Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots.

Arriving in Kokrajhar, I cannot say I felt a tension in the air even though two armed policeman with AK47’s met us at the airport. I can say though that it felt like a tough place to live. It was cold, damp and often foggy in the mornings and evenings. It was that sort of cold that could really get into your bones. People in the streets huddled around open fires and the shops closed early. It was definitely not the sort of weather where I would want to be living in the remnants of a burnt out house or sleeping on a thin piece of tarpaulin in a relief camp tent. In the nearby villages and surrounding areas this is what many were doing.

 

Kokrajhar at 6am was invariably foggy and cold inhabited only by morning workers and street dogs.

Hot chai and roti and sabji, a simple vegetable breakfast, were much appreciated in the bitterly cold mornings. I enjoyed several morning meals at this little stall near the train station.

Men keep warm by burning rubbish.

Many signs in the town spoke of communal tensions though many would say this was not a strictly communal problem but a problem between established communities and new Bengali speaking Muslims who it was felt were now ‘encroaching’.

Leaving the town to visit the nearby villages and relief camps.


There was a strong military presence in the area to keep peace between the indigenous Bodo people and Bengali speaking Muslim communities.

 

 

I can still smell that damp sooty odour that pervaded what was left of the burnt out homes I visited in Bodoland, North East India. The smell hung heavily in the rooms that had just a piece of tarpaulin to keep the rain out. Many of the door and window frames had been turned to charcoal that blackened your fingers. Others had been ripped out or stolen  leaving jagged holes in the walls. These were awful, depressing skeletons of buildings that  showed flashes of their previous elegance, revealing an odd panel of  vivid colour or a remnant of careful joinery. Stone shelves with little bottles, broken kitchen ware, books strewn in the rubble, children’s toys;  furnishings were either stolen in the looting or  burnt beyond any more usefulness. It was immensely  saddening to see what were clearly well cared for homes reduced to this awful state.

In the BTAD, ( Bodoland Territorial Area Districts) two communities of people had each been burning down the others villages in an ongoing­ cycle of destruction and retaliation. These two communities are the indigenous Bodos, (an ethnic group made up of both Hindu’s and Christians) and Bengali speaking Muslim settlers (many of whom Bodo people consider to be illegal immigrants) This problem was  further complicated by it being very hard to tell the difference between established Bengali speaking Muslim residents of Assam and a newly arrived Bengali Muslim migrants who the Bodos would see as encroaching on their land. There is no system in place to distinguish the two. In this sense the violence was not communal but more to do the frustration of this illegal immigration.

The riots had forced  both communities to flee to the government funded relief camps for shelter and protection from further violence. People were too scared to return to their villages. They often had no idea what damage may have been done to their homes or how many of their possessions might  have been looted. Ironically, in some areas, villages were actually completely evacuated by both communities, Bodos and Bengalis speaking Muslims. In these areas they were at least spared the horror of returning to a burnt down home since no one community remained to destroy the other.  In others, only the poorest houses were torched so the looters could come back and steal from the richer homes at their leisure – such was the control the rioters held in those places total domination for days — they could take time coming back with cars and trucks to loot everything of value.  Some villages had simply all the homes  burnt down and looted and nobody knew what devastation they would come back to.

Looking at the destruction of houses in the Bodo village of Amin Khata, near Bhowraguri I was particularly struck by the plight of the family Brahma. Amin Khata is a small community of Bodos surrounded by a larger Muslim population and so were quite vulnerable during the riots. Like many around them, the the Brahmas were people endeavouring to live simple lives, needing very little from the outside world and before the riots they were almost entirely self sufficient. They had a good size plot of land, food from their garden, wood from their forest and fish from the community pond.

The Brahmas, a Bodo family, lived in what had clearly once been a pretty house. It comprised several buildings with an inner courtyard that was now a scene of utter devastation. Out of major buildings only two remained. The other two had been been completely destroyed leaving only charred spikes of timber pointing from crumbling masonry. What was left of these buildings was unsalvageable, structurally unsafe and would have to be completely demolished.

Lal Mohan, the father of this household had funnelled all his retirement savings into creating a comfortable retirement for himself and his family but nothing lavish. He had invested most of his money, about 2.5 lakh, ( about £3000) in a rice mill which was stolen along with all their possessions, That mill was a prized possession that would make money to feed his family in future years and even though it was kept some 5km away, was stolen along with everything else. He had been a tax inspector, a job sometimes thought of as corrupt but according to his son, he had been an honest man and he had not taken bribes. So, when he had to flee had did so with very little money. His son seemed on the one hand proud of his father but also seemed to be wrestling with the notion that his father’s honesty had now left them destitute.

Before the rioting started, local leaders got word to the villagers that they would have to flee because there was going to be trouble. Lal Mohan and his son Mrityaraj, who also lived at the house, decided they would stay to defend their property. His wife, daughter in law and her baby fled to a relief camp. Unable to risk evacuating by road, since no vehicles dared to come down these roads now, they left on foot through the fields and eventually made it to the camp. Shortly after they had left – Lal Mohan and his son could here shouting from the woods all around them, threatening terrible things -‘Get out we are going to kill you’ and such like.  So, they took off into the fields hoping that they would not run into any mobs along the way. He said the voices were coming from every direction around the village, they were naturally very scared that they would be caught and possibly killed.
Lal Mohan was one of 5 brothers who shared the family inheritance. He became a guardian to one brother, Ejadar, who had been struck by lightning around age 8 a rendered completely blind. The family had cared for him but when they had to flee could not take him with them since he could not find his way through the woods and fields. During the time at their home, I had watched Ejadar navigate his way around the few square meters that seemed to be the limit of his environment. Every step was was a painfully slow journey as he groped his way inch by inch.
So, Ejader stayed behind, like many people who for various reasons found themselves still at their homes when the rioters came. Invariably these people were killed, but for some reason Ejadar was spared, and when the police came by 7 days later found him still alive having sustained himself on only jack fruit. One can only imagine what he must have felt in whilst buildings burnt down adjacent to him and the rioters shouted and looted — it must have been a living nightmare.

