Al Hind Hospital has been inundated with victims of the riots which engulfed North East Delhi between February 23 and 27.
In these five hellish days, the hospital in the Muslim-dominated area also became a refuge for member of the minority community running away from mobs baying for blood, burning and looting shops and houses.
On March 2, we met Shabnam, a 30-year-old woman who had escaped her home in Bhagirathi Vihar, Gokulpuri, one of the Hindu-dominated areas, with her two young sons Arsh and Aayan.
The single mother relived her harrowing experience from the night of February 24, when she realised she had no option but to leave her home. “I want to tell you something, on the 24th night, around 11:30 pm, I was hiding on the 4th floor and watched as a group of about 50 boys assaulted two Muslim boys on the road outside. The mob of boys was from my own locality,” she says.
Shabnam enacts what one of the boys had to endure, “His hands were tied behind his back, he was made to kneel, while the mob standing in line asked him to say ‘Jai Shree Ram’. He did so. But still he was hit brutally on his head with rods. Even now when I think about it, I start getting a headache and feel dizzy, I have never seen such brutality in my life.” A distressed Shabnam starts crying, and says, “I don’t know what happened to him, if he was killed or not…I got so scared I went and hid with my children.”
Throughout the night, she says, she could hear chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. “And they kept saying things like ‘Desh sey nikalo salo ko, gaddaro ko’ (Throw out the traitors from the country) something like that. They kept calling us ‘katwe’ (meaning a man who is circumcised), and I could hear ‘bachao bachao’ (help) but I didn’t look or step out”, Shabnam tells us.
The family kept their lights off, and made it through the night. When morning came, she decided to make a break for it, but as she stepped out, a group of six to seven men saw her and her children. “We ran like dogs…I asked my children to run…but they caught hold of me and started beating me with sticks, and punching me with their fists.” Shabnam also says the men molested her. “They did whatever they could, hit me with what they had, and touched me in my private parts. They did everything…the only thing they didn’t do was rape me.”
She took her children and ran to Anand Vihar railway station where she stayed until Wednesday, when paramilitary forces were deployed. “For three days after running away, I was in shock, I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t understand where I was, what had happened. My elder son is so scared that he does not want to step out any more. They had hit him as well.”
On Wednesday, she attempted to go home to fetch a few things. “I escaped from the jaws of death,” she says, pointing to her neighbours who did not welcome her but instead called out to others saying, “The Muslim woman is back, beat her.”
She ran and, on the way, saw a PCR van which she flagged down. “I told them everything but they refused to come with me.”
“I will never go back alone. I don’t care if my things are all gone. I am a single mother, the future of my children is on me, if something happens to me, my children have no one,” Shabnam says, sharing with us that she works as a clerk in Karkardooma court, earning just Rs 6,000 a month.
While Shabnam agrees with reports pointing to outsiders making their way into Delhi, she wants to reiterate that in her case they were insiders: “I will say the same thing here, as I would in front of a judge and in front of God.”
The Delhi Commission for Women has launched an inquiry into sexual crimes committed against women during the violence. Swati Maliwal, the commission’s chief, has said the cases the DCW has heard about “through its 181 helpline and on-ground visits are completely horrific”.
There were several women we spoke with who said they had heard of sexual violence having taken place during the violence. One even pointed to their own neighbours having been assaulted, but also said that chances of people telling this to us directly was almost nil as they did not want to “tarnish their own name”.
There were, however, a few women who said they had been threatened with rape.
‘Hum Shri Ram ke bache paida karwainge tumse’
A single mother of three, Baby, had gone to take her eldest daughter from school when tension broke out near her home in Shiv Vihar on February 24. Leaving all her things behind, she ran from there with her children, with the mob chasing after her threatening, “Hum Shri Ram ke bache paida karwainge tumse pakar pakar ke.” We will catch you and make you give birth to Shri Ram’s progeny.
Baby, one of the many women who was taken in by good Samaritans in Chaman Park, had gone back to her house on February 25 to take some of her belongings. Soon a crowd gathered near her and said, “Give us your daughters and we will spare you.” Baby says she left all her belongings and somehow fled from there, “There are many others who have been molested but they are not admitting it out of shame,” says Baby.
But there are others who speak of the threats they received like 18-year-old Chandni. Like any other day, she was returning home from the export house where she works as a packer on February 24. But unlike other days, she witnessed the simmering tension at Yamuna Vihar. She rushed back home, only to find that her neighbourhood in Govind Vihar near Shiv Vihar had also been taken over by a mob.
Chandni, left, with her family.
Just as Shabnam claims to have been abused by people she knew as neighbours, Chandni was shocked to find hers hurling abuses at her. “The Hindu women in my locality started pelting stones at me. I hid at a friend’s place for a while. The men in my locality were drunk and started saying that I have no right to live in a Hindu area as I am a Muslim. Soon after, they threatened to rape me, and started abusing my mother and sisters.”
She managed to return home, where the rest of her family had locked themselves in. They spent the entire night in silence, without food and water, waiting for an opportunity to run. At four in the morning the next day, that chance arrived – Chandni escaped with her mother and younger sister.
