Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Shawwal / Dhu'l-Qa'dah 1423 H
January 2003
Volume 16-01 No : 193
Camps \ Workshops

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Investigation


When the Past Haunts...


When the Past Haunts...

Living in the present is enlightenment. But for the victims of the Gujarat carnage,
the past continues to haunt them. When Muslim children were asked what they wanted to do when they grew up,
many said they wanted to take revenge for what happened to them.

By A Staff Writer

Gujarat RiotThe elections in Gujarat has shifted the focus from the issues of those who suffered from the carnage. The election campaign and the race for controlling the levers of power have put the problems of the victims under the wrap. One issue that is invisible and often neglected is the post-traumatic psychological problems. Mental-health professionals who visited Gujarat have reported cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems among the riot-hit in the state even ten months after the carnage. Yet, there is not much help being provided on the mental-health front, they say.

“The kind of response seen after the quake was good,” says Dr Yousuf Macchiswala, head of the psychiatry department at Masina hospital, Byculla. He recalls calling up counsellors and asking them to help in Gujarat soon after the quake. “More than 100 people responded,” he says. “Now, I can hardly find anyone.”

Fatima Rashid, a clinical psychologist, says that the reaction of mental-health professionals is not an isolated one. “Even if you look at fund-raising activities, it is much less than what was there after the quake,” says Rashid, who is working with the riot victims. A study on post-traumatic disorder among riot-affected women in Ahmedabad, conducted by Dr Kyati Mehta and Dr G.K. Vankar of B.J. Medical College in Ahmedabad, found that 113 of 300 women who had been exposed to communal violence showed symptoms of the disorder.

Both the counsellors had initially organised a training programme for teachers working in informal schools in the relief camps in Gujarat. “Soon it became apparent that not only the children, but their mothers were also affected and needed psycho-social care,” the study says. About 300 women were interviewed for the study.

Counsellors who worked in Gujarat echo the study’s findings. Many riot-hit had still not returned to their homes due to fear, says Rashid, who visited Gujarat last month. Dr Harish Shetty, who is working in 14 villages in the Anand-Kheda belt in Gujarat with a few local organisations, adds that the elections aggravated the minority community’s fears. “Among the youth, there is a lot of anger. Anxiety and depression levels are high,” Dr Shetty adds. Counsellors would also have to work on reconciliation between the two communities, says Dr Shetty. While people were returning to their villages, the “dynamics is different”, he adds. For instance, a Muslim plumber said he would go back to his village because he knew that the nature of his job was such that people would need his services.

At the same time, a family that earned its daily bread by doing embroidery work said they wouldn’t go back, he recalls. Such a situation demanded urgent mental-health intervention, but the scores of counsellors who landed after the quake were now missing, says Dr Shetty. Children are the most vulnerable. Statistics cannot portray the horrors that children suffered in riot-torn Gujarat, but they can be good indicators. After the riots began this March, an estimated 1,000-odd children in relief camps took up jobs to support themselves and their families, says Dr Satchit Balsari, a research associate in the Programme on Humanitarian Crises at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr Balsari spent many weeks in August and September independently studying the mental health of children in Gujarat. According to Dr Balsari, even as late as September, there were children playing around in the camps, when they should have been in school. “In the case of families who had moved, the children couldn’t get admissions in schools easily because they had lost their documents in the riots. Most important, many families couldn’t afford to send the children to school anymore”.

In fact, at a round-table conference of non-governmental organisations held recently, the participants estimated that around 1,000 children in the camps had become child labourers. That’s not surprising considering the number of people who lost everything in the riots. To make money, they had to pool in all human resources.

“The conversations I had with children were extremely disturbing” said Dr Balsari. “I had accompanied a child counsellor from Delhi while he interviewed the children in the camps. We asked the children what they wanted to do when they grew up, and many said they wanted to take revenge for what happened to them. I spoke to 100-odd children, and only one child said that he wanted to be a good human being when he grew up.”

The counsellor also provided the children with sheets of paper and crayons. Four out of every five children drew weapons, burning houses and broken mosques. The children drew various weapons in detail. They were familiar with swords, guns and bombs that mobs hurl. One child drew a pair of chopped legs; another drew a woman on fire. The children in camps are seeking justice because they have lost all hope in the establishment. They witnessed the gruesome deaths of a large number of family members as well as the complicity or apathy of the state machinery, and they feel forced to take matters into their own hands. If you draw parallels to the West Asia crisis, it’s not difficult to imagine that these children are willing to make extreme sacrifices for revenge.

In the case of the children in the majority community, their beliefs are shaped by what their families have to say. And most middleclass families condoned the violence.

The most important thing is that the children should get back to a normal routine. That’s the case in any crisis situation, whether natural or man-made. This is completely absent in Gujarat, though the estimate in April was that there were around 42,000 children in the relief camps. And the children outside the camps also need help.

We have to work at removing the biases on both sides and the best way to do that is through education, counselling children through education. The current education system does not address these issues. There are a few NGOs who are working on providing children with supplementary educational facilities that explicitly address communal issues and encourage children to think and analyse. They are also working with teachers, who could have biases. The NGOs have been approaching schools and asking the authorities to let them work with the students. One reason for this could be the fact that there was very little state involvement in the relief and rehabilitation efforts. “After the quake, state governments instructed mental health professionals to pitch in, which wasn’t done now,” Dr Balsari explains. Another reason could be that counsellors had difficulty “harmonising their own perspective” faced with a rift between two communities, he adds.

Moreover, many counsellors feared for their own safety initially, says Dr Macchiswala,who visited Gujarat immediately after the riots began. A counsellor, who requested anonymity, added that many mental-health professionals were not comfortable dealing with riot victims as it threw up uncomfortable questions.

“Some were scared they would be branded as anti- national if they worked with riot victims, though I cannot say that there were overt religious reasons for their not visiting Gujarat,” he adds.

Psychiatrist Rajesh Parikh says that counsellors are not equipped to deal with man-made disasters. “There is no training given to mental-health professionals in disaster management and that is the case everywhere in the world, not just India,” he says.

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