‘They wish every day to be dead’: The struggles of children in Gujarat’s riot rehabilitation camps

The children of the riots continue to suffer psychological and physical scars, which no one in the administration has attempted to understand, let alone heal.

Gujarat Riots 2002
Image: Sam Panthaky

“I haven’t had a drink in five months,” said Javed Shaikh. His voice slurs and hands shake as he spits back into a tiny glass, the mango juice his wife had placed before him. It has been 15 years since the moment that defined Shaikh for life: then 14, Shaikh witnessed a Hindu mob rape and burn a pregnant Muslim woman to death during the 2002 Godhra riots in Gujarat.

That day, as he hid under a pile of dead bodies, Shaikh had seen both his parents and his older sister killed. He has told his story since to the courts, to politicians, to the numerous journalists who have sought him out – but has never spoken with a counsellor or psychiatrist about the things he saw as a child. Since 2002, he has moved from place to place seeking comfort. Each time, he has returned to Ahmedabad.

Fifteen years later, there is no official count of how many children were orphaned during the riots. Those who were left alive, like Shaikh, “wish every day to be dead because they die slowly every day,” said Hozefa Ujjaaini, a social worker who works with the riot victims through the non-profit organisation Jan Vikas. The children who survived relive the atrocities in their nightmares.

Between February 28 and March 2, 2002, the three-day-long spate of violence across Gujarat left – even by the State government’s conservative estimates – hundreds dead and over 98,000 people dispossessed. Though the state claims to have moved on, the riot-affected are stuck in time and place at the rehabilitation camps – once meant to be temporary, but which have since transformed into homes for most survivors. Many of those who remember the riots have grown weary, beleaguered from years of being ignored, displaced and overlooked. The residents of one such camp Citizen Nagar wonder when they will finally be treated like actual citizens of the country. Their children continue to suffer psychological and physical scars which no one in the administration has attempted to understand, let alone heal.

Some trials, such as the killing of Kausar Bano, witnessed by Shaikh, have been concluded – in 2012, a Gujarat court ruled that Kausar was hit with a sword and killed by Babu Bajrangi. Judge Jyotsna Yagnik, however, ruled Shaikh was too young to know whether the pregnant woman’s foetus was actually ripped out. This, along with other cases relating to the Naroda Patiya massacre, in which Shaikh was caught, are still pending before the Gujarat High Court.


Seeking a new normal

Rehabilitation colonies like Citizen Nagar, Vatva and 67 other sites across Gujarat lack basic amenities like running water, electricity and trash collection. The 130 homes in Citizen Nagar depend on a single tanker for their daily water needs. The roads are unpaved and water is scarce, a mountain of trash – all of Ahmedabad’s waste collected over decade – rises high. Black smoke spews out of the aluminium factory nearby, darkening the sky and making the air putrid.

The riot-affected of Ahmedabad have been, quite literary, moved to the outskirts of the city where they cannot be seen heard. “Many people have died,” said Moinuddin Sheikh, another survivor and witness of the Naroda Patiya massacre. “We have trouble breathing, the number of heart patients have increased since we came here in 2002.”

Sheikh was a policeman at the time of the riots. He quit right after. He recalled feeling helpless as he watched people being killed by men he has since identified in court as members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. “There was no order to stop them from the Commissioner,” he said. “The police ran away first because they wanted to save their own lives.”

Sitting outside his one-storey makeshift building with a wrought iron roof, Sheikh recalls his family’s struggles in the first five years after the riots – an ordeal which has not yet ended.

Sheikh has two sons and one daughter, none of whom went to school after the riots. A graduate himself, the former cop wanted his children to be educated and to be placed in a government jobs, but this became impossible after 2002. The children were too psychologically scarred – like many child survivors of the riots – to concentrate on school or do much else.

