Nowhere to go in India's Assam
"They were merciless. I saw men whose hands and feet were chopped off in front of me. We saw our houses burn down. But at least we're still alive," a devastated Banu Bibi tells us.
Our team meets her at a relief camp set up near Bongaigain district. She’s travelled for over a day to reach here after escaping fierce rioting in her village.
The "camp" is nothing but a government school building with a huge courtyard filled with more frightened people streaming in. It's high noon. There are no fans, no coolers, no electricity. Nothing. The place is as miserable as it can get.
Over 40 people are crammed in a single classroom with all their life's belongings stacked up in one neat pile. Babies are crying, their mothers helpless as they can't give them the food they're desperately craving for. The old and the sick are too dazed to even realise what's happening around them. But at least they're safe here.
What drove Banu Bibi and her family to come here was to escape from fighting with their local tribal neighbours, the Bodos. And what they've left behind are stories of utter horror. Banu Bibi saw mobs attacking groups of Muslims. These were retaliatory killings by the Bodos who wanted revenge for the murder of four young men from their community, who were reportedly killed by some Muslims.
We move on to another camp. Here, a young widow cries in front of us as she sees the body of her husband. Lifeless and cold, he's been hacked to death.
Abdul Rasheed tells me he saw people armed with guns and machetes who tried attacking him. The only reason why he's still alive is because he didn't care enough for his belongings.
This is northwestern Assam. An intensely beautiful region in India's northeast but an extremely volatile one as well. For centuries, local tribes known as the Bodos have struggled to carve their own space and identity here. Despite being one of the original inhabitants of this area, they've struggled to maintain their hold over their land as new settlers came in.
It started with the British a few centuries ago when fertile lands were taken away to settle tea plant labourers, mostly from other Indian states, during colonial times. After the British left and India gained independence, feelings for a separate Bodo homeland intensified. That feeling grew into an all-out insurgency in the 1970s and 80's when an influx of migrants from Bangladesh started flooding this area.
Khokhrajhar district is an area which straddles Bhutan. It's well known for being a Bodo heartland and a hot spot for such clashes. For days, we heard about how rioting had begun in this area between Bodos and Muslims. And how the Muslims were escaping. But we couldn't independently verify anything. The place was off-limits for journalists as mobs armed with weapons attacked each other's communities. We decided to head out there last week to find out what exactly had happened.
After travelling for over six hours on the road , we arrived at Khokhrajhar. It looked like a ghost town. The shops were shut, there were a few paramilitary forces on the road and everything looked eerily quiet. Another hour on a dirt road and we reach yet another relief camp. This time the displaced were all Bodos. This was the first time we heard that Bodos too had been displaced. So far, all the media reports had pointed to an all-out Muslim expulsion. What we found here was anything but.
We had come at "lunch" time. A misnomer as people didn't even have breakfast. It was literally their first meal in 20 hours. "They've just fed about a quarter of us, the rest are still hungry," said Pramod Brahmo who grabbed my arm as we were filming. "What are we supposed to do? Die?"
The government had clearly not come here. While the chief minister and the federal government were claiming on national television that violence had abated, the bigger crisis of these displaced people was being ignored, or at least not even acknowledged. Most of the food they were getting were handouts from neighbouring villages. A watery "Dal", lentil soup, with rice was all they had.
"Nobody has come to visit us. No journalists, not the government, nobody. We have been left to fend for ourselves", Ranjit Brahmo, a Bodo from Khasukata village, told me. He was showing me around as Mahadev, our cameraman, and Nilanjan, our producer, went to take a few additional shots. Ranjit had waded through waist-high waters to escape the rioters. All he wanted now was to go back home.
When we made our way further inside, a woman, probably not over 38, started wailing. "A lot of my family is missing, including a young cousin. The last I heard was that she was raped and then murdered," Pamala Brahmo told us.
There was no way we could verify what she said but her tears were genuine. In another corner, a woman who could have been my grandmother's age was quietly looking at us. When we got closer, she broke down. In-between her cries, Sriweshwari told us how she escaped in knee-deep water when the riots broke out. And how her husband, who was older than her, couldn't run fast enough and was hacked to death. "I only want his body back now," she says. "How can I not give him a final farewell?"
It always strikes me how resilient people can get when they're faced with such difficult circumstances. Here were two communities, the Bodos and the Muslims, who were clearly facing the same problems but who were bravely surviving all that came their way. They aren't expecting money or compensation. All they want is help. But that help has come too late.
The state government of Assam has been criticised for not responding quick enough to quell the violence. More lives could have been saved if law and order could have been restored quickly enough. Instead, for three days two communities fought, maimed and killed each other.
For that reason, Pamala Brahmo and Banu Bibi may be living thousands of miles away from each other, but they're sharing the same grief.