With MSF in Assam (2004)

A carpet of vivid green paddy fields stretches away towards a range of hills. Though the monsoon has just begun here in Kokrajhar district, cyclists and brightly-painted trucks have to pick their way over a pitted road, which will only deteriorate as the rains set in. We bounce along a stretch of causeway past lines of villagers stooping to pick rice or set nets for tiny fish and frogs. The scene is attractive, as long as you don’t think too hard about the back-breaking work, or the flimsiness of the huts clustered by the roadside. It could be anywhere in rural India. It certainly doesn’t look like a war-zone.

Yet Kokrajhar is a place where, depending on who you talk to, somewhere between a hundred and three hundred thousand people have been driven from their homes by years of communal violence, where government officials work with armed guards at their office doors, businessmen live in fear of kidnap and extortion, and a fragile peace is barely maintained by a massive Indian army presence.

The district is part of Assam, the largest of India’s northeastern states, an area wedged between Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan which has spawned an alphabet soup of militant groups, all with their own grievances, political agendas and thirst for funds and recruits: the AAASS, ACMF, ANCF, ASF and the ATF (that’s just the A’s) the Hindu Liberation Army and the Muslim Liberation Army, the Muslim Liberation Front, the Liberation Tigers, the United Liberation Militia, the United Liberation Front … Nearly forty organisations are thought to be active, some representing the interests of a particular ethnic or religious community, others aspiring to carve out their own new ‘united’ nation in this particular corner of India.

The troubles of “The Northeast” (a phrase that takes in Assam and neighbouring states like Manipur and Nagaland, which have their own insurgencies) are little known outside India. The obscure politics and the protracted low-intensity nature of the various conflicts don’t grab international headlines in the style of an acute humanitarian emergency. This probably suits the Indian government, which prefers to concentrate global attention on its economic boom, or the glamour of its film industry. Unlike Kashmir, where local religious and communal tensions have taken on geopolitical significance, Assam’s woes are still an internal affair.

Not being news doesn’t make life any easier for Joseph Tudu, the headman of Sapkata camp. Tudu is a slight, wiry, black-skinned man, with the self-effacing shyness of someone who is used to hard work and ill-treatment. He also happens to be a Christian priest. One night in May 1998, his neighbours started breaking down doors in his village and slaughtering the people inside. He took his family and fled to the nearest safe place, which happened to be the local police post. The Tudus set up camp outside, hoping that the presence of the policemen would be enough to protect them. Incredible as it seems, they were joined by several thousand others who had just been through the same terrifying experience. Six years later they are still there.

Sapkata is a kind of limbo, an embryonic village that, like other long-term camps around the world, exists only because there is nowhere else for its inhabitants to go. The people of Sapkata did not run far, only a few miles in some cases, but their old lives might as well be on another planet. They are too scared to return to their homes, if those homes still exist. Their former neighbours farm their old fields. Joseph and the others supplement their government rice ration with day labour, sometimes for the very people who drove them out.

Joseph takes me on a tour of the camp, through a maze of low mud-walled huts, Men loll on wooden bedsteads, children playing at their feet. Women peer round doorways. They have the impersonal curiosity common to very poor people around the world. When a rich man goes past, you stare, but only in the way that you might stare down a well, or out at the horizon. There is something self-protecting in this blankness. Allowing yourself to be fully conscious of such a stranger’s humanity would be unbearable. After all, this is a person just like you, no better, yet with his two thousand calories a day, his dental and optical care, his access to antibiotics, and above all his height, his very physicality testifies to the existence of a world of such opulence that it makes a mockery of your own. Better this cosmological distance. Better to imagine him as a cloud, a bird, a ghost.

So a certain wary attention follows us past the pumps where the people draw water and over to the stinking open latrine where they deposit their waste. There is a hopeless and slovenly feel to these parts of the camp, at odds with the huts and their neatly-swept floors, their walls decorated with relief designs of flowers or Christian crosses. There is a reason for this contrast. Indian government policy aims to ‘rehabilitate’ the people of Sapkata. There is a program to encourage them to leave the camp and set up home elsewhere. The carrot in this situation is a resettlement payment. One of the sticks is the official ban on digging a well or installing proper sanitation. A decent infrastructure would give this place greater permanence, which the state doesn’t want. So Joseph and his people suffer all the grim and degrading consequences of dirty water; diarrhea, parasites, cholera, and above all, malaria.