And so Lal Mohan and his son returned to their home 2 months after being in the relief camp to see the extent of the damage to their property. They were completely devastated when confronted with the reality of the loss — everything was gone. It was four months before they felt safe enough to move back permanently to the shells of buildings that had been their family home.

 

Each burnt down household was issued a government grant as compensation. The grant of Rs 22,700 would be quickly swallowed up – Mrityaraj had a son in school and his hostel fees and boarding alone were Rs2000 per month. Finding ways to make money was clearly going to be very hard. Many villagers after all were in exactly the same position with little money to spend on any non essential items.

When I first arrived, for two days I found carpenters fashioning a piece of wood which I assumed was part of a window frame to repair it. I later realised that they were attempting to construct a loom in order that Mrityarj’s wife may start to make clothes for the family again and perhaps sell a little cloth to make some income. The priority was to make some money first, not to rebuild their home.

Now, a small team of builders were painstakingly constructing various size panels from strips of bamboo. These would fill the holes where the windows were and also to cover the roof which had been destroyed from long hours of fire. I was struck by a bitter irony though – all this work was temporary since the family could not afford a proper reconstruction. So, they were in a sense throwing good money after bad. They would be paying twice, once to to these extensive temporary repairs and again when they came to do a more permanent job. Even the main building that had not been completely destroyed had suffered so much heat damage to its structure that it was no longer safe and ultimately this building too would have to be demolished. They were not in a position to even start tentatively rebuilding since the primary concern was simply to have a little shelter on these bitterly cold and damp nights in January. Nobody was sure if the temporary roof would survive the first monsoon – it would really depend on how severe it was and the wind direction.

Lal Mohan silently observed the progress of his temporary roof and his temporary window coverings that allowed no light to enter those blackened rooms. He then sat down again by the open fire outside his house, occasionally pushing a piece of wood further into the flames as it burnt away. His hands covered his face in that way that people do when they do not wish to betray their feelings.
This family carried on with normal things except their lives were very far from normal. I wondered how they would survive with their temporary roof when the monsoon batters them in May. I wondered how they would find money to demolish their home and rebuild and whether Lal Mohan, who according to his wife had now started drinking heavily out of despair, had the heart to carry on.

 

This Bodo man returns to his house to contemplate future rebuilding work. There was a real fear that repairs were futile because of the risk of further rioting.

 

A Bodo woman villager cooks in what is left of her kitchen. Her house has been almost totally destroyed.

Some recoconstruction was happening in this Bodo house. Not everyone had the means to fund such work. Most of the work I did see was temporary in nature, mostly to keep out the wind and rain. These men were replacing doors and windows that had been ripped out with crude corrugated iron.

A house rebuilt with corrugated iron in this Bengali speaking Muslim village. These people were just as welcoming and friendly to us as the indigenous Bodo people.

A Bengali speaking Muslim relief camp. This camp was only a few hundred meters away from their burnt out village. They were largely still too scared to return.

Lal Mohan sits by the fire amongst the ruins of his family home in the Bodo village of Amin Khata, near Bhowraguri.

 

Ejadar, Lal Mohan’s blind brother was left to fend for himself when the rioting mobs came to the village.


Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots. Images from Kokrajhar and the story of one family affected by the Assam riots.

8 Comments

  1. Margaret Swan - Devastating story - so, so sad yet beautifully captured. I have to wonder how indeed they might have fared in the monsoon.

  2. Ed Wojtecki - As much as we westerners we view this as dismal. The human spirit as it is, some where in these photos is an individual that believes they are doing better then the next guy. Remarkable photo’s . Some interior shots of homes look like oil on canvas.

  3. Adam Riley - Powerful images Mark, your ability to tell a visual story is amazing!

    • Mark - Thanks Adam - thats really heartening to hear. Im glad you feel the story is there. When you are 'in the field', as it were, taking these images and you know you need to create a story it can be very hard to find that continuity. I find wedding so much easier in that respect - they are so obvious. It is all too easy to go for the picture instead of the story and then wonder how you are going to shoe-horn the picture into the story when perhaps its a nice image but has little relevance. A learning process I guess. Im hoping to go back there again.

  4. Rob Dodsworth - Some truly stunning images Mark. And a really powerful essay. Incredibly tragic but your images captures bot the heartache and despair as well as the power of the human spirit to carry on and pull together. A very worthy cause and a workshop I would one day hope to attend.

  5. Jason Parsons - Just stumbled across your site, while finding inspiration for a wedding. Just wondering, did you an award for this documentary? If not, It's a crying shame.....

    • Mark - Hi Jason - No awards but these images were published in the magazine 'Caravan' - a journal of Indian politics and culture. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Dave Packer - Great story telling through your images.

Leave a Comment