He fed the child some bread, weeping. The boy said to him - "Abbu Dada, don't cry out loud, or they will kill you as well. They burned them all, my mother, my father, my grandmother, my little brother. Only you and I are left." And then he died in his grandfather's arms. "He was a wonderful child," Khaled said. "Only five years old, but so intelligent. And until the end he was worried about me."

He searched like a man possessed for the bodies of his loved ones. But the heaps of charred and maimed bodies were so disfigured that it was impossible to identify the remains of all those with whom he had shared his life. It was made even more difficult by the impenetrable swirling smoke, the fading evening light, and the tears that clouded the old man's eyes.

The only body he found was of his daughter Kausar. Nine months pregnant, the baby due any day. When he found her, her mouth was caked with froth, her stomach cut open, the foetus burned by her side.

The survivors of the massacre, Khaled among them, hid in the darkness of the killing fields, not knowing whether they would live to see the next dawn. The first word of tentative, tenuous hope spread through whispers. Trucks had been sent by the organisers of the Shah-e-Alam Dargah to rescue those who were still alive. Constables of the Railway Protection Force had retrieved a little of the compassion that was so completely lost to their counterparts in the State police: they too garnered their trucks for rescue. The survivors were packed, body pressed against body, into the waiting vehicles, and they left for the sanctuary of the dargah.

Women and children wailed, the men tried to hold back their weeping, as the crowds of survivors swelled to several thousands at the dargah. Each brought with them their unspeakable tales of horror. In the days that followed, nearly a hundred similar camps with more than one hundred thousand people came up in the city - in dargahs, schools and even graveyards, wherever they felt safe.

The first few nights they lay on the bare floors of the courtyards, used normally for prayer. Volunteers prepared food, which they ate collectively in large aluminum plates, eight or ten people together. Others tended the wounded and the sick. Frayed canvas covers and shamianas were hurriedly erected for the women and children. No government officials helped set up or run the camps, as they had in riots of the past. The stunned survivors were busy mostly with the everyday acts of basic subsistence, milk for the children, medicines for the wounded, finding places in the open for toilets and bathing of women who normally remained in purdah.

But Khaled would sit apart from them all. He still nurtured an unsteady, fading hope that someone from his large family may have survived. His little grandson Asif had told him that they were all dead. But maybe someone was still alive.

Almost a week later, as Khaled routinely searched the faces of the new arrivals to the camp, his heart leapt at the sight of a familiar face. It was his wife's sister's son Javed. In the three families that had lived as one, which Khaled had headed and tended, only this one, Javed, had survived. Eight members of his family were dead: his wife, son, daughter-in-law, their two sons, his wife's sister, her husband and their daughter.

Khaled held Javed close to his chest. There is an irony that Allah had chosen to save the one boy whom the family mostly considered a waster. Javed had refused to study, chewed tobacco, and from the age of twelve, began to work as a conductor in a rickshaw bus. He was now fourteen, orphaned, his only living family member his irascible uncle Khaled.

Javed was with his mother until she died in what he described as a "ball of fire". As the screaming crowds in Naroda had tried to escape, all exit paths were blocked. It was often policemen who drove them into the hands of mobs armed with petrol and diesel, pipes and daggers. The open road in which Javed and his family were trapped was blocked by throngs of men, who doused them with diesel, petrol and oil. First the children, then the older men and women. Javed, screaming, clung to his mother's hand. Many of the men were drunk. Most of them were strangers. But those who led them for the attack on their homes were their own neighbours.

There were screams all around. "Bachao... bachao... maro... maro..." From the top of the surrounding houses, people - including their neighbours - threw burning logs and blankets to feed the fire. The multitude below, trying in vain to escape, maddened with terror, got engulfed in the swirling, racing, inexorable embrace of the conflagration.

Javed's hair was singed, his feet and trousers were burnt. But somehow he managed to run away. It was dark by the time he crept into his home. He put on a fresh pair of trousers, and then began to run for his life. He ignored the excruciating pain, the marauding mobs, the screaming, burning people, the blazing houses... He just ran blindly, kilometre after kilometre, until he reached his seth's home. The seth was a Hindu, the owner of the rickshaw bus in which he worked as a conductor.

The seth was distressed to see his fresh burns, and immediately drove him to the nearest government hospital. He left Rs.150 with Javed for food. Javed was unconscious for two days, with 20 per cent burns. Each time he came round, he remembered his mother burning. The inferno, the wails. But the hospital compounder was kind to him, and nursed him, urging him to be strong.

Six days later Javed was discharged, and the compounder took him to the Shah-e-Alam camp. He had heard that the survivors of the Naroda massacre were gathered there.

It was at the gate of the dargah that he found his old uncle Khaled. Together they had to come to terms with the terrible truth that of their large and closely bonded joint family, only the two of them remained in the world.

Khaled had resolved that he would sell his property at whatever price it would fetch, collect his compensation, and return for the rest of his life to his village in Gulbarga with Javed. There was no work there, but at least they would live in peace. However, compensation eludes them. The authorities insist on death certificates of those who are dead, and Khaled has these only for his grandson Asif. The rest had been buried anonymously in mass graves, their charred bodied disfigured beyond recognition. But Khaled is told that they will be declared to be 'missing persons', and it may take even seven years before he would become entitled to the relief.

In the village, his old mother-in-law, who is also his aunt, still lives. They spoke to her on the telephone and assured her that they were all well. "She will surely die when she knows the truth," Javed said with the ruthless assurance of a child.

It is only Javed now who binds Khaled to life, even though it is by a thin, frayed string. A boy who had gone astray, about whom his parents would worry and despair, that no good would come of him. Today Javed says: "I want to grow up to be a good man, one whom my parents would be proud of, one who will bring light and honour to their good name. I am not sure what I will do. But I will not go back to being a bus conductor. Maybe I will sell watches, or toys, or clothes."

He has already given up chewing tobacco. In our subsequent visits to the camp, we found his face well scrubbed, his hair neatly oiled and combed. At the camp, he has volunteered to serve food in shifts to the ten thousand residents, a job which keeps him busy for the greater part of the day.

Khaled continues to intone: "May even my worst enemies not have to see what I have seen. In earlier riots, I had found the strength to move on, each time. But this time, I feel utterly broken. It is only for this boy that I still live..."

As we spoke at the camp, the temperatures rose to a ruthless 45C. Men, women and children sat alone with their thoughts, or tried fitfully to sleep, or paced restlessly in the heat. We shifted to the shade of the graveyard adjoining the dargah, where young volunteers had gathered small children in a makeshift school, to study, play and forget for some moments the horror of their memories that had become their lifetime's legacy. We watched with wonder as the laughter of the traumatised children rang out from between the graves.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 22, 2002.)



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