When the rain comes down (as it does over me on the second morning I spend in Sapkata) the baked earth instantly dissolves and you find yourself up to your ankles in thick brown mud. The light changes and the muggy heat goes out of the air. When the rain recedes, it leaves behind a world of standing water, of paddies and puddles and lakes and ponds and ruts, a paradise for the malaria parasite. The dominant variant found here is plasmodium falciparam, which the medical textbooks drily describe as “the most pathogenic” of the four species. If P. falciparam finds its way to the brain it is capable of killing its host. In Sapkata, where the government hospital is a day’s walk away, it frequently does.

The only foreigners in Kokrajhar are my own hosts, a medical team from the aid organisation Médécins sans Frontieres who are running clinics in four camps providing basic health care and malaria treatment. At Sapkata they have converted a disused government building, constructing a waiting shelter complete with bamboo benches onto which up to four hundred people cram three days a week waiting to see Dr Swapan and Dr Anup, two young Indian doctors. Marshalling the crowds is Jeri Merritt, an American nurse striding around in operating theatre greens. She towers above the villagers, the kind of woman you’d expect to play a pioneer in a fifties Western, wearing a gingham dress and carrying a shotgun. The pace is relentless. Patients are weighed and their temperature taken. Too high? They get a paracetamol to bring it down. The worst cases lie on the ground at the front, attended by family members. Everyone is tested for malaria. The first morning I attend the clinic, more than half the patients are positive.

Frederick Hembron is typical. He is six years old and fell sick three days ago, but he likes school and insisted on going until he was too weak to continue. When TK tells frederick’s mother that her son has malaria, I expect her to look shocked or anxious. Instead she just nods. I find her reaction inexplicable, cold even, until it dawns on me that for the Hembrons, malaria is just one of those things; it’s not an exotic ‘tropical disease’ buot an everyday ailment. Every rainy season a lot of children have fever. Sometimes they die. That’s just how it is.

Resignation and humility. Another day, at an MSF clinic in Runikata camp I watch a woman carefully wet the soles of her feet in a puddle before stepping onto the scales to be weighed. The gesture is both humbling and somehow upsetting, the sign of someone who feels privileged to receive even this basic level of care. I see many such things in the camps. Here are people who are used to being last in line, who have internalised the world’s idea of them as the lowest of the low.

It’s not just the residents of the camps who use the MSF clinics. The organisation has a policy of treating anyone who comes to them, so side by side on the bamboo benches sit all the people of Kokrajhar, local villagers as well as the people they displaced. The villagers are Bodos, a tribe that is thought to have migrated here in the distant past from somewhere further to the east. They look Burmese or Tibetan, and speak their own Sino-Tibetan language. The women waiting with their babies at the clinic are dressed in horizontally tied saris woven with bold patterns of brightly coloured stripes. They look very different to the women of the camp, who are slight and dark and wear plain saris, one end thrown over the shoulder. The Bodos consider this part of Assam their rightful home, and refer to it as Bodoland. The landscape is dotted with stelae decorated with Bodo shields and swords, commemorating the “glorious martyrs” of the struggle for independence.

On a wall by the roadside: One Homeland, No rest! Tomorrow we’ll win victory! Nearby: Your money, your state, your property, your life. Crush Militants!

Unfortunately for those who dream of Bodoland, Assam is tea country. Growing, harvesting and drying tea is a labour-intensive process, and in late imperial days, British plantation owners needed more workers than they could find among the Bodo. The solution was to import labourers from Bihar and West Bengal. The last sentence doesn’t give a sense of the immensity (and the arrogance) of the project, which was a full-scale piece of social engineering. Whole tribes of forest-dwellers who had always lived on the margins of Indian society were uprooted and taken to Assam. These “adivasi” [indigenous or aboriginal] people were considered in traditional Hinduism to be “ati-sudra”, lower than the lowest untouchable castes. To the British, the Santhals, the Mundas, the Oraons and the other groups they transported to the tea gardens were “criminal tribes,” who had frequently rebelled against them and needed to be controlled. Since the 1840’s the adivasis had been gradually displaced from their forests, a process which independence has done nothing to abate, carried on now in the name of wildlife preservation or development. To the British, the tribals were landless and disorderly. Transporting large numbers of them to pick tea solved two problems at a stroke.

