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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 December, 2003, 09:41 GMT
Healing the orphans of Gujarat's riots

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Raigad, Maharashtra

Shafiq is eight and wants to be a policeman. Perhaps that is because his most vivid memories are not of law and order, but carnage.
Shafiq, Gujarat schoolboy
Shafiq bears the scars of the Gujarat rioting

"They surrounded us from all sides and set us on fire inside our compound. Of the 11 family members, my father, grandmother, uncle, my sister, my auntie, died. Eight died. Three of us survived - me, my younger sister and my mother."

Shafiq comes from Narora Patia, the area of the Indian state of Gujarat worst affected by riots between Hindus and Muslims last year.

He too was set alight. He has the physical scars but the emotional ones run deeper.

Now he is here among a clutch of young children in a classroom in Raigad, 200 kilometres from Bombay (Mumbai).

This special school, tucked away on the edge of the Arabian sea, is where more than 100 Gujarati children are undergoing a unique process of rehabilitation.

Horrific tales

The children are busy rehearsing for their school play.

Girls at the school in Gujarat
The emotional wounds will not easily heal, psychologists say

"Let me tell you about the 16th century. Do you know what a century is?" asks a boy, playing the role of a history teacher.

The youngest in the group replies eagerly: "Yes sir, a century is 100 runs [in cricket], Tendulkar's century."

The mock teacher mockingly corrects him: "A century is 100 years, silly boy."

The laughter is slowly returning.

Just 20 months ago, many of these Muslim children saw their parents, grandparents and other relatives burned or hacked to death in the western state.

At least 1,000 died, hundreds of families were made homeless and many children orphaned in India's worst communal violence since independence.

The burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train in Godhra sparked a fearful retaliation by Hindus against Muslims.

Yasmin is one of Shafiq's schoolmates and just little older than him.

She is clearly a lot more affected. Her dull eyes and expressionless face tell her story.

Like Shafiq, Yasmin saw her family die. She is working hard on her English because she wants to become a doctor.

Allah is with us and he'll take revenge
Raja Bundu Bhai Qureshi

The horrific tales seem endless. It seems hard to believe the school's activities and games of cricket can make life simple again for these children - children like 13-year-old Raja Bundu Bhai Qureshi.

"They killed my sister and my mother right before my eyes," he says. They were burned to death by a mob.

"They tore the clothes off my neighbour. I was hit by a stone and fell unconscious. When I regained consciousness I saw the woman had no clothes on."

The organisers of the school, run by the non-governmental organisation the Royal Education Society, say it is important to bring stability back to these lives.

Rehana Undre Begum and her staff have been looking after these 121 boys and girls for more than a year.

She says she treats them like her own children.

"In the beginning they were missing their parents. Especially they missed their mothers. I thought I was like a mother to them, so I had to allow them to do what they did with their mothers," says Rehana.

"Sometimes they want to comb my hair, they want to sit on my lap, want to sleep on my lap, they want to sit on my shoulders, they pinch my cheeks, they want to feel as if I am their mother."

It looks like Rehana's nurturing is paying off.

The children are neat, well-fed and reasonably focused on their studies.

Constant monitoring

But what of their emotional scars? How can they cope with thoughts of revenge?

Rehana Undel Begum and boys at the school
Rehana (back) with her boys: "I feel I'm their mother"

Alfraj Bano, 10, says: "When I grow up I'll find out who killed my grandmother and my sister."

Raja Bundu Qureshi wants to leave it to God: "Sometimes when I remember I feel like taking revenge when I grow up. But Allah is with us and he'll take revenge."

It's obvious why Shafiq wants to become a policeman: "Sometimes I feel I should avenge the killings of my family when I grow up. I want to become a policeman so that I can arrest them and put them in jail."

Psychiatrists say these emotional wounds will not be easily healed even though the children are now leading fairly normal lives.

Dr Shamsah Sonawalla, a child psychiatrist, says: "Psychological rehabilitation is one of the most important things because while physical needs are taken care of a little bit more easily, the psychological scar remains for a long time

"The outcome can be quite disastrous, from children experiencing depression to post-traumatic disorder to extreme anger, a sense of revenge and this is how we might be creating future rioters. So, psychological rehabilitation and constant monitoring are extremely important."

Rehana Undre, though, believes religious instruction will help heal her children, so that the cause of the Gujarat orphans' sorrow may become their salvation.

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