Life Inside the Death Camps of Muzaffarnagar

The attackers had come in from the dark. Earlier on that August night, riots had broken out all around Dilshana and Kaamil Waarsi’s town, Shamli. They’d heard that gangs of rapists and cut-throats were roaming the streets of Muzaffarnagar. Darkness gathered in their single-room house, where the couple slept uneasy with their two-year-old daughter.

The attack had been swift. All of a sudden, they were set upon by a gang of men armed with lathis and iron rods. There was chaos everywhere, Dilshana’s screams probably woke up the neighbours, but their tragedy was only just beginning. In the bedlam that ensued, they would lose their two-year-old daughter.

The Muzaffarnagar riots that unfolded between August and September 2013 claimed the lives of 60 people. It left several hundred wounded, and displaced close to 50,000 people. Dilshana and Kaamil are two of the displaced – their neighbours had helped them escape the village on that night of horrors. Since then, they’ve turned into unwanted domestic refugees, moving from one camp to the next, from the Radha Saomi Satsang Beas Ashram to a tent camp in Loi village.

Close to 10,000 people who survived rape and carnage, live in makeshift houses, looking dull and listless, stuck in limbo.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

More than three years ago, Dilshana and Kaamil thought they had lost everything. About a month ago, they lost everything all over again. Their first winter in the camp had passed, grieving for their lost child. This year, Dilshana finally gave birth to a son. He died on the third day, succumbing to north India’s brutal cold wave.

The Loi camp lies at the outskirts of the village, about 45 km from the district headquarters of Muzaffarnagar. In the early months of the year, a dense, damp fog sits over everything, but cannot block out a pervasive stench. There is no sewerage system and there are dirty water pools in several places. Close to 10,000 people who survived the rape and carnage, live here in makeshift houses, looking dull and listless, stuck in limbo. There is no work, no way to return to the homes they once had, and no way to escape this unforgiving cold. Last winter, 25 people died due to the cold – this winter is going to be no less cruel.

Survivors languish without proper employment. The men try to find daily-wage labour, while some of the women work in the fields surrounding the camp or stitch sacks.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

When we first meet Dilshana, she is wrapped up in a thin razai outside her tent, trying hard to keep the cold at bay. She is about 25 but grief has aged her by about a decade. “I don’t know for what sins Allah is punishing us,” Dilshana says in a faint voice. “We were saving money to buy a colour television. I had four pairs of salwar-suits, a lehenga, a nightie, and hawai chappals. We were happy.”

Now, Dilshana does not crave happiness – even a bit of warmth will do. The minimum temperature in western UP hovers between 8 and 10 degree Celsius, but the nights, without any external source of warmth, can be brutal. According to an IndiaSpend report, 781 Indians die every winter. Uttar Pradesh with the biggest homeless population maintains the dubious top position in winter deaths. At the camp, survivors allege that it is the duty of the local administration to arrange for firewood for bonfires. As with many other promises, this one also remains unfulfilled.

The other promise is that of compensation, which many of the camp survivors have not seen in the last three years. Dilshana claims that many riot victims have received ₹5 lakh each, which they used to vacate the camp and build houses of their own. “If we had got the promised compensation, we could have saved our son,” she says. “Nobody helped us, not even the government.” There is a serious mistrust of NGOs and relief agencies at the camp. Most survivors reserve only harsh words for the district administration, and claim that they all descended on the camp to make money off the tragedy.

In the meanwhile, the survivors languish without proper employment. The men try to find daily-wage labour, while some of the women work in the fields surrounding the camp or stitch sacks. Dilshana can’t do either because she’s too weak. “Most of the money we saved to buy a television we lost in the riots,” she tells us. “Whatever remained went for my pregnancy.” Hunger is a constant – as is the chill. The cold might fade in the coming days, but the scars that Dilshana has sustained, will take much longer.

For people like Dilshana, there is no hope of ever returning home. She claims that their house is occupied by squatters and is constantly afraid that “they”, her attackers, will return to kill them. “There is nothing left to go back to.”