AKSHARDHAM: HOW MANY MORE AFTERMATHS?
[October 09, 2002]
On the evening of 24th Sept 2002 some friends from Delhi dropped in to visit me in Ahmedabad. Soon after, a phone call interrupted the conversation giving us the grim news. Akshardham had been attacked by terrorists.
We absorbed the news without comprehension. Then the implications sank in. What if????
Phone calls flew in thick and fast. Friends, relatives and journalists called to share the confusion. Panic plastered in thick layers all over the city as people rushed back to safe places. In my apartment building everything was electric. Fear hung like thin strings of livewire. My friends left in a hurry. Get back to Delhi immediately, their relatives told them.
The next day there were prayer meetings everywhere in Ahmedabad. In Muslim areas banners had come up overnight: The entire Muslim community condemns the attack on Akshardham. This time nobody wanted to take any chances.
A season for bandhs. The Congress and the VHP had swung into action. In the meantime, people from Naroda Patiya streamed into the Shah Alam dargah. Ditto other erstwhile camps like Sundaram Nagar.
The night before the VHP bandh the mood in the Shah Alam dargah was so tense you could cut it with a knife. The women there were torn between fear and anger.
Kill us at one stroke, they said. Donít do this to us. How dare they attack a temple? We are glad those terrorists were killed. Life has become impossible here. Last time the bandh reduced our lives to shambles. This time, they will finish us. Now, either they will get us, or we will end up killing ourselves.
One woman sat next to me, her anger reverberating against the intricate jalli work of the dargah. I lost two of my sons in the violence. I know what death is. How can I condone what they have done to innocent people in Akshardham? The death of a family member cripples you for life. It leaves scars forever. These people, whether Hindu or Muslim, are all peddlers of violence. Her voice broke; in reflex I reached out a hand to hold her. She shrank back instantly, staring at me, eyes wide with alarm.
The men were resigned or simply drained out. Sister, they said, we donít know when this will end. This cycle of violence is not good. We had just begun work, gone back to our homes and now thisÖ.. One of them wiped the tears from his eyes, his hands shook so much it was difficult to watch.
The day of the VHP bandh I went to Gomtipur and Bapunagar. Groups of people sat together under various shelters hiding from the scorching heat. Some Dalit women stood near a couple of vegetable carts; their faces tense but defiant. Arenít you afraid of violence, I asked them.
We are more afraid of hunger, they answered. We have had enough. Our children have gone without proper food all these months. How can we live with so much uncertainty? Nothing is in our hands. But we have to think of our rozi-roti. So we will do our work. If they come to send us back home, we will go back. And return once they have gone.
You come into our houses and see what we have been reduced to, said one of them, her red bindi flashing in the sun. We have no stores left, and nothing for the present, nothing for the future. So we cannot afford to sit at home when we should be earning a living.
The next week I found myself in Akshardham. An imposing building, barricaded now by large gates. Tall green trees surrounded the entire place. The serenity was soothing after the pollution of Ahmedabad. It was difficult to imagine that this had been the scene of such bloody violence only a few days back.
In the Intensive Care Unit of the Civil Hospital the reality of the attack is brought home with a rude jolt. Specially when you come upon a tiny two-month old child with a gauze strip criss-crossed down the middle of her bare stomach. And when you see her mother with a broken jaw, now held together with a leather strip. The mother wants to talk. Her eyes are full of curiosity. She makes an effort and I understand with difficulty.
Two months old, says this Sikh woman, waving a weak hand towards the child who lies on a huge machine. A relative comes in and points out the injuries on both mother and child.
In the next room is her relative who has been so badly hurt I wonder how she will recover. Her legs, thighs and torso have been ripped apart. She heaves for breath, clinging to life through intense pain.
She whispers, the woman with the baby does not know her husband is dead. We have not told her. She and her husband had come visiting from Kota; they wanted to visit Akshardham. We told them there are other places, but she insisted. She lapses into silence.
It reminds me of the woman who had gone visiting her mother in Naroda Patiya in February, to end up losing two of her sons. She herself was badly burnt in the violence in Patiya.
I saw the terrorists, says the woman in the hospital. Fifteen days back I had a dream that some terrorists were shooting at me. I told my husband. He laughed at me. Then her eyes fill up with tears and she says my husband is in coma in the Gandhinagar Civil Hospital. One son is injured, he is in another ward. I want to see my husband. If he is alright, I am alright.
She closes her eyes, a slow tear running down her cheek. In helpless solidarity I hold her shoulder, the only uninjured part of her body. Her mother and other relatives look on in silence.
I meet the commandos. One with a hand in a cast, who walks through the ward once in a while. He explains to me how it all happened. His wife holds her sari over her head and listens intently to him. Another commando is in the next room, he sits on his cot with a gaping hole in his throat.
As I begin to leave a relative of two women I met stops me. She whispers in earnest. Both of them, she gesticulates towards the two rooms, do not know that their husbands have died in the attack. We have told them they are in coma at the Gandhinagar Civil hospital. That we go there every morning and see how they are doing.
Simple, heart-breaking deception.
The child is now awake. Her mother holds her. I go in for a brief moment. I stroke the childís soft-as-down cheeks and the words of the paediatric surgeon who had treated her echo back. Her spleen had to be removed. The spleen is responsible for the bodyís immune system. Now the child has to watch out. Even a fever can be fatal.
Looking down into the tiny face I am struck by her strength. Those little black eyes look straight back at me without a single streak of pain. Today, there is no rancour in those eyes. What does tomorrow hold for her? And for the thousands of children who have lost so much over the last few months? For how long will the innocent continue to bear the burden of an embittered history?
I step out of the hospital. Taking leave of mangled bodies, bruised minds. If only it was just as easy to take leave of Gujarat.
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