But her ordeal didn’t end there. On February 28, when the situation had been contained, and Chandni believed it was safe enough to return home and collect her belongings, one of the women in her locality grabbed her by her hair and started hitting her. She somehow managed to escape and came to the Al Hind Hospital, where she took refuge before shifting to the Eidgah, where a relief camp has been set up.
“From childhood, I have spent my entire life in a Hindu area. This is the first time something like this is happening. We will not return to our home as they will not let us live there. We can’t even go to work now. Life is at a standstill.”
The hospital treated several women who were hurt in the violence. The wounds are not just physical but also mental, with many saying, like Shabnam, that they have been unable to get past what the trauma they have been through. Most say they would never return to their homes because they could not trust their neighbours and their children would not want to go.
Even more chilling is the story of Parveena. Nine months pregnant, she had been beaten and kicked in her stomach on the 24th in her Karawal Nagar home.
While Parveena herself had gone to take a bath when we met her family, her husband told us that they had nothing left to go back to, “They burnt everything down”. On the 26th, after escaping the clutches of the mob, Parveena gave birth to their son at Al Hind Hospital, which was already full of patients, much more than its capacity.
The man running the hospital, Siraj Anwar, who was present when the mayhem ensued outside and inside the hospital, says he too has been severely affected by the tragic events. “It has been ingrained in my head in such a way that I have been unable to eat. I manage to have a meal a day but that’s about it. Even my little nephew knows about all that has been happening,” adding that he asks, every day, “How many people have been wounded by stone pelting?”
He then refers to the child born to Parveena, and asks, “When he knows how he came into this world, will this child love his country?” A hard, pertinent question.
Many children we met stood silently next to their parents, some didn’t understand what had happened but had been witness to everything. Others understood and never wanted to venture back to a place they once called home.
A volunteer we met at Al Hind, Suhaib, has been trying to get a child psychologist to deal with such cases. He said his friend who is a social worker saw the need for it, as there would certainly be deep trauma they have been through.
While Nisha was safe in her home in Mustafabad, her mother says the tension ensuing outside stressed out the 13-year-old. Her mother says she came down with a fever, refusing to eat food.
Her four-year-old cousin Ayan, though, looked into the face of the attackers. His mother Mehnaz tells us their home in Shiv Vihar was looted by the mob. As she asked her young son if he would go back home, he clutched her sides, and in a distressed voice says, “No”. “Whenever we speak about home, he just says he will not go back.” His siblings and cousins look on sadly, trapped inside the home, unable to move out and live their normal lives as children.
Woes of pregnant woman
Like Parveena, there are other pregnant women affected by the violence. One is Rubina Bano, three months pregnant.
“Ye lo azadi,” she says the police personnel kept saying while raining blows on Bano with his lathi. “Take this freedom.” Recalling the horrifying day, Rubina points to the multiple bruise marks on her body as she waits in line at Al Hind Hospital to get her wounds dressed.
Due to growing tensions in the area, on February 24, Rubina had stepped out of her house to pick up her daughter from her school in Chand Bagh. On the way, a mob and some policeman started chasing her.
When caught up, one of the police personnel picked up his lathi and started hitting her, Rubina fell on her side to protect her child. “After multiple blows, he picked up a huge stone and brought it down on my head, knocking me out,” says Rubina.
'After multiple blows, he picked up a huge stone and brought it down on my head, knocking me out,' says Rubina.
Bleeding profusely, she was found a few hours later by someone who took her to his home and also alerted her family. Later that evening, she was brought to Al Hind Hospital where she was given 15 stitches on her head.
But the harassment she faced continued. She accuses the trauma centre at AIIMS of releasing her even though she was not fit. Referred to AIIMS from Al Hind Hospital, she was admitted to the centre on the evening of February 28, only to be released the next morning at 6.
“Apart from a few tests, they had done nothing and said that I was fit to be discharged. Within a few minutes however, they said they cannot release me and kept me admitted on a small bed.” She adds that there were others sharing the bed with her, who were bleeding from their injuries and there were also dead bodies around.
She was later discharged from the hospital at 7 pm at her own request.
The steep steps of a house in Chandu Nagar lead to two rooms overcrowded with women and children. Inside are women trying to quieten their babies, some running after them, creating chaos in rooms which are already filled to capacity.
Over 50 people had taken refuge in these two small rooms of Chandu Nagar when we went to meet them on March 1. With their houses in lanes 4 and 29 of the nearby Khajuri Khas gutted, even if the cramped conditions are not ideal, at least they are safe here.
Sitting in a corner of the room, six months pregnant Dilkash is visibly distressed. “I can’t live in this room with so many people,” she says, although she has no other option but to stay put.
Her relatives point out that a few of them have to be at her side all the time since Dilkash has started getting panic attacks after the riots. Her house has been completely charred. The rioters did not spare even their goats, she adds.
Dilkash, left, is six months pregnant.
“We feel like we have no rights in this country. Our lane has been converted into a samshan ghat (cremation ground),” adds her neighbour Saleha, 20.
