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Sanctuary for Gujarat’s child survivors

New Delhi, Oct. 28: Six-year-old Saddam hid behind a drum as he watched his parents go up in flames.

Abbas, just a year older than the Godhra kid, saw his parents buried alive under a pile of boulders. He tried to pull them out but the huge stones wouldn’t budge.

Naim stood rooted in mute horror as a mob chased his father and hacked him to death.

In the last three years, Gujarat has had more than its share of traumatised children scarred by one disaster after another, whether wreaked by nature or plotted by man.

In January 2001, a devastating earthquake orphaned thousands. They were still trying to find their feet when the state plunged into a cauldron of communal violence. Once again, hundreds of children lost their parents and the only safe shelters they knew in their short life.

There were islands of sanity, but they were few and far between amid the death and destruction. Naveen Chandra Bhatia built one such island on his expansive farmland. He donated 13 acres to the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind — a non-government organisation — to construct an orphanage where Saddam, Abbas and Naim now live.

Bhatia stepped in when the Jamiat was asked by one of its Muslim patrons, from whose land the organisation was functioning, to vacate the premises. “Bhatia told Mehmood Madani of the Jamiat to start construction on his farmhouse land spanning 100 acres,” says Asna Nausheen, the director of the orphanage on the Bhuj-Anjar highway.

Asna, who did her masters in social work from Delhi University, accuses the Gujarat government of doing very little rehabilitation work. “The Narendra Modi government has not only done nothing for the people affected in the communal violence, it has also done nothing for those who lost everything in the earthquake,” she says.

Asna says people who lost all their possessions in the catastrophe were still living in tin containers. “So much financial aid poured into Gujarat after the earthquake that you could almost build a country. Where has all the money gone'”

For the orphanage, salving the hurt of the children, the most vulnerable victims of both forms of violence, has been one of its main tasks. “We have trained counsellors in our orphanage to talk to the children,” says Asna.

When the children first came to the orphanage, they were seething with anger, she adds. “If you asked them to sing a song, they would sing lines praising (terror mastermind) Osama bin Laden. Then we taught them new melodies with lyrics of peace and harmony.”

The peaceful ambience of Bhuj helps the healing process. In Ahmedabad, you can still feel the communal tension, says Asna. “But here in Bhuj, the community is peaceful. We have a huge business community, which is not interested in creating disturbance. They want to be left alone to be able to make money.”

But the administration in Bhuj is not so benign. It has denied the Jamiat permission to expand the school it runs for quake-affected children. “At present, it is till the seventh standard. We wanted to expand it till the eighth standard,” says Asna. “But the administration rejected it (the proposal).”

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