x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past

Girls affected by violence in the Indian state of Orrisa celebrate Christmas at an orphanage.

NEW DELHI // Last Christmas, Morina Digal celebrated the holiday with her family. Her father, Amar Singh Digal, played Santa to his three children. The occasion had everything to cheer about - a moment for which she still craves at her new home some 2,000 kilometres away from what she knows as her real home. This year, all she wanted from Santa was her father, who was killed by Hindu mobs in Kandhamal, Orrisa, in 2008.

"I miss my family. I wish Santa could gift me my father on this Christmas," said Morina, 15. She along with 148 girls affected by the violence were adopted by an orphanage recently. Although she is happy at the new home and has found a reason to live, the pangs of losing her father and separation from her mother and two brothers, aged six and nine, run deep. "We lost everything in the violence, ours was a happy family. My father was killed and my mother is at the relief camp in Orrisa along with my brothers. It's very painful," she said.

On Christmas Eve, the memories of the horrific event are haunting her. "It was during the night when hundreds of people armed with guns and swords attacked our Devidakia village. Papa told us to flee to the jungle to safety. He was ill and couldn't escape with us. He was charred to death along with the house," she said. "Not more than 300 people escaped from the village that night, the village consisted of some 200 households."

"We have a total of 148 riot-affected girls living here. They have come from different villages of Orrisa where their houses and parents were burnt alive. It is all a sad story," said P P Michael, the founder of Michael Job orphanage, located in Sulur in the outskirts of Coimbatore city in Tamil Nadu. "A lot needs to be done to rehabilitate these victims of violence. Thousands of children are still living in relief camps under fear and unhygienic conditions, which are spread all over Orrisa. We have adopted these girls, the youngest is three years old and the oldest 21."

The mood is sombre at the orphanage but that does not mean they will not celebrate the season of joy. "The girls will don a new dress, will hold prayers and will exchange chocolates, cakes and other gifts. We also plan to take a candle light procession to pay homage to the victims of the violence," said Penelope Leao, ambassador at the Michael Job Centre. "These children have come from relief camps, which don't have basic facilities like water and electricity. The facilities provided to them by the home are motivating them to lead a happier life."

Jerusha, 13, is excited about the Christmas festival. She has much to relish. Her white dress and gifts have brought a smile to her face. Her parents live in a relief camp in Orrisa. "It's good here. We had very little to eat and little to wear there in the camps. I like this place and everyone here," she said. Jerusha and her family had managed to escape after being attacked by an extremist Hindu mob. "God has saved us and God wants his children to live with peace and happiness. We pray to God for the people of Orrisa because he can only save us."

Most of India's billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.3 per cent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 per cent of the 650,000 people are tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity. Kandhamal witnessed its worst Hindu-Christian riots in August this year. Officials put the number killed during the violence at 98, the majority of them Christians. Human rights groups and Christian organisations said the figures are much higher. Thousands of houses were destroyed and people were forced to migrate to safer areas.

The attacks started after an extremist Hindu leader linked to right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was shot dead along with five of his followers. VHP claimed that Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed by Christian missionaries and the group retaliated by destroying churches and attacking Christians. A Naxalite group later claimed responsibility, saying he divided people on the basis of religion and ethnicity.

More than 50,000 people are still living in relief camps spread across the state. They are guarded by the central reserve police and other paramilitary forces as the locals allege the state police are biased and involved in attacks on them. Last month, a pastor was stabbed to death allegedly by Hindu extremists, when he ventured outside the camp. Many of the riot victims are still living with the fear that they might be killed.

Sambit Naik, 19, is scared of going back to his village. "I have nothing ? but the camps are as good as staying at our village. We have no education and our studies were discontinued. Due to that we have come to Coimbatore home." jandrabi@thenational.ae