They all left their homes on the 25th. Haratoon Begum, a woman whose anger was palpable, told us that when the mob started ransacking homes one by one, and burning them, they decided they had to run. “I don’t know how we made it out. Before entering this area we were harassed by men who hit each woman a few times”, she also says. The young teenagers present there add that this was taking place right under the noses of Delhi Police personnel.
“They asked us to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. They were saying ‘police zindabad’, and ‘mera prashasan hai, mere saath hai, mera kanoon hai’,” Begum added. “It is our administration, they are with us, it is our law.” The last line was echoed by a few others present.
In the crowd of people, there was a woman with her 10-day old child. She looked deeply troubled for her children’s future. All the women present told us they had to jump over rooftops to get to safety, along with their children. Some kids were old enough to run on their own, some barely able to walk, had to be carried in the arms of their mothers.
‘I had to muffle his cries’
At around 11 pm on February 25, Khadija Khatun made a phone call to her parents in her hometown, and asked them to forgive all her sins. She thought that would be her last call.
Khatun cannot forget that fateful night, when she along with her husband and five children escaped from the clutches of death. For the past nine years, Khatun has been living on the ground floor of a rented house in lane 18 of Shiv Vihar. She had never imagined one day this very home would be unsafe for her.
Sitting on the ground floor of a three-storey home in Chaman Park, where several other women from Shiv Vihar have taken refuge, she is busy taking care of her year-old boy who has a deep wound on his left thigh.
Taking us back to the night of 25th, Khatun says, “At around 11 pm on that night, a mob came into our lane and started breaking locks and setting houses on fire. With nowhere to escape to, I locked my house on the ground floor and took shelter in the roof along with my family.”
The mob was using cylinders to burn down the houses. A chunk of a bursting cylinder flew up and hit her toddler when they were on the roof. “I had to muffle his cries, so that they don’t come to our house hearing his shrieks,” she says, breaking down. “When they were bursting the cylinders, it felt like an earthquake and there was smoke all around. My children kept crying and begged me to save them.”
With the rest of the houses burning around them, the family stayed put on the roof. She thought everything was over: “If I go down the mob will kill me, if I stay up, I will be burned in the fire.”
Recalling the sequence of events, she said while most of the people in her lane had left by the 25th afternoon, Khatun remained. As the situation worsened, she asked her husband to take their family somewhere safe. “He told me not to worry as he thought things will die down. Most of the people were going to the houses of their relatives but I had nowhere to go. I wasn’t aware of the shelter home here,” says Khatun.
Continuing with her daily chores, she cooked for the family and fed them and put the children to sleep. “At night when the mob arrived at her lane, I took them to the roof.”
Hiding there for hours, they managed to escape at 4 am. “The mob was burning one of the nearby mosques when we heard the siren of a police van and the rioters dispersed.” Khatun and her husband along with the children ran from there and directly came to the shelter at Chaman Park. “We took only our lives with us. We could not carry anything else, not even one single document.”
Khadija Khatun with her injured child.
Khatun’s house is now completely burned along with her husband’s welding workshop in the same lane. They had been saving up to buy a new house, all of which is now gone. “All my identity documents, money and bank papers have been burnt. Saving up, my husband had bought a new auto to deliver his goods, which was his prized possession but even that got burnt,” says Khatun, shaking her head.
The rest of her children play in the room crowded with women seeking shelter. Looking at her toddler who just woke up with a cry Khatun says, “I thank Allah for saving our lives. I just hope to go back home now and start afresh.”
Child victims of the violence
Like Khatun’s child, many other minors have been victims of violence. Some have even died.
Mohd Wasim, 17, was one of the “lucky” ones to come out alive, with only an injury.
On the 25th, he had gone to the mosque to offer prayers when he got trapped on the way back. He tells us he was brutally beaten by police personnel, who aimed for his head and kept repeatedly saying, “Azadi chahiye? Ye le azadi.” You want freedom? Here’s your freedom.
These few words have been repeatedly given as testimony by victims to journalists.
Wasim found his way out, escaping the mob and the cops by jumping into a nullah. “I stayed still for a while and swam to the other side where some people helped me up and took me to their home and bandaged my head,” Wasim recalls that when he jumped into the drain, two bodies were also thrown into the nullah by the police.
He went to Al Hind Hospital after three days, where he received seven stitches.
The mayhem which continued for over four days claimed victims of all age groups. Sitting at the camps set up in the Eidgah, Mustafabad – which has been converted into a relief camp by the Waqf Board in association with the Delhi government – we met 90-year-old Bismillah who is waiting for her daughter Aasma.
Bismillah was recovering from a foot injury at the Al Hind Hospital till March 2, after which she came to the Eidgah.
Injured while escaping from their home in Shiv Vihar on the 25th, Bismillah says she never expected to see such a day in her life. “Everyone was running, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the road. After which I lost consciousness,” she says.
Rubbing her injured feet, Bismillah points to the protruding bones on her legs. “I am totally helpless here. I can’t even use the washroom alone,” she says, getting out of breath.
Living in the city for over 20 years now, she is still shocked at how the riots created such terror. “I never could have even imagined such a riot happening in Delhi.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
This article was originally published in The Patriot.