“You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb the world to peace”
-Michael Franti and Spearhead
March 03, 2002 Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Right now is certainly not the best time for a foreigner, actually, for anyone to be in this little part of the world. There is chaos in the air. Chaos that is foreign in my shielded world.
In a place where religion is the forefront of tensions, this past week, tensions prevailed. With the recent attacks between Hindus and Muslims, the city that I come to for refuge from my isolated village, was anything but. I came “home” to find the restaurant around the corner from my flat going up in flames, the stores shut down, a city with over five million people quite; a ghost town.
In India, I have always been a “Canadian”. However, this past week, I have been a Muslim before a Canadian. I have never experienced my religion (one, which I don't even practice), as an issue, as a factor in my safety.
Living in an apartment complex where Muslims are not even allowed to own property has always been uneasy for me. However, the unease has been ten-fold. With a curfew in the city, my fellow Canadians and I (some of whom are also Muslim) have been living with our curtains drawn, rationing our food to last, and passing the idleness with endless games of Monopoly. We packed bags with our valuables in case we have to get out fast.
After a talk with the Canadian embassy, they recommended a move for a few days, so we've come to a university that has 24-hour surveillance. We've come here with our “packed bags of valuables” and under different, non-Muslim names. So here, I'm Mary Jones. I'm glad that I have a ticket home waiting for me, that I am able to go to a refuge that will not disappoint me, that I have an option to leave. It's humbling, actually, humiliating that I have this privilege.
April 09, 2002 Ahmedabad, Gujarat
It was one of my the most beautiful days, though much of what I saw was ugly and made me want to turn away and run, come back to the safety and security of my home, where I could shut my eyes and wash away everything that I saw. It was beautiful because in the midst of all of it, I reaffirmed myself and everything that is true to me. I am full of emotion; as I write, I cry.
Zarfeen and I went to one of the relief camps for Muslim riot victims with a Christian relief agency. With our smiling Brother Vijay, we boarded a rickshaw that took us to a place that would affect us both tremendously.
Along the way, we wove in and out of streets where Muslims usually flourish, selling crafts, vegetable vendors singing their tune and bustling all around. This was not the scene today, more than one month after it has all started, the streets did not host the scores of people as usual. Rather, Brother Vijay pointed out the rows of building that had been burnt. More than a month later, I could still smell the smoke; perhaps it was in my mind.
We made our way inside the gates where hundred of people were sitting and children scurrying around. Our first stop in the small and overcrowded camp was the equally small and overcrowded school, where 175 children sat before two teachers, not even old enough to have finished school themselves. They stood and greeted us with an affectionate “Salam Alaikum”. After a few smiles, we left. I wondered if they understood what had happened to their families, if they understood that this could very well be their future, their fate?
Shahnaz was the 27-year-old mother of smiling Afreen. She stood outside the camp days after the riots began until someone discovered her and brought her in. No one knows anything about her and she has no relatives. What is worse, is that she does not seem to know anything about herself except that she saw her husband burn alive. In our 20 minute conversation, she was from three different places and had four different occupations.
Crowds of people gathered around — I'm not sure if we were the main attraction or Shahnaz. I felt like I was exploiting her being there. What made it worse was the photographers taking her photo. I wondered if it was to help find her family or if it was to make a sweet story in tomorrow's paper. Just a story to keep people from forgetting what is happening on the “other" side of the river.
We sat on the ground with a group of women who, under their sad misconceptions, thought that we could actually do something for them. They rattled off what they had lost, what they wanted, how it had affected them. That they have no choice but to smack their kid when they start crying and wanting something, that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back, that they want to leave, but at least in the camps they receive two meals a day.
I lost it, I started crying. In front of all of them, I was a spectacle as it was, what message was I sending to them by crying? I felt ashamed after I dried my eyes. What right do I have to cry? I left, closed my eyes, and washed away everything that I saw. They are still there. “If you have no hope, how do you expect us to?” one lady asked while squeezing my hand.
The next couple of hours was spent outside the camp at someone's home. I was numb; I couldn't participate in any of the conversations. How everything seemed so normal inside their home, and only a 100m over, what people were living. We listened to stories of the genocide taking place, of the role the police play. I have no faith in the system. How can I?
I did come home. I did close my eyes and forget. I did take a bath and wash away any remembrance of the day. I know I won't forget though. I hope I don't forget.