When night falls, a quiet fear invades the smoky relief camps in Ahmedabad. For the
children of the Gujarat riots, the witching hour has begun. In the slow hours till dawn,
many huddle close to their mothers, struggling to stay awake. The horrific memories that
they try to hold at bay during the day stalk them in their sleep.
For the riot's children, there is a thin dividing line between memories and nightmares. There are visions of parents being dragged out of their homes and cut into pieces, of brothers and sisters thrown into flames. There are memories of women being brutally raped, foetuses ripped from pregnant bellies and of their own spine-chilling escapes from imminent death.
There are some 42,000 children among the over 1 lakh inmates in Gujarat's relief camps today. That's what the discredited state government says anyway. Those working in the field—civil rights groups, ngos—claim that there are at least 30,000 children in Ahmedabad's camps alone. Many of them are orphans. "Children have been worst affected by the carnage. Unlike adults, they may not be able to fully absorb or vocalise what they saw. But the impact is deep," says Father Victor Moses, who is coordinating Citizen's Initiative, a group of 30 ngos working with the state's riot victims.
He is right. First came the mobs—burning, pillaging, murdering and raping in front of the eyes of these hapless children. Then came displacement—after their homes were torched. Suddenly, family, friends and schools are a chimera. Dr R. Srinivasa Murthy, professor of psychiatry at the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (nimhans), who visited some of the camps, found the children in a state of shock. "The trauma seen in children who survived the riots in Gujarat is similar to the trauma children suffered after the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Uttarkashi earthquake and the earthquake in the state." So they end up extremely prone to anxiety disorders, acute depression and stress.
Possibly even worse. When the Ahmedabad-based ngo Centre For Development tried to involve the camp children in art classes, they ended up drawing burning houses and dead people. "There is a lot of anger among the children," says Mira Mehta of the centre. "You will see a lot of small, silent children playing around in the camps. They don't look rattled but they are badly affected inside." That's not hard to discover. A three-year-old boy playing in the camp says occasionally: "Abba ko mar diya. Goli, goli! (They killed my father. Bullet, bullet!)"
Counselling will be futile, say psychiatrists, as long as the carnage continues. "There is so much fear and anger among children and we can't even tell them that it is all over. Until it stops, how can they begin healing?" asks Sandhya Surendradas of the ngo Sanchetna's child survival project.
Right now, they are possibly lucky to be just alive. Remember, quite a few children were murdered. Here are some testimonies to a gory end of childhood and innocence:
Javed Hussain, 14
Son of a rickshaw-puller father and a tailor mother, Javed lost his family in the Naroda Patiya massacre in Ahmedabad, where 91 people were burnt alive on February 28. The fourth-standard dropout stitched handkerchiefs for a living.
Present Home: Shah Alam relief camp, Ahmedabad