Aroti Phangchopi, 14, died in the recent ethnic violence which took place in Assam. Her bloodstained school bag and books lay torn and scattered around her, along with the bodies and books of four other school students. All of them were on their way to school in a bus when they were pulled out and killed by men allegedly from the Dimasa tribe, on October 17, 2005, in Charsim village.
"Our bus was stopped and then they asked us to come out one by one. They tied my hands at the back and then hit me with a dao (machete) three times. I don't know what happened after that," says Kurgi Beypi, 11, one of the survivors of the violence, who belongs to the Kurbi tribe. She's being treated in a hospital at Nagoan, along with her six-hear-old sister, and another girl.
Their assailants were masked men carrying AK 47s and AK 56s. Some of the children, along with other adult passengers, were hacked to death with daos. The men belonged to one of a dozen armed organizations roaming freely around Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts of Assam, claiming to fight for their own tribe's territory.
While the suspicion fell on the Dima Halim Daoga (DHD, an armed group fighting for a Dimaraji - Dimasa land, DHD has denied the allegation. In an Assam daily, they denied having a hand in the Charsim massacre and blamed another organization - Black Widow, a breakaway faction of their group - for the killings.
The Autonomous State Demand Council (ASDC) and the Dimasa Students Organization actually blamed the Assam government for failing to control the ethnic violence. "The killings and torching of houses, except for a few instances at a much later stage, were not acts of revenge or spontaneous reaction of the public," ASDC President Holiram Terang, told the press. "It was a band of killers, trained to hack people to death even though sophisticated arms were with them. This savage cruelty can be perpetrated only by professionals," Terang alleged.
Since 2001, this part of Assam has witnessed at least one major ethnic massacre every year, not to speak of the daily toll of lives - civilians and army personnel - which the state witnesses. Most of these clashes have their roots in the dynamics of the violent politics of autonomy and the government's policy of appeasing the most heavily armed and violent groups demanding autonomy. This has made the Northeast region, especially Assam, one of the most highly militarized zones in the world.
Since 2002, there have been major clashes between Karbi-Hmar, Karbi-Kuki, Karbi-Khasi Pnar. In 2003, the Hmar-Dimasa clash displaced more than 6,000 people. In the same year, Karbi attack forced more than 4,000 Khasi-Pnars out of their homes in Karbi Anglong. This was followed by the Karbi-Kuki clash which continued into 2004, driving more than 6000 people out of their homes.
According to a report, in 2003, half the 800,000-odd population of North Cachar Hills was displaced. Although most returned home later, their lives were destroyed for good. J Ingty, an activist, says, "The future is gloomy for our people. Children's studies are annually disrupted; many will find it difficult to return to school. Thousands of lives have been destroyed. Most will become beggars as putting together an uprooted life is too difficult for the poor people who have lost all their savings."
This incessant violence has only served to further damage the fragile existence of various tribes in the region. Most communities continue to live with no electricity or safe drinking water, and have no access to educational or health facilities.
This time - Charsim violence - the turf war is between the DHD, who represent the Dimasa tribe, and the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) - a Karbi armed group fighting for a state of their own.
The violence, which actually started in September, has already left 90 people dead (mostly Karbis) and thousands homeless. More than 50,000 people from both the groups have fled their homes and are housed in schools, sheds, and makeshift shelters across the district in about 56 relief camps. The chain reaction has sparked off what Terang calls "the greatest tragedy in Karbi and Dimasa history".
"My house in Haripur, West Karbi Anglong, was burnt down along with 300 other houses," says Bathori Swapan Singha, a social activist. He however stressed that his family managed to save some essentials as two Karbi friends had secretly informed his father, a well-known community elder, about the rumors doing the rounds that there would be a revenge for the Charsim carnage by torching a big Dimasa hamlet. Our communities don't hate each other, we are trying to help each other. It's these militants who are stirring up all these murderous emotions, and of course, we have a government that does not really care what happens," he says.
Singha, who recently returned from a visit to several relief camps in Diphu area, along with a relief assessment team from INGO ActionAid, says the people are miserable. "Government relief - of rice, lentils, salt and some blankets - is far too little for so many people. With winter already here we are really worried for them," he says.
Women and children are worse off. There is no baby food available, nor any provision for sanitary napkins, soap, and candles. Most camps have no electricity or safe drinking water.
Despite the violent ethnic history of the state, the state government so far has no rehabilitation plan in place. Even the ruling elite of Assam continues to ignore the plight of the tribal communities.
Although, after the incident, an estimated 2,500 paramilitary troopers and about 1,500 police personnel were deployed in the district, citizens feel this will only give a false sense of security. The real issues in Assam have still not been addressed.
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service