Phulbani, Orissa: The road to safety is fraught with danger.
As attacks on Christian houses and churches continue, Christian villagers are forced to flee to one of two places—deep, dark jungles or relief camps set up by the government. They are often ambushed by mobs who block the narrow roads with felled trees.
The village of Dalagam lies on the way to Chakapada where Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, whose murder last month triggered the violence, was given samadhi—considered a saint, he was buried, not cremated—and is just over 10km from Tikabali where a relief camp has been organized. About 120 Central Reserve Police Force personnel guard the camp at Tikabali, a block headquarters, as the plumes of smoke rise nearby.
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Inside Dalagam, the heat from the burning huts is unbearable; the flames have even singed the leaves of the tall coconut trees and the sudden collapsing roofs and timbers make eerie noises. Only a brood of hens and some piglets remain. None of the remaining Hindu villagers is willing to speak. Some refuse to even come out of their huts. “They were all outsiders,” is all a young woman says.
As the Christians flee, they slowly shed the few possessions they had gathered to save what they can—usually, their own life. One tried to escape mobs on a bicycle, then abandoned it and ran off into the fields. The bike smoulders, carrying a mattress and a trunk filled with books and a pencil box.
A man cowers behind some bushes, breaks cover, and approaches, emboldened by the sight of cameras instead of weapons.
“They came barely an hour ago and destroyed everything,” says the man, Raoul Digal, babbling incoherently in fear, for the most part. “There were villagers as well as outsiders in the mob.”
He asks us to help shift his family, which is hiding in the jungle on the fringes of the village, to the relief camp. On a signal, his wife, son and brother-in-law emerge from the undergrowth and head towards us.
However, precious time is lost as the family tries to gather its belongings, which are lying all over the rice field. Remnants of the mob, which by now has regrouped about 500 metres away across the fields, is irate on seeing us with them.
Shaking their fists and mouthing curses, they start running towards us. While the Digals run back into the jungle, the young boy remains with us. As the attackers are slowed down by the flooded rice fields, we run back to our waiting car, where by now, a large group of Christians has congregated. Our pursuers turn back.
At the car, another villager, 40-something Vigneshwar Digal, begs us to help his son, who, he says, is in the jungle and dying. We cannot turn away.
So begins an almost 7km climb through dense vegetation. The villagers have hacked a path so narrow through the thick undergrowth that walking only single-file is possible. After almost two hours, we come across a clearing filled with women and children and a boy lying on a cot under a plastic sheet. As we get closer, we are shocked to see the state of the boy, almost repulsed at what he has become.
Dhiren Digal is emaciated and has been reduced to a skeleton but his legs are swollen. His large eyes stare blankly. Vigneshwar insists his son is 15 but the bundle we see curled up on the cot looks barely half that. Apparently the boy suffered from polio and some degenerative disease of the bones.
“We have been lying in the jungle for a week now with just a little chira (flattened rice) and rainwater”, said Vigneshwar, adding, “If you don’t help us move Dhiren, he will surely die.”
And so begins young Dhiren’s journey back to our car in a makeshift stretcher of tattered bedsheets. The stillness of the jungle is punctuated by the cries of the boy who is in excruciating pain.
Finally, at 4pm, Dhiren Digal is taken to the block hospital at Tikabali where his family finds shelter at the relief camp. “All his case history papers are burnt,” says Vigneshwar, when asked by the resident medical officer about Dhiren’s illness. (Later on, NDTV’s Bhubaneswar bureau chief Sampad Mahapatra speaks to authorities, who arrange for the boy to be transferred to better care in Berhampore.)
We resume our long delayed journey to Chakapada after being assured by local authorities that they had cleared all road blocks. The narrow hill road to Chakapada passes through deep, dark, jungles where the only sound is that of crickets and raindrops dripping off leaves. Dark and forbidding even in daytime, the forests look particularly eerie at dusk.
As we drive deeper and deeper into the jungle, we see tell-tale plumes of smoke indicating a burning village somewhere else. As we near Chakapada, their frequency increases.
Some remote hamlet in the hills is being burnt and more families are fleeing into the deep, dark jungle which holds its own perils.
Ten kilometres from our destination, a huge sal tree has has fallen across the road, blocking it. It stops us in our tracks. With darkness closing in, we turn back for the night, leaving many more Dalagams to their fate.