Healing the orphans of Gujarat's riots
By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Raigarh, Gujarat
Shafiq is eight and wants to be a policeman. Perhaps
that is because his most vivid memories are not of law
and order, but carnage.
"They surrounded us from all sides and set us on fire
inside our compound. Of the 11 family members, my
father, grandmother, uncle, my sister, my auntie,
died. Eight died. Three of us survived - me, my
younger sister and my mother."
Shafiq comes from Narora Patia, the area of the Indian
state of Gujarat worst affected by riots between
Hindus and Muslims last year.
He too was set alight. He has the physical scars but
the emotional ones run deeper.
Now he is here among a clutch of young children in a
classroom in Raigarh, 200 kilometres from Bombay
This special school, tucked away on the edge of the
Arabian sea, is where more than 100 Gujarati children
are undergoing a unique process of rehabilitation.
The children are busy rehearsing for their school
"Let me tell you about the 16th century. Do you know
what a century is?" asks a boy, playing the role of a
The youngest in the group replies eagerly: "Yes sir, a
century is 100 runs [in cricket], Tendulkar's
The mock teacher mockingly corrects him: "A century is
100 years, silly boy."
The laughter is slowly returning.
Just 20 months ago, many of these Muslim children saw
their parents, grandparents and other relatives burned
or hacked to death in the western state.
At least 1,000 died, hundreds of families were made
homeless and many children orphaned in India's worst
communal violence since independence.
The burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train in Godhra
sparked a fearful retaliation by Hindus against
Yasmin is one of Shafiq's schoolmates and just little
older than him.
She is clearly a lot more affected. Her dull eyes and
expressionless face tell her story.
Like Shafiq, Yasmin saw her family die. She is working
hard on her English because she wants to become a
The horrific tales seem endless. It seems hard to
believe the school's activities and games of cricket
can make life simple again for these children -
children like 13-year-old Raja Bundu Bhai Qureshi.
"They killed my sister and my mother right before my
eyes," he says. They were burned to death by a mob.
"They tore the clothes off my neighbour. I was hit by
a stone and fell unconscious. When I regained
consciousness I saw the woman had no clothes on."
The organisers of the school, run by the
non-governmental organisation the Royal Education
Society, say it is important to bring stability back
to these lives.
Rehana Undel Begum and her staff have been looking
after these 121 boys and girls for more than a year.
She says she treats them like her own children.
"In the beginning they were missing their parents.
Especially they missed their mothers. I thought I was
like a mother to them, so I had to allow them to do
what they did with their mothers," says Rehana.
"Sometimes they want to comb my hair, they want to sit
on my lap, want to sleep on my lap, they want to sit
on my shoulders, they pinch my cheeks, they want to
feel as if I am their mother."
It looks like Rehana's nurturing is paying off.
The children are neat, well-fed and reasonably focused
on their studies.
But what of their emotional scars? How can they cope
with thoughts of revenge?
Alfraj Bano, 10, says: "When I grow up I'll find out
who killed my grandmother and my sister."
Raja Bundu Qureshi wants to leave it to God:
"Sometimes when I remember I feel like taking revenge
when I grow up. But Allah is with us and he'll take
It's obvious why Shafiq wants to become a policeman:
"Sometimes I feel I should avenge the killings of my
family when I grow up. I want to become a policeman so
that I can arrest them and put them in jail."
Psychiatrists say these emotional wounds will not be
easily healed even though the children are now leading
fairly normal lives.
Dr Shamsah Sonawalla, a child psychiatrist, says:
"Psychological rehabilitation is one of the most
important things because while physical needs are
taken care of a little bit more easily, the
psychological scar remains for a long time
"The outcome can be quite disastrous, from children
experiencing depression to post-traumatic disorder to
extreme anger, a sense of revenge and this is how we
might be creating future rioters. So, psychological
rehabilitation and constant monitoring are extremely
Rehana Undel, though, believes religious instruction
will help heal her children, so that the cause of the
Gujarat orphans' sorrow may become their salvation.
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