New Delhi: “Main aman chahta hu” (I want peace), said an 11-year-old Ahmed* at the Mustafabad relief camp here.
When I asked him if he knew what “aman” meant, he said right away — “Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. I want everyone to get calm. Because only then can we all go home, right?”
These wise words were coming from a child who had seen far too much for any person; let alone a child his age. I was taken aback by his grown-up wisdom. Most children his age talk about cartoon shows and latest games. And that’s how it should be in an ideal world. But we aren’t living in there, are we?
The young boy, Ahmed* talked to me about the need to bring peace and unity in North-east Delhi after riots destroyed homes and lives since February 23. His home burnt to ashes by rioters; all he wants is reside there again with his family.
Ahmed* is one of the children who have been bitterly scarred due to the horrors they witnessed in Delhi riots. Yet, he is running around and playing at the relief camp set up by the Delhi government in Mustafabad Eidgah for riot victims.
The children are currently staying here in makeshift tents with their families. They have lost all their belongings, and their homes. Some of them have lost their loved ones too. Their minds are replete with first-hand accounts of the violence that they saw.
“I saw men running towards our house, pelting stones at everything that came in their way. They had also started setting cars on fire,”said Ahmed*.
Ahmed* and his family lived in Shiv Vihar, one of the worst-affected areas in North-east Delhi. He escaped with his family on February 25; they abandoned their home after seeing an armed mob in a lane nearby. Their house was later set on fire.
He is most upset about losing his pigeons. “I had 17 pigeons. Two of them died as they got injured in the stone pelting. It was then that I decided to set all the others free. I opened their cage and said my goodbyes. My pigeons are there in the sky, safe," he said, adding that he still dreams about them.
Ahmed's* family has been living at the relief camp for over ten days now. He is a self-appointed ‘monitor’ as he looks after other children. “I have been told by the adults to look after them. Since I am strong, they listen to me," he said.
"I make sure they don’t run away outside the camp. I also keep an eye on outsiders,” he said.
I was given a tour of the relief camp by 10-year-old Salma*. She and her friends ran towards me as I entered the women section of the tents, saying — “I’ll take you around the camp. Here, you will find the women from Shiv Vihar, Khajuri Khas and Karawal Nagar," she said.
"Do you want to meet people who are injured or do you want to meet people with burnt houses only,” she said, with a levelled voice.
I was moved to see this young girl so desensitised to violence. We censor violent scenes in movies to protect our children. But violence, fire and even death is all too real for her.
Bright and confident, Salma* did not let go of my hand even once during the time that I was there. She often kissed me and hugged me to show affection. I had not done anything to deserve this love. But she just seemed happy to host people at the relief camp.
It was heartening to see the innocent playfulness in Salma* even in the midst of tragedy.
She introduced me to all her other friends, children who lived in the same lane as her; homes in the entire lane of Shiv Vihar were set on fire. “You have to meet Tehzeeb*. Her house was burnt too. Her bike was also burnt,” she said, nonchalantly.
It is immensely disturbing to see such young children talk about communal riots so casually. As someone in my late 20s, having covered communal violence and hate crimes, I am still not used to it.
They are also aware of the polarised reality. “We want our religious structure to be built again,” said another 9-year-old.
These children at the relief camp are in urgent need of counseling. The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights has set up a playschool here. Children are being given bags, books and colours by relief workers.
They are made to draw and paint during the day. The government has said it is going to start counselling sessions for them soon, due to the unimaginable trauma they have seen at this tender age.
Physical wounds heal much faster than the unseen wounds of mental trauma. At this point, relief and rehabilitation is the only way forward for the affected families. When I asked people if they are in need of anything at the camp, almost everyone said they had been given sufficient supplies.
There’s only thing each of them wants. “We all want to go home. We want things to go back to as they were," said Salma*.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of children.