What happened after the British departed is explained to me by Dr Ashish Bhutani, the Deputy Commissioner of Kokrajhar. Outside his office a detachment of armed policemen lounge around on plastic chairs, clutching their rifles. Inside, Dr Bhutani, a career civil servant who was posted here three years ago, seems dwarfed by the problems he faces, or perhaps just by the enormous desk behind which he is sitting. The desk is truly a monster, inlaid with tiles and arrayed with every imaginable kind of blotter, phone, pen-holder and lamp. It is faced by a triple row of red plush chairs. Clearly Dr. Bhutani is used to receiving deputations fifteen or twenty strong. Though there is a line of junior functionaries waiting to see him, the DC has read about my last novel in the Times of India and is keen to talk. The functionaries will have to wait for their papers to be signed.

We have a souvenir photo taken. The desk yields up a pointer, and Dr Bhutani pulls a cord on the wall. In a dramatic gesture a curtain sweeps open to reveal a large scale map of the district. I half expect to be given a sealed envelope of orders. “Everything you see above here is forest,” he tells me, drawing an imaginary east-west line somewhere below the camps at Sapkata and Runikata. I am confused. I remember the area as open farmland. When I mention this, he smiles wanly. It is clear I have fallen into a trap. “Exactly! It is forest, but only on paper.” Dr. Bhutani then unfolds a story of law and the effect of legal abstractions on human lives.

It seems that in the last twenty years, illegal logging and land clearances have completely changed Kokrajhar. Once the district was covered with Sal trees. This useful hardwood was exported all over India for use as railway sleepers. When the government last surveyed the area, a quarter of a century ago, it was natural to categorise it as forest. When a forest becomes a bureaucratic forest, there are certain consequences. A forest has no farms or villages, let alone camps brimming with Internally Displaced Persons. Therefore there is no need to provide infrastructure or medical care. A person who lives in a forest (unless they are lucky enough to be a resident of a ‘recognised forest village’ ) is not supposed to be there. A community in such a place does not exist.

Yet above Dr Bhutani’s line, not existing, is a poor, mixed and growing population. Pleas from Kokrajhar officials for their masters to recognise the de facto nature of the change have always met with the curt rejoinder that they ought to view things ecologically. Official Government of India policy is reforestation. More forest is the answer. “Derecognising” this existing forest would set the nation back, greenwise.

During the last twenty years the adivasis, used to sustaining themselves partly on the dwindling resources of actual non-abstract areas of woodland have found themselves in unaccustomed conflict with the Bodos for land, food and jobs. The two communities coexisted more or less peacably until the 1990’s. Then, as Bodo nationalist sentiment was fanned by the increasing stresses and strains of shared life, armed militias were formed. The situation was made worse by a new wave of largely muslim migrants, escaping hard times in Bihar and West Bengal. In 1995 the first wave of organised violence was directed against these newcomers. Thousands were forced to flee. In 1996, the Bodo militias, growing in confidence, conducted the first of several massive pogroms against their old adivasi neighbours, which left more than a thousand of them dead.

It’s easy to get hold of small arms in this part of India. Just to the east lies the lawless and heroin-rich golden triangle. There are porous borders and neighbouring states who don’t mind at all if the Indian government has a few extra problems on its hands. Soon muslims and Adivasis had formed their own militias and embarked on a programme of ugly retaliatory violence. Stories collected by human rights groups make grim reading. A Bodo woman pulled off a bus and beheaded. Twenty muslim loggers hacked to death with machetes. A grenade thrown into an audience of adivasis as they watch a travelling movie show. The security forces, given extensive powers to ‘keep the peace’, initiated their own wave of terror. Political activists disappeared. Young men were beaten to death in police stations and village women were raped by patrols. The army, present in ever larger numbers, was said be operating a ‘shoot to kill’ policy when conducting raids.

In December 2003, the Bodos were granted limited local autonomy in the form of a ‘Bodo Territorial Council’, and several of the main militant groups signed a ceasefire. In the last few months businessmen and village headmen have still been kidnapped in Kokrajhar; people have still been found dead by the roadside; army patrols occasionally come under fire, but larger scale incidents have died down. Dr Bhutani is plainly not optimistic that this state of relative calm will persist. Digging deep for positivity, he turns the conversation to the local government’s ‘civil action program’, banging on about tree planting and gifts of handlooms to tribal women. In the middle of this he mentions that the District runs a camp where surrendered militants are being ‘rehabilitated’, fitting them for return to ordinary civilian life. I ask if I can visit. To my surprise he picks up the phone.

