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India: Red Cross assists victims of violence in Assam

05-12-2008 Feature

In India’s north-eastern states tensions and violence continue to simmer, fuelled by friction between ethnic or tribal groups and related political movements seeking autonomy or independence.

  © ICRC/Stephanie Bouaziz/V-P-IN-E-00039    
  This woman was one of more than 10,000 people affected by ethnic violence in October 2008.    
  © ICRC/Stephanie Bouaziz/V-P-IN-E-00033    
  Assam branch of the Indian Red Cross and ICRC distributing relief goods in all camps sheltering displaced people.    
  © ICRC/Stephanie Bouaziz/V-P-IN-E-00038    
  Assam state. A camp sheltering displaced people.    

In the districts of Udalguri and Darrang, along India’s border with Bangladesh and Bhutan, hostility between members of the Bodo tribe and representatives of Muslim communities escalated into full-blown clashes.

Dozens of people were killed and hundreds wounded. In the first week of October, more than 100,000 people fled their villages to escape the violence.

The ICRC immediately offered its support to the Assam branch of the Indian Red Cross. A team consisting of a water engineer, a tracing delegate and a logistician flew to Assam to help assess the humanitarian situation of the victims of the violence. " There were thousands of people in rags,” remembers Mrs Renuka Devi Barkataki, honorary secretary of the Assam branch of the Indian Red Cross. “They were exhausted and terrified, with nothing to eat. We are close to the Himalayas, so no need to tell you about the temperature here at night”.

The ICRC donated relief kits to help 20 000 families cope with their most urgent needs. The kits handed over to the Indian Red Cross contained tarpaulins, blankets, clothing, hygiene items, cooking sets and jerrycans. This was the first assistance of its type that the families had received.

 Women pick up the pieces  


Among the dozens of women waiting for the distribution of kits is Moni, a mother of three, who shares a shelter made from straw with her husband, children and elderly mother-in-law. She is eager to see what is in the bags but too shy to ask. Like the other women, she simp ly waits for the instructions of the ICRC delegate, her eyes following every move of the Red Cross volunteers.

When she hears her name, Moni advances clumsily and timidly to the stands. As the ICRC delegate explains to her what is in the kits, she puts her palms together before her forehead in gratitude.

Right at the entrance of her shelter, she starts opening the bags, and a big smile lights up her face as she pulls out the cooking pan. “This, I really needed,” she exclaims. “Now I can cook again for the family! And of course the blankets! "

At the distribution site, the bags quickly move from the ground onto women’s heads. Children help any way they can, carrying an empty jerrican or sharing the burden of a bag.

As she gives her coupon in exchange for her bags, an old woman weeps silently. She cannot hide her tears, or her pain. “How many elderly people have lost their families? How many times will she have to settle again in transit camps?” These are probably some of the questions going through her mind.

Another woman comes over to her and leads her away. No word is spoken and none is needed. No one actually asked the young boy to carry her bags on his bike, or escort her silently to her place.

 Here to stay  

According to Diganta Bujarbua, disaster manager for the Assam Red Cross branch, most of the thousands of families living in camps in Udalguri and Darrang are here to stay. “They feel much more secure in the camps than in their villages, and since last week the children can even go to school. The Government promised to rebuild destroyed houses, but it will take time to relocate all those families, at least two years”.

So far, the humanitarian situation is under control, but the weather will become colde r in the coming weeks, and the monsoon season starts in three months. The ICRC and the Assam Red Cross branch will keep on monitoring the humanitarian situation of the families in the camps, and adapt their assistance as the population’s needs change.