Al Jazeera Blogs


Asia

Fear reigns supreme in the camps of Assam

Hundreds of thousands remain in makeshift camps after ethnic riots instill fear in the Bodo and Muslim communities.
Last modified: 22 Aug 2012 05:25

"It has been raining all night and it's still raining," Arpit, the freelance producer, informs me as he comes to help me carry the equipment.

What he doesn't see is the panic he has caused: If there is anything I hate more than my glasses fogging up in the monsoons it is shooting in the rain.

And it's not 'spitting' like it does in London, but pouring cats and dogs.

It is day two of filming in Bongaigaon, Assam as we are covering the aftermath of riots between the mostly Hindu Bodo tribe and Muslims.

The violence left more than 250,000 people from both communities displaced. They are now living in the 224 makeshift relief camps in the area.

We visited one such camp on Monday and my camera had caught the bright yellow, blue and black plastic sheets used in these camps to provide shelter from the elements.

As we get in the car today, I think about the boy we had filmed under one such tent. And what about the dozens of makeshift mud stoves in the camp? How are the women cooking today?

Rain rain go away

Our regular local fixer (read: friend and guide) is not going to be with us today. He received threatening calls all night after our visit to a Muslim camp yesterday. They were not happy with the reporting on his channel. He works for one of the many Assamese language news channels in the state.

Instead his friend, another local journalist, accompanies us.

We are trying to get to another relief camp in Bengtol to film Oxfam distributing basic sanitation kits to the refugees.

Our new friend informs us the bridge on the main road is broken and we'll have to take a detour through the villages to get there. Soon we come across our second challenge of the day(the first being the rains), its still pouring and we come across a rickety wooden bridge.

Nayan, our driver and I get down to inspect if it will take the weight of the car. Nayan does not even walk all the way to the bridge. "Dada nahi jayega" (big brother we can't cross here). A little guidance from a passing local helps us figure another route and we are on our way.

The Muslim camp

The ground of the makeshift camp set up in a Middle school is flooded due to the heavy rains. Dozens of families are cramped in what used to be the classrooms.

The long corridors were being used as open kitchens. Men were busy chopping the precious firewood while the ladies prepared food.

Oxfam's makeshift office in the ground had a tin roof with blue plastic sheets tied to poles to keep the people queuing up for the sanitation dry kit.

I jump in over a table with my camera and make my way through the side gate.

The volunteers are busy getting the buckets ready. They put in one bathing soap, washing detergent, water purifying tablets, a mug and a packet of oral rehydration salts in a white bucket with a red lid, with  'Oxfam' clearly printed in green on each bucket.

My camera spots Sonaban Bibi with a year and a half old girl Momuri in her arms in the queue.

She gets her sanitation kit and we stop her for an interview. She's a widow from Sirfanguri village. She escaped the firing by armed miscreants who she describes as 'terrorists'.

We decide to follow her story and get some more shots.

There are more than 8,000 refugees in Bengtol and they have been camping in three different locations in town. The Middle school, the Higher secondary school and the hospital all within walking distance.

Sonaban Bibi is camping in a half-finished building which is part of the hospital complex. She gets fire going in the makeshift brick stove while her older daughter Nazrine cleans the area with a broom. She confirms she got rations from the government but would want nothing more than to be back in her village safely.

The Bodo camp

Football is the favourite sport in this part of India and this is what we see as walk through the corridor to the grounds of the primary school in Kajalgaon.

Young boys, evidently oblivious to the rain and the situation they are in, kick a ball about. The mothers look more sombre.

We meet Thuri Bhramha, who is nine-months pregnant. She tells us she wants to go for a check up to the hospital but is a little fearful.

I hope for her sake she won't have any complications. There are about a thousand Bodos living here. The common factor in both the camps is the urge to go back to their own homes and the fear of it.

Later, after we have eaten, a few policemen get down from their blue jeep and approach us.

"I'm the local in-charge," Inspector PK Bora introduces himself.

He then goes on to question us about our purpose of visit, what we did all day, who we met, what camps we visited and which news organisation we represented.

If the name Al Jazeera causes any alarms, he does not show. But he asks politely if he could take our picture. I agree and joke with him if he'll join in the picture. He agrees and the constable is happily clicking away, even following us to the boot of the car when I go to get my business card.

"Please let us know if you need any security," Bora offers while leaving. "We'll be fine," I reply.

If only the police concentrated on getting that nagging fear of reprisals out of people’s head, rather than worrying about our coverage, all the people we met and saw in the camps would be safe back home.