As fragile peace holds in Assam, displaced families contemplate return

21/03/2013 – In July 2012, clashes between Bengali Muslims and Bodos, an ethnic group in India’s northeastern State of Assam, displaced almost half a million people. Eight months on, families are slowly returning to the charred remains of their homes. But many still languish in camps, some due to fear of renewed violence, others because they lack the resources to jumpstart their lives. The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), through its partner Oxfam, provides drinking water, hygiene and sanitation facilities to 7,000 families living in fourteen of these camps.

One day in July 2012, Amiron Khatun, 22, hid in a jute field near her house with her two-year-old son. She had heard rumours that armed Bodo men were likely to attack her village, Mokhanigiri in Chirang district. The long simmering discontent between Bodos and Muslims had flared yet again, and was now at its peak.

Too scared to return, Amiron stayed in the field till late night along with other women of her village. The men guarded the houses. A hushed message passed from one hide-out to the other directed Amiron’s group to a government school nearby. They were to unite with their husbands there.

“When we reached the school it was full of people”, recalls Amiron. “It was raining and there was water everywhere”. At dawn her husband had still not reached the school. Despite warnings, she ran towards her house to find him. She found him shot dead. He was one of the four people killed in the ambush that night; one of over 100 Muslims and Bodos who died in the violence.

Camp life

Since then, Amiron lives in the Bhawraguri camp that was setup near the school campus. She shares with her in-laws a bamboo-and-reed hut capped with tarpaulin. The cubbyhole hut appears spacious, filled as it is with bare essentials. A slab of wood balanced on bamboo stumps serves as her bed.

The young woman says camp life in the early days was tough. “There was no food, and we had to depend on one hand-pump for drinking water. We had no toilet”. With no private space to bathe or relieve themselves, women like her were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Littered with faeces and soaked with monsoon rains, the camp was a breeding ground for bacteria.

Then Oxfam, funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), stepped in to complement the relief efforts of the government and other NGOs. “Before jumping onto providing services we wanted to know from people in the camps what their most pressing needs were”, explains Zubin Zaman, humanitarian manager for Oxfam. “Our needs assessment showed that over 70 percent of people wanted bathing and toilet facilities with private spaces for women. Many families also said they needed water for drinking and cooking”.

Since then, Oxfam has built over 200 latrines and bathing cubicles with separate facilities for women and men in both Muslim and Bodo camps across the most affected districts of Chirang and Kokrajhar, while installing 47 new hand pumps and repairing 24 existing ones.

Restoring livelihoods

When asked about her plans for the future, Amiron stays silent, her hands squirming. Her cousin chips in: “They don’t have land. Her husband was a daily-wage laborer. But the house of her in-laws was not burnt”. Like many in the camp, Amiron does not want to go back for now. Fear is palpable among those who have to return to villages where their community is in minority. Some farmers go to till their land in the morning, and return to the camps in the evening.

“The return process is complex”, says Zubin. “It is linked to land ownership, security and livelihood regeneration. Many returnees are in a precarious situation and need help with livelihood recovery at least in the medium term”. Emboldened by the compensation of € 320 and tin sheets to rebuild houses handed out by the government, many others, however, have dared to go back.

The Assam government reports that close to 40,000 people remain in the camps – a huge drop from the 485,921 people reported when the crisis was unfolding. But the numbers could be higher as some camps or settlements are not recognised by the authorities. Sanmia Sheikh, 61, is amongst those who have returned to their village in Howriapath, Kokrajhar district. “We don’t have much to do here”, he says “Earlier I had cattle, goats and chickens. But now I have lost most of my livestock”.

Having addressed the emergency needs of the families in the camps, ECHO will now extend its support to the returnees. Through Oxfam and other partners, it will help people like Sanmia buy livestock and secure their livelihood. When Amiron decides to go back to her village, she will be entitled to a cash grant, or to tools like a sewing machine in order to start a small business.

By Arjun Claire, ECHO’s Regional Information Assistant in New Delhi, India