DELHI — A few days before his daughter’s first birthday, Mohammad Nazir Ansari bought new clothes, gifts, and food for the occasion. But before the March 1 party he had planned, Nazir’s one-room home, with all his carefully-selected supplies, was burned to the ground by a Hindu nationalist mob.
Nazir and his family had fled the right-wing, roving mobs in the densely populated residential neighborhood of Shiv Vihar hours before the attack happened. They went first to his parents’ house in the Muslim-dominated neighborhood of Mustafabad, and then to a relief camp set up for displaced Muslims. The attacks, followed by riots in both communities, ultimately killed 53 people and injured more than 350.
“They turned my home into ashes,” Nazir told VICE News in late March, sitting on a cot in a tent more than two weeks after arriving at the Eidgah relief camp in Mustafabad. “Where will I live now?” They didn’t celebrate his daughter Mahira’s birthday. “There was nothing to do,” Nazir said, as Mahira sat on his lap playing with his skull cap.
Nazir lost his job as a barber at the same time. He said the owner of his barbershop, who is Hindu, evicted him from the property.
The relief camp was started on March 1 by the Delhi Waqf board, a body set up by the government to run the city’s Muslim holy places and support the community. It was a cluster of tents pitched in the Eidgah grounds — the assembly place where Muslims pray on the religious holiday Eid — with an adjacent graveyard. A few concrete steps and a large iron gate on the east side open into the ground, which was filled with hundreds of people — survivors of the riots, volunteers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and Waqf employees — when we visited. There were 873 people from 266 families living there.
Syed Haider Ali, Waqf’s camp manager, told VICE News that the camp would continue until the Muslims’ homes were habitable again. “We are providing all the basic amenities, like three meals, soap, toothpaste, clothes, beds, and shoes. We also have medical camps, lawyers, and doctors,” said Haider.
Every tent had more than two dozen cots, each set up with bedding and a pillow. On any regular day at the camp, people were anxiously filing forms, answering the camp volunteers’ questions, sleeping, watching children play, or staring at the ceiling.
Cooks prepared food at a makeshift kitchen in one corner of the grounds and distributed it to each tent. In another corner, there were stalls manned by pharmacists, doctors, police, lawyers, a government organization running classes for children, and the Waqf board.
When the camp residents finished eating lunch, rain began to pour down, followed by a hailstorm. Everyone ran into tents and watched the storm outside. Rainwater seeped into one of the tents, so children huddled on a bed to play. A young girl picked hailstones near a tent’s entry, smiling at a camera, while a group of men from another tent watched her grimly.
When the hailstorm ended, weak sunlight fell over a white minaret. Behind it, 19 mounds of earth in a small graveyard.
Saud Raza, the graveyard’s caretaker, is unable to forget the bodies he buried during the riots. “Bodies were burnt, some didn’t have eyes or skin was peeling off. Some had been stabbed by knives or hit by bullets or the skull was broken. I saw this for the first time in my life, and it felt strange,” the 46-year-old said.
Raza remembers the story behind each grave. “That man had only his foot left of his body after he was burned. These were two brothers, killed together,” Raza said, pointing to the graves of Anwar Qassar, 58, and Aamir, 25, and Hashim, 16.
At the camp, Mohammad Nizammudin, 38, said his house had survived the riots, but returning home to Shiv Vihar wasn’t a good option. He sat in bed immobilized; both his arms were fractured and he had metal implants and over three dozen stitches on his left leg.
On February 27, a mob with rods and swords surrounded him and his brother during the pogrom when they were on their way home from a wedding in their native village of Farrukhabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
“The mob surrounded us, shouting ‘Kill him! Kill this Muslim!’ Nizammudin said. “After beating us for a few minutes, they thought we were dead, and they left. It was after two hours of lying there unconscious, police had come and brought us to the hospital. My house was also looted.”
Nizammudin’s brother Jamaaludin, a 36-year-old bakery owner, was put on life support. He died two days later.
Nizammudin was hospitalized for two weeks, then came to the relief camp with his wife and three children. He said he was terrified to return to Shiv Vihar. “I feel it will happen again; I will be beaten up again.”
Nazir said he’d been asked to fill out paperwork outlining everything he had lost, but while he had been told he’d be rehoused weeks earlier, he hadn’t seen any progress. He totaled his losses at $2,365, and said the government has paid him $123 as compensation. Many at the camp complained that the government has done nothing to restore their life back to normal. Many have not received any word on when they can receive compensation, which is making them lose hope that any support is coming.
“I am anxious about not knowing when we are going to be helped,” Nazir said. “How long are we going to be living like this? I can see a dark future for my daughter.”
On March 24, only a few days after VICE News visited, the government dismantled the relief camp. Two days before, the Delhi government had ordered a lockdown in the city in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and the camp was in violation of its conditions. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India rising past 4,000, with more than people 100 dead, the country has become a ticking bomb in South Asia. The 21-day quarantine, which is now nationwide, is one of the strictest in the world; one of its many effects is that thousands of migrant laborers are stranded.
A Waqf board official told VICE News that the board has to ask families to leave for their safety. “The threat of virus spreading in the camp, where hundreds of people were living, couldn't have been ruled out … They were given 3,000 rupees cash ($39) and whatever ration we had and asked to vacate the camp. They are now living in different places on rent, or with relatives or friends. Those whose houses were not burnt are living in their houses,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Waqf, which is crowdfunded and also earns money from properties, says it will keep its promise of helping the people with funds to restore their life. But the removal of its chairman by the government has put everything on hold.
Nazir visited his burned-out home while he was at the relief camp. Soot had turned the walls black, and a cooking stove and few burned utensils lay in the center of the room. His daughter’s clothes and gifts were ashes.
So he rented a single room in the Mustafabad area for 3,000 rupees ($39) a month. With the few groceries he’d been given at the camp, and help from his parents, he and his family settled into the room to start a new life — freer from the threat of the coronavirus, but with little hope.
“I have no money,” Nazir said. “And everything is shut now, so I'm unable to work. A few friends lent me some money and others help by giving rations sometimes. When I was working, I used to give my parents 5,000 rupees ($65) monthly as support — but now they have to feed my family.”
“I feel this lockdown will continue and I won't be able to work for some time,” Nazir said.
Cover: Mohammad Nazir Ansari with his daughter, Mahira. Photo: Fahad Shah/VICE News.