So begins an unsettling afternoon. From behind his monster desk Dr Bhutani calls the the police superintendent with jurisdiction over the camp. A couple of hours later I find myself in front of a smaller desk in a stifling office, as a trio of policemen brazenly discuss (in Bodo) their tactics for handling my problematic request. These senior officers give off an unpleasant vibe. Maybe it’s just their ghoulish red paan-stained mouths. Maybe it’s the unhurried way they are handling this, the little power plays they use to emphasise their authority. They are the sort of men who enjoy inspiring a little touch of fear now and again. I wonder what it would be like to be an adivasi youth in their custody.

Eventually, one of the three is directed to take us (us being Tom the photographer and two MSF staff) to the camp. What I have in mind is a short interview, perhaps with one or two former militants and a translator, in which they explain to my tape recorder why they took up arms, and why they laid them down again. A few quotes for this piece. Straightforward.

Sarah, the MSF project coordinator, is visibly nervous. She is British, a veteran of several missions who speaks in a clipped and somehow geographically-dislocated accent, the result, perhaps, of many years of communicating with people whose first language is not English. When I first meet her I ask if she is from the Western Isles of Scotland. She looks baffled and tells me she grew up in the Midlands.

When Sarah doesn’t like the way a conversation is progressing she smiles and nods. In the police superintendant’s office she is doing a lot of it. She trained as a nurse and, like many of the MSF volunteers I meet in Assam, seems instinctively to prefer to look at Kokrajhar from a medical rather than a political angle. In a way it is this gut medical perspective which makes MSF work. Their aim is to provide care for people who desperately need it. The business of who did what to whom and why, who is the victim and who the aggressor is, from a doctor’s point of view, an irrelevancy. To this extent, medicine cuts through the gordian knot of politics. However being a representative of a foreign NGO in a volatile area like Kokrajhar is inevitably a highly politicised role, never more so than when negotiating a relationship with local government and security forces.

At home in Britain we watch the crisis on TV, the crisis that is always going on somewhere and is always framed in the same way, with the same shots of nursing mothers and drought-struck farmland and thin young men in army fatigues waving rifles. When the reporter kneels down and lets a handful of dry soil run through his fingers it means famine. When he puts on his blue body armour and crouches in front of a ruined building, it means civil war. We watch this familiar story and think, they should do something about this. Why don’t they just go in and sort it out? We rarely stop to unpick what ‘going in’ entails, the delicate negotiations, the many shades of compromise. The politics of aid, whether it comes as food or development or medical assistance, necessarily preoccupies organisations like MSF, who have to be on their guard against any appearance of complicity or cooptation. A mistake could lose the trust of a local population, or upset some group whose compliance is necessary for the logistics of a mission. So the most important principle for an international NGO working in a place like Kokrajhar is neutrality. Getting too close to the police or army, and particularly being seen in the company of security forces is something MSF teams try to avoid: for example, travelling in convoy with a police jeep on the way to some kind of detention centre. No wonder Sarah looks troubled.

So the MSF driver deliberately dawdles on the road, letting the other vehicle go on ahead and putting visible physical and ideological distance between the agency and the police. Once we arrive at the camp and see what awaits us, that distance becomes harder to maintain. Before today MSF had no idea this place even existed. Believe the police and it is some kind of cross between The Priory and a job centre, and even to a sceptical eye it doesn’t look like a prison. There are no guards, no perimeter. Instead a collection of housing blocks is arranged around an open maidan. Some opportunist has set up a paan stall outside. Men, women and children stand and watch us arrive.

We are led into a long meeting hall and I realise this interview is not going to be straightforward at all. Fifty young men are sitting cross legged, on the floor, facing a line of plastic chairs. When we enter they get up, adopting the ‘stand easy’ pose of soldiers in drill formation. Despite their civilian clothes it is clear they are used to military discipline. Immediately the police inspector starts to address them in Bodo. Accompanying him are two young men who are introduced as representatives of a local NGO. They are to act as translators, yet as the inspector barks out his speech they are worryingly vague about what he is saying. ‘He is introducing you,’ they tell me. It sounds more like a set of orders. What is happening? Have these men been coerced into attending this meeting? Are they being warned not to say certain things, or instructed to behave in a certain way? As they are lectured they look at the floor with studied neutrality. I catch the eyes of my companions. None of us is comfortable.

