India: rising slowly from the ashes – displaced communities struggle to rebuild homes and lives
Life for two village communities in the north-eastern Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya changed dramatically when violence erupted and homes and belongings were razed to the ground. The Indian Red Cross and the ICRC are helping families to rebuild ruined lives – but the challenge is great.
At the sight of a Red Cross volunteer, 52-year old Wellington Marak bursts into tears. Wearing a light outfit with dusty grey trousers ripped at the side, and wiping away sweat with the sleeve of his white shirt, Marak explained, "I never thought that my life could change like that. A few days ago I was a respectable member of my community. Today, I have nothing left and I am forced to sleep on the floor." His wife Jun Jun Marak looked on, distressed and discreetly drying a tear from her cheek.
Until disaster struck, Marak was a wealthy businessman trading in beetle-nuts and other agricultural produce that he grew on his property. All his orchard trees were severely damaged and his house burnt to ashes by angry members from a rival community. "I have lost everything I had in my life,” said a trembling Marak, “my house, the orchards and livestock. Everything has been reduced to ashes in a matter of a few hours".
An eruption of violence
On the evening of 5 January 2011, clashes and inter-communal violence erupted between the Garo and Rabha communities in the north-eastern Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya, causing the death of at least 12 people. In all, some 50,000 people fled their homes in the middle of the night, leaving behind all their belongings.
While many reached the safety of nearby villages and found shelter in community buildings or schools, others decided to settle in makeshift camps, where lack of facilities and poor hygiene conditions make life very difficult.
In response to the hardship caused by the violence, the Assam and Meghalaya branches of the Indian Red Cross Society set about distributing emergency goods supplied by the ICRC. These included kitchen utensils, blankets, buckets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting, mugs, soap and detergent for laundry. Local Red Cross volunteers also provided psychosocial counselling and other support to help those worst affected overcome their trauma.
Some family members have visited their burnt-out houses accompanied by the Red Cross team, but fear returning to their homes lest they are attacked again. Mariam Rabha, seeing his home for the first time in a month, hurriedly put on display some of his burnt belongings, including a cloth-making loom, furniture and the tin roof. The smell of burning was still very apparent. "No one is helping us to return to our village and rebuild our homes. We are scared we may be targeted again," observed Mariam, tearfully retrieving from the rubble a burnt toy belonging to his son – sad evidence to show to his family and neighbours in the relief camp.
Disrupted school life
Among those who fled the violence are teachers who have left behind their jobs and their students. For the displaced children, school life has yet to resume even though some of them are living in a school building turned into a relief camp. The children of the communities supporting the displaced families have also been affected by the civil strife, as their schools have been occupied by those in need of shelter.
When Red Cross volunteers reached Nirbari Major Vernacular School Camp near the village of Kukarkatta, more than 280 families were huddled together in the main compound. The families cook food together in a temporary and improvised community kitchen. The local authorities have provided temporary bathrooms, hand pumps for drawing water, and basic food rations.
A challenging time
More than a month after the inter-communal violence, tension remains high in the relief camps, even though they are located amid picturesque terraced green paddy-fields and beetle-nut and coconut trees. Security remains an ongoing issue for most villagers. While the women and children stay in the camps, many of the men return to their villages to see to their properties, as well as care for abandoned agricultural crops and animals.
Although distribution of emergency supplies has now ended, the Red Cross remains committed to working with the affected communities, providing humanitarian support to the most vulnerable. The ICRC, together with volunteers from the Assam branch of the Red Cross, will continue to respond to the needs of these communities, monitoring their living conditions and developing projects that may help people to rebuild their lives as best as possible.
The challenge is considerable however, as the relief camps are scattered over a 70 km2 area. In all, some 2,000 displaced families are in need of help to rebuild their homes and livelihoods and replace precious belongings.