Camps packed to capacity with thousands of refugees

The violent ethnic clashes between Bodo militants and non-Bodos in Assam has driven more than one lakh people to refugee camps across the three districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur, said state government sources on Sunday.

While people continued to flock to these camps even on Sunday, the state administration said it hoped that once the security forces had flushed out the Bodo militants, people would find the courage to return home.

The situation, triggered by the attacks of armed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) militants on December 23 on non-Bodo tribal villages, worsened after the attack victims hit back at Bodo villagers, leading to bloodshed on both sides. Soon, there were ethnic clashes, forcing villagers to flee their homes from the three upper Assam districts.

Government sources said refugees living in the Kokrajhar district camps alone numbered more than 42,000, while refugees at Sonitpur and Chirang camps were around 40,000 till Saturday evening. Sources added that the total figure did not include those who had fled to West Bengal.

The refugee camps present a scene of chaos and gloom, with hundreds, or even thousands, living in cramped spaces.

While most schools, health centres and local community halls have been turned into camps, they are inadequate for the large number of refugees. “People can somehow huddle together as its winter. Things would have been worse if it was summer,” said tribal leader Inus Tudu from Kokrajhar's Pokhriguri, one of the villages that had come under heavy attack on December 23.

Most people in the camps in Kokrajhar and Chirang complain that they are being treated like cattle.

If the Pokhriguri camp—one of the biggest in the district—is representative of the situation, the ground reality suggests that things are inadequate and poorly managed.

The camp has been set up in two adjacent one-storeyed buildings—a primary school and a health centre. The school's main hall has no roof. People have complained that they cannot sleep at night due to the cold, but no measure was taken for three days.

“We have been trying to keep matters under control, but it's a difficult situation. Thousands have been walking into the camps with whatever they managed to take away in hurry,” said a senior administrative official at a camp in Chirang.

He admitted that the number of camps are insufficient for the refugees coming in.
“It's becoming increasingly difficult to house so many people. Although we have commandeered almost all schools and health centres in the area, the space is not enough. We have to think of their safety too,” he said.

The safety cover provided by security forces is probably the biggest reason the villagers have agreed to live under such dismal conditions.

Most camps are guarded by the armed battalion of the Assam Police, with the Central forces providing an additional ring of security along the entry points.
“There’s at least some respite, because with policemen standing guard, we won't be attacked at night,” said Masina Murmu, who left behind everything to spend the last three nights in a hall with nearly 200 others.

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