“For the first five years, they were in a coma, you could say,” he said. “They would not move or do anything. If they would fall asleep, they’d wake up screaming, ‘Pappa, the mob is coming to kill us; Pappa, the mob is coming to burn us.’ What they saw plays in their minds even now, like a film that’s stuck in place.”

His children, and the hundreds who witnessed the brutal violence firsthand, are yet to receive any form of counselling or psychological treatment.

“Survivors of the riots say things like how many times will we be victimised?” said Hozefa. Working with the riot-affected people through Jan Vikas for a decade and a half, he asked why it should take the State government so long to intervene in their conditions. “Tata got its factory in a matter of months. These survivors have been living without a home to their name, without water or any facilities since 15 years. You cannot say it is because the government is slow to act.”


Sheikh has given up the fight for his children: his daughter was married as soon as she turned 18, his sons are day labourers and he drives an auto rickshaw. A parent’s regret loomed large on his face as he shook his hennaed head, recalling the first few years in Citizen Nagar.

“We have gone before the counsellors here, the MLA here to request water, a government hospital, a school for our children… it feels like its fallen on deaf ears,” he said. The next generation, he added, which was born after the riots in the rehabilitation colonies, will continue to suffer just like his children did. “The school is far, sending children there is expensive. Recently there was an accident and several of the colony’s children died on their way to the school, so now parents are even more scared to send their kids there.”

Rashida Ansari, a survivor of the riots and now a social worker with Jan Vikas, who helps the displaced living in Citizen Nagar, echoes the concern for the children. “No one remembers these children, the government ignored them,” she said. Workers like Ansari have invested in learning counselling techniques themselves, so they can provide relief to others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ansari received her training under Action Aid, an NGO that has worked closely with the riot-affected women and children since 2002. But there is only so much she can do without formal education. “Hum baatein sunte hai,” she said – all I do is listen.

Ansari wonders why the government never stepped up to provide safe havens for the affected and bereaved children. “Agar government ne ek orphanage bhi banaya hota jahan yeh bacche reh sakte; jahaan inki rehabilitation ho sake, abhi yeh bacche kuch aur hi hote,” she said – if only the government had provided orphanages for these children to live in, they would have been very different people today.

No exit

Today, the education and restoration of the riot-affected children is a matter of individual luck and circumstance. Shaikh Sahir Sabir Hussain is fresh-faced, with close-cropped hair and sharp eyes. He’s 16, and was seven-months-old at the time of the riot. Hussain lives in Citizen Nagar with his parents and two brothers. His brothers, 30 and 25 respectively, dropped out of school after the fifth grade. Hussain travels half an hour every day to reach the Irish Presbyterian Mission high school in Raikandh, where he is determined to finish his schooling. Until grade 10, he went to a private school, but had to move out because there were no facilities for senior classes there. “I want to study,” he said smoothening his green kurta-pyjama, “I want to study and become someone of consequence.”

Hussain’s friend Yakub is sixteen too, but dropped out of school after the eighth grade. The two boys spend their evenings together, but in the mornings, when Hussain is at school, Yakub makes furniture. “Meri mujboori thi,” Yakub said, indicating that his circumstances did not allow him to study. Yakub is the only working member in a household with five sons. His parents never objected when he stopped going to school – it was five kilometers away, and with eight mouths to feed, there were only so many textbooks and auto rickshaw rides the family could afford.

Seeing that lack of education is a growing crisis, several young men within Citizen Nagar have put together hour-long tuition classes for those who do not go to school. Students, mostly boys, gather together to learn the basics: writing their names, reading signs, simple math. Their teachers are college-going young men who donate time to help out their neighbours.

The girls have it worse. Most girls are pulled out of school after the eighth grade, with families citing various reasons, from societal norms to a fear of the Hindus living near the high schools. Most girls are married off even before they turn eighteen, never given a chance to excel at anything. In Vatva, a few girls voiced their discontent with the situation, but were resigned to the idea that this was the only way. None of them wanted to be identified – their parents had bigger problems at home, they said.


This article was first published on Scroll.in



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