Muzaffarnagar relief camp: 'We watch our children make it from one night to the next'

MuzaffarnagarA mother and child warm themselves at the Barnawi camp in Shamli; (inset) a child washes her hands at the Malakpur camp. photos: Tashi Tobgyal

Since the Muzaffarnagar riots, a number of children have died in relief camps, unable to cope with the hunger, cold and lack of hygiene. Pritha Chatterjee describes a night in the life of the refugees

Ayesha's mother shakes one of the three small tins that make up her kitchen, hoping it will have some last few grains of sugar. The daily supply of 300 grams milk stopped over a week ago, so the tea is always black. Not that Ayesha would mind, since her mother ensures it is sugary. Ayesha is four and her mother, 20, can only make her one glass of tea that must be drunk in small sips to last "as long as possible".

Ayesha's father, Irfan, a carpenter, has gone to Basikala in Muzaffarnagar to look for work. A small fire of dried leaves and sticks from sugarcane fields burns outside their tarpaulin tent, the only other comfort they have in the cold nights on the open fields in western UP's Shamli district.

It's 11 pm at Malakpur, one of Shamli district's relief camps and where 699 families displaced after the Muzaffarnagar riots are camping under open skies with only tarpaulin sheets for shelter. While her mother looks for sugar, little Ayesha moves through a crowd of children to get as close as possible to another fire. She has no shoes, and the fire is the only comfort for her tiny feet. Children claw at one another, trying to get close to the small pile of burning sticks.

A spark flies on to Ayesha's right foot. She screams and jumps back. A patch of brown skin has come off, leaving a reddening wound. Her mother rushes out with a dupatta and a bowl of water from the tubewell, her tears flowing. "It's a small burn. By morning it will be fine," says her grandmother. The sugar and the tea are forgotten.

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