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Indian villagers in crossfire of Maoist conflict

Paramilitiaries from Patta Godam camp
Locals are not optimistic the government will be able to clear the area of Maoists

The Indian government recently launched a major offensive against Maoist rebels in central and eastern states. The BBC's Geeta Pandey travelled to Bijapur district in the southern part of Chhattisgarh state to meet tribespeople whose lives have been torn apart by years of conflict.

Bijapur used to be part of Dantewada district where Maoist rebels, also called Naxalites, killed 76 paramilitary troops on Tuesday in their deadliest ever attack on India's security forces.

The new district was carved out of Dantewada in May 2007. Two months earlier, the rebels killed 55 security personnel there - their worst strike until Tuesday's killings.

Last week, we travelled nearly 450km (280 miles) from Raipur, the state capital, to Bhairamgarh in Bijapur - as we got closer the drive got bumpier.

The road between Gidam (in Dantewada) and Bhairamgarh is missing in places.

Seeking shelter

"Work has been going on this stretch for 10 years now, but the Maoists will not let the authorities build this road," says S Karimuddin, a senior journalist based in the region.

Map

Bhairamgarh is famous for its wildlife sanctuary - containing tigers, leopards, wild buffalo and hill hyenas.

But today, these jungles are controlled by Maoists who come out and strike at will before melting away into the forests.

Our destination is Patta Godam camp. Scores of mud and brick homes with thatched roofs hug the two sides of the road. Seeking shelter here are people from 16-17 tribal villages.

The camps first appeared in 2005 after the birth of Salwa Judum, the term for anti-rebel militias. As rebels began attacking Salwa Judum supporters, many villagers sought shelter.

Initially, nearly 50,000 tribespeople came to Patta Godam - it is estimated that more than 20,000 remain in the camp and in others in these districts.

The Patta Godam camp is well protected. As we arrive, we run into 24 paramilitaries patrolling the area.

Rebel attacks

Somaru from Pondum village has been living in the camp since 2005.

Jailal
We don't even put our heart in the farming. We don't know when we may have to run again, when we may die
Jailal, villager

"The rebels wanted us to come to their meetings and support them, but we were busy in our farms and fields. So they got angry and attacked our village two or three times. They killed six villagers. So we came here," he says.

More than 400 villagers from Pondum are living in the camp. Only 100 - mostly old people - continue to live in the village.

Hapka Lakhur shows me his maimed leg.

"My family was rich, we had money and cattle. One night the rebels attacked us. They came at midnight. They were armed with guns and knives - they took away all our animals, goats and cows. They sliced my leg at the knee and twisted it."

His father, Hapka Yatu, was the village chief.

"A few days ago, he had fever so he went to see the witch doctor in the village. The Naxalites killed him. They slit his throat. He had deep cuts on his chest," Hapka Lakhur says.

Sukh Ram from Baeel village says they have been caught in the crossfire.

"The police will come to seek information about the rebels and then the rebels will come to the village and beat us up. They would ask - why did police come to your village? They killed our village head, they said he was a police informer."

'Caught in the middle'

Pandru and Shanti came to live in the camp with three young children because the "violence in the village got too much to bear", but every day they dream of returning home.

Pandru and Shanti, villagers in the Bijapur district of India
Many villagers are not aware of the government's offensive

"Life in the village is good, but we can go only if we are given protection," Pandru says.

Most villagers in the camp say they have never gone back to their villages, in some cases just 5km (three miles) away.

The Maoists say they are fighting for the rights of the poor, but ironically it's the poor tribespeople and villagers who have been caught in the crossfire and displaced from their homes.

From the camp, we go to nearby villages looking for those who have returned home.

We travel for several kilometres on a dirt track and then drive in the fields to get to Jaigur village.

Here we meet Jailal who spent a month in Motwada camp.

"All the men from my village went to the camp, but we came back after a month because we had to look after our land, home and cattle. Moreover, the rebels were targeting camps too."

'Cannot be beaten'

Jailal says his brother was the village head and wanted to go against the Naxalites, so they killed him.

Villager in the Bijapur district
It is a part of India where few feel safe

"We don't support the Maoists or the Salwa Judum. We are caught in the middle," he says.

"Because of the Maoists, we don't even put our heart in the farming. We don't know when we may have to run again, when we may die," he says.

A few minutes' walk from Jailal's house is the Indravati river - the Maoists live in the hills and forests just across the river.

To be living in such close proximity to the rebels, it's obvious that Jailal and other villagers have made their peace with the Maoists.

The rebels are often seen passing through the village, I'm told. And the last time the security forces came into the area was six months ago.

Indian authorities recently announced a massive anti-Maoist offensive in several states, including Chhattisgarh.

Nearly 21,000 paramilitary troops have been deployed in the state, and officials told the BBC fighting was going on just 10km (six miles) from Patta Godam camp.

But neither the camp residents nor the villagers in Jaigur have heard of the offensive.

And people are not optimistic that the government will be able to clear the area of Maoists.

Jailal says: "They will not leave. They cannot be beaten quickly and easily."

Tuesday's attack in Dantewada reinforces that belief.

Karimuddin, the journalist, says: "This generation is unlikely to see peace in their lifetime. Next generation, maybe."



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