One of the NGO workers stands up and makes another introduction, in which I catch my name, and the phrase ‘Medicine San Francisco’. Sarah is beside herself. “Sans Frontieres”, she calls out, in her precise voice. “No Borders. We are a neutral organisation.”

‘Medicine San Francisco,’ though funny, is not good. Post 9/11 and the war on Iraq, being associated with America or American foreign policy, can have dire consequences. In Afghanistan, the mistaken identification of the organisation with a US agenda has led to attacks on its staff. Repeatedly we interrupt to ask for more translation. None is forthcoming.

Then it is my turn. I am expected to introduce myself and ask my questions to the group as a whole, like a lecturer with a class. It is undoubtedly the weirdest public speaking experience of my life. The heat is oppressive. Some kind of large spider is climbing up the back of Tom’s chair. I say I am a writer, and would like to know why they took up arms. Some of the men nod and murmur. What purports to be a translation of this question lasts a suspiciously long time, and then there is a long pause, until someone sitting near the back gives what may or may not be an order, and a man further forward stands up and starts to talk in a rapid monotone, as if repeating a chunk of poetry rote-learned for school. These ‘surrendered militants’ are evidently still subject to some kind of discipline from senior cadres.

The young man’s speech goes on for a long time. Only fragments make it into English. He is an ex-member of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and is passionately listing the names of ancient Bodo kings and heroes, using their illustrious memory to confirm his people’s historic right to the land. It does not sound like the speech of someone who has lost his convictions, let alone been ‘rehabilitated’. I ask how old he was when he began to fight. He was fourteen. He is now twenty one.

For form’s sake I ask a couple more questions, though all I can think of is how to draw the whole farce to a close. I feel I have been complicit in something, but have no way of knowing what. The police inspector claims these men will soon receive a large sum of money and travel to the state capital to receive, of all things, business and new media training. I look at the sullen faces of these web designers of tomorrow, and wonder if this is true. Afterwards one of the “NGO workers” takes me outside and tells me that in his opinion, the former militants are only here because they were separated from their leaders during a recent anti-terrorist operation in Bhutan. “The reason they have surrendered isn’t because government has offered them one lakh or five lakh rupees. Their leaders isolated them and the common people didn’t support them. That is the only reason.” He shows me an ID card, so I can check the spelling of his name. It was issued by the Assam Police Force. The ‘non-governmental’ bit of being an NGO is obviously loosely interpreted in Kokrajhar.

We let the police leave first, then drive away. I try to work out what just happened, what has come from this untranslated entanglement of writer, photographer, aid agency and security forces. It piles in on top of many images and conversations, the jumble of the last few days; Renuka, the MSF health educator at Sapkata, who lost several of her family in the pogroms and hopes to do postgraduate work at Gauhati university; the chirping of millions of tiny frogs in the rain; Mr Panjikar, the modernising manager of the local tea estate, striding through his bushes with an armed guard, to protect him from kidnap; Mr Panjikar’s swagger and bravado: “I’ll not pay! Let them come!”; the table listing compensation rates for animals killed on the road (50 rupees for a chicken, 3000 for a cow…); the young army officer who served us tea and pakoras, assuring us that his posting was “a picnic” while outside his sikh soldiers stripped and cleaned mortars and heavy machine guns… A swirl of impressions of a place that is, on a global scale, only ordinarily unhappy. Against the confusion and moral compromise of the camp for surrendered militants I can oppose the memory of another afternoon’s walk, following a German doctor called Kirsten Resch through a camp at Deosri, close to the Bhutanese border. She was looking for a baby girl whose case had worried her on a previous visit. She found the baby unattended in a dark hut. Her prolapsed anus had become infected, a livid red bulb hanging below her filthy smock. It was an image of squalor and physical abjection, yet there was no hint of disgust as Kirsten examined the child, only tenderness and compassion. A cliché, no doubt, this image of the doctor and the little brown baby, the stuff of aid agency ad campaigns. But in the grey area of Kokrajhar it seemed to stand for something, a moment of focus, a brush of the fingers from an ordinarily inattentive world.

[This piece was written in 2004. A much edited version was published in the Sunday Times magazine, as part of MSF's Authors on the Frontline project. On that site you can see more of Tom Craig's photos from Kokrajhar.]