Refugees without refuge

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

The government wants them out of the camps, while their homes are yet to be rebuilt. And payment of compensation is inadequate and erratic. The victims of Gujarat face an ever-increasing plight.

WHEN government officials in Vadodara ordered the closure of every relief camp except one, into which they crammed all the refugees, Zubeidabibi Mansoori was among those who were persuaded to return home. Two days later she was back at the camp. "They sent us from the camp even though our house had not been repaired. A fight broke out in the neighbourhood and we had to leave home once again," she said. By then the camp had become too crowded and Zubeidabibi's family and others from her neighbourhood were wondering where to go, when a builder offered to let them stay at one of his sites.

First, like most of the victims of the communal violence in Gujarat they were attacked and had to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Then they hid in street corners, fields and forests for days. When they made it to the relief camps, they lived in the most miserable conditions for three months, with no hope of returning. Many had no choice but to live in graveyards. Now, with the Gujarat government adamant about shutting down the camps, the refugees are left to fend for themselves. Although the government has stopped supplies to several camps, hundreds of refugees continue to live there. They cannot go back home because either they are still threatened or they do not have the money to rebuild their homes.

The Gujarat government claims that there are only 16 camps, housing 16,495 people, all over the State. However, a survey conducted on June 19 by Citizens Initiative, a prominent group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which is providing supplies to the camps, counted 30 camps in Ahmedabad alone, sheltering 38,200 homeless people. The government claims that there are only six camps in rural Gujarat. But it is well-known that many more exist; they have been delisted and supplies to them stopped. It is all said to be part of the Bharatiya Janata Party government's cover-up operation. It is apparently trying to get rid of the refugees in order to prove that the State is ready for Assembly elections. The BJP is hoping to win the elections by riding the Hindutva wave and taking advantage of the terror that the Sangh Parivar has spread during the recent pogrom against Muslims.

"The government has stopped the supply of everything - food, water, electricity - in the camp," said Amanullah Khan, an organiser of the Vadali camp in Sabarkantha district. "We have 1,000 refugees in the Vadali camp. In our district there are five or six camps," he added. While the Gujarat government claimed that camps no longer existed in Sabarkantha, Khan maintained that people who went back to their villages were returning to the camps. "Just yesterday, around 100 people came back," Khan told Frontline on June 25. "They are threatened by local leaders. Some are facing an economic and social boycott. Others are scared of what may happen on July 12, when the Jagannath Rath Yatra procession will be taken out. Riots have broken out during this festival in the past," said Khan.

The monsoon will make life in the camps even more difficult. A survey of 19 camps in Ahmedabad, conducted from June 14 to 18 by the Citizens Initiative, showed that only nine had made arrangements to shelter people during the monsoon. This and the possibility that the camps may be shut down anytime have seen many people moving into their relatives' homes or to rented houses. The camps need Rs.30 worth of rations per person daily, whereas the government provides supplies (both in cash and in kind) worth only Rs.7. Medical care is also inadequate. The survey showed that four camps had not received any medical aid and that jaundice was spreading in five camps. Although legal assistance is urgently needed, only four camps have received offers of legal aid.

But the government remains unconcerned. "Short of throwing people out on the streets, officials are using every tactic to pressure people into leaving," said an organiser of Citizens Initiative. "They have stopped ration and water supplies. Monsoon shelters haven't been built. They tell people that they will not get three months' free ration, to which they are entitled, unless they leave the camp." Even registered camps are not supplied the full ration quotas. At the Shah Alam camp in Ahmedabad, the biggest in Gujarat, the government is supplying rations enough for 7,300 people, although the camp shelters 12,150 refugees. "Officials take a head count in the camp in the afternoon, when most people are out. They are unwilling to accept the numbers listed in the camp register," said the Citizens Initiative organiser.

"How long can the government feed them?'' asked S.M.F. Bukhari, the State government's chief coordinator of relief. "We have given them cheques to repair their homes and also sufficient time to construct their homes," he said. When it was pointed out that 70 per cent of the people had not received any compensation and that in the case of those who were given cheques the amounts were often as low as Rs.71 and averaged between Rs.2,000 and 3,000, Bukhari said: "What we are giving is assistance, not compensation. Aid is given as per the government engineers' estimates." So far the government has spent Rs.62.08 crores on rehabilitation. With Chief Minister Narendra Modi claiming that 95 per cent of the rehabilitation work is complete, how the rest of the Rs.150-crore Central aid will be used remains to be seen.

Rehabilitation is not merely distributing cheques. In Halol, a camp that has vanished from government records, several refugees want to return home before the monsoon but have not been able to. "We have a lot of land. We want to go back before the monsoon and put up the roof of our house. But the sarpanch would not let us return. The police arranged several meetings with them, but they say they don't want Muslims in their village. It is our village as well," said Madinabibi Pathan from Pavagad village in Panchmahals district.

People from Randhikpur village, in Panchmahals district, have also not been able to return home. Many have camped in nearby Baria village after the Godhra relief camp was shut down. They are still waiting for tempers to cool down and to be accepted back into the village. Several Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders in the area have been named as accused in the cases of mass murder, rape and looting of Muslims in the village and these people are now trying to intimidate the victims into getting the police cases withdrawn. In the few places where voluntary organisations are helping people rebuild their houses, they are finding it hard to recruit local workers. "They are still scared to have any kind of interaction with the Muslim community," said Sejal Dand, from Anandi, an NGO that is rebuilding homes at Boru village in Panchmahals district. In some places, Hindu residents are being forced by local leaders and goons to boycott Muslims socially and economically.

Although the government insists that Gujarat is back to normal, stray incidents of violence continue. In Vadodara, at least four minor clashes occurred in June. With many of their assailants still unpunished, Muslims do not think it is safe to return home. The appointment of K.P.S. Gill, former Director-General of Punjab Police, as security adviser to the Gujarat government has not been as effective as the media projected it would be. The police are still to take action against many of the accused, and several cases have not yet been filed. For example, in Ahmedabad, only 936 cases have been registered and 3,900 people arrested, a small number considering that 440 people died and around 60,000 were made homeless in the city.

Gujarat's refugees may have disappeared from government lists, but they still remain in the relief camps or in their relatives' houses, waiting to go back home. Only genuine help, rather than coercion, will actually reduce their numbers in the camps.

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