Daughters of the East

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Even as refugee families return to Kandhamal, fear keeps young women in hiding. Rohini Mohan reports

Photos: Sayantan Bera

SEVEN OF us were stuck in a forest for days without food, running for our lives,” says Rajkumari Pradhan. “Ten months ago, I didn’t think that we would be alive to tell this tale.” Now staying in the empty stalls of a weekly market in Kandhamal, Rajkumari introduces her two sons, daughter-in- law, husband and grandson. That is only six people. Where is the seventh person, you ask. Her eyes widen at what she might have given away.

Rajkumari left her home in Betticola, Kandhamal, ten months ago, on the very first day of the anti-Christian riots in the district in August 2008. She stayed in a relief camp till the Orissa government closed it. Today, Rajkumari says she still can’t go home, because her Hindu neighbours in Betticola won’t allow her to do so. “Unless I convert to Hinduism,” she adds. Since Christians are less than one percent of Orissa’s electorate, their votes were ineffective, even though 80 percent of Christian riot victims in relief camps turned up to vote out the BJD government in the recent assembly election. The government returned to power and the two constituencies in Kandhamal elected BJP MLAs. One, Manoj Pradhan, is still in jail, accused of leading mobs to kill Christians. And Rajkumari remains, like more than 22,000 Christians in Kandhamal, homeless, terrified; trying to remove any visible signs of being Christian.

But besides her identity, Rakjumari has something else to hide. A daughter. After an hour of deliberation as to whether she could trust us, Rajkumari says, “My daughter leads a life I would wish upon no woman. Always in hiding, petrified of something worse than death.” Seven months ago, Rajkumari had sent her 21- year-old daughter away from Kandhamal to a slum in Bhubaneswar. “She’s away from me and her family for the first time in her life,” says Rajkumari, “But it needed to be done.”

Across Kandhamal, this is a recurring story. Of missing daughters, especially those who’re unmarried. In relief camps and makeshift tents, women under the age of 30 are conspicuously absent. They have been sent on safe exiles to Bhubaneswar, Mumbai, Chennai or Kerala. And if asked where they’re from, they have been told to lie.

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A LIFE IN EXILE

22,000 people displaced since the anti-Christian riots

16,000 women and children displaced

93 people killed. Official estimates record only 43

3,000 people living in four relief camps

Eight refugee villages with CRPF security, but without rations

Four known cases of rape, only two FIRs registered

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Lying is the first defence of many a protective parent too. Philomena Nayak, who stays in the Tiangia relief camp, the largest in Kandhamal, says her 19-year-old daughter died on the second day of rioting. An older woman sitting nearby however confesses, “She doesn’t want to reveal this to you, but her daughter is alive and in Bhubaneswar. If you go there, can you please let us know if she is all right? Her name is Julima.” Philomena hasn’t seen Julima for eight months but is sure she is better off anywhere than in Kandhamal. One threat was enough. “Four young men from my village, boys who used to play right in front of my house suddenly came wearing red tilaks and carrying sickles on that day,” says Philomena of August 24, 2008, the first of 40 days of anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, “They saw Julima and grabbed at her dupatta, laughing like jackals. A larger mob came into our village just then, and the four ran to join them.” As the mob was busy burning houses, Julima ran into the forest and hid there for four days before joining her parents. “It was a miracle she escaped from their dirty hands,” says Philomena, “I don’t want to count on another miracle. Julima will not come back to this hell.”

Uprooted (from top to bottom) Young women refugees from Kandhamal hide in a slum in Bhubaneswar; Rajkumari Pradhan, mother of a girl exiled; Young women and children refugees from Kandhamal in a nunnery in Bhubaneswar

Since the first attacks on Christians in Kandhamal in December 2007, people have lost their homes and their loved ones. But as an entire community has been displaced, it is the women who’re least able to move on. There are four allegations of rape and hundreds of sexual molestation, of which only two are registered in FIRs. In one case, the gang-rape of a nun, 15 people have been arrested, and the trial began on April 19. In the other, the lesser known gang-rape of a Hindu girl, the five accused roam free.

In the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, a dusty road leads to a quiet nunnery. It is mid afternoon. Three children are busy in a search for ants under a bench, but everyone else is asleep. Apart from one elderly and another middle-aged man, the sleeping residents are women. Most are under 30. All are from Kandhamal.

‘My daughter leads a life I would wish upon no woman. Always in hiding, not as scared of death as much as she is petrified of something worse,’says Rajkumari Pradhan of Kandhamal

As they slowly stir awake, one of the women, Kalpana, sternly us probing questions in English. Who are you? Why are you here? Who sent you? Have you been to Kandhamal? Are you a Hindu? She translates the answers to the other women, who then nod their assent. “We’re here to learn tailoring,” says Kalpana, offering a tame explanation as to why 24 young women from different villages in Kandhamal would be staying under one roof. “A woman needs to be financially independent.” When asked when they would return to their homes, Kalpana looks to the other women. One of them says in Oriya, “Never. Our friends have turned into our enemies.”

‘It’s a Christian-Hindu fight, but if you’re a woman, your religion doesn’t matter. If they want to ruin you, they will,’ says Samuka Digal, of the violence women in Kandhamal face

The nunnery had served as a relief camp until a few months ago, when most of the residents decided to move back to Kandhamal to attempt rebuilding their burnt homes. The young women, however, did not return. The 200 kms between Kandhamal and Bhubaneswar is their insurance. Samuka Digal is 21, and relates her stay in the G Udaigiri relief camp three months ago, “There was no toilet in the camp, so we used to go in groups in search of a quiet place at night. One night, two men followed us. They were whistling and hooting in the dark. I started running, but my friend didn’t run fast enough. When she came back to the camp after an hour, her sari was torn and her forehead was bleeding.” Samuka’s father packed her off to Bhubaneswar the very next morning and her friend was sent to Kerala. “Yeh Christian-Hindu ka jhagda hai, par ladki ho toh Hindu ya Christian, farak nahi padta. Bigaadna hai to bigaad denge.” (It’s a Christian-Hindu fight, but if you’re a woman, your religion doesn’t matter. If they want to ruin you, they will.)

As Samuka speaks of her fear in broken Hindi, a girl next to her whispers something to her. “She wants to know if you’ll be going to Kandhamal,” translates Samuka, “Her name is Julima, and her family lives in a camp. She’s not seen them for eight months. Can you find out for her if they’re all right?”

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