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Girls await wedding glow in riot camp darkness

Some of the girls at the Shahpur relief camp on Monday. Standing behind them is Shahnawaz Qureshi, a member of the Shahpur panchayat. Picture by Prem Singh

Shahpur Relief Camp (Muzaffarnagar), Sept. 23: The makeshift tarpaulin “tents” and the brooding walls of the local madarsa will gleam with hope and warmth for a day.

Aasma, 20, and Amna, 18, are waiting eagerly for Wednesday to arrive and set them off on the way to a new life, away from the horror of the recent violence in Muzaffarnagar.

On that day, the two sisters and 25 other young Muslim women will get married at the relief camp that have been their home for the past fortnight.

A month before the clashes began, the parents of Aasma and Amna had fixed their weddings in October. But on September 7, a mob raided the family’s village, Kakra.

Since then, they have been at the relief camp in Shahpur, a Muslim-dominated village about 200km from Delhi, along with 3,000 others left refugees in their own land.

“Our homes were looted and torched by the mob, which carried swords, sickles, revolvers and petrol bombs,” Aasma sobbed. They walked the 3km to Shahpur barefoot.

“We have lost everything and are still terrorised. Now we hope our marriage will herald a new beginning in our lives,” Aasma said, huddled with the other would-be brides outside the camp.

“Who wants to get married in a relief camp, but what can we do?” said Mohsina, 21, a resident of Kutba, one of the worst-hit villages.

Her father Samiuddin, a farm labourer, said the family was relying on community members for all the wedding arrangements.

“We have nothing left to give her, not even a set of clothes. I had bought some furniture and small jewellery for her but everything was looted,” he said before burying his head in his hands.

Tabreiz, the father of Aasma and Amna, too, broke down.

“My biggest fear after the rioting was that my daughters might have to remain single for life since we have lost everything, including our house. But thanks to the people who are running the camps, we can see our daughters rebuild their lives,” he said.

“We are unfortunate parents who have to say goodbye to them from a relief camp and not our home,” Tabreiz added.

Shahnawaz Qureshi, member of the Shahpur panchayat, said all the 27 brides had had their weddings fixed by their families before the riots broke out.

“We don’t want these girls to suffer any more. It (getting them married off) is also a matter of their safety and security.”

Aid from several Muslim organisations in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh has helped community members raise Rs 7.5 lakh for wedding expenses.

“We are spending Rs 25,000 on buying a bed, a sewing machine, utensils and a pair of silver earrings for each of the 27 girls. We have asked the groom’s families not to bring more than eight members each,” said Haji Sayeed, who is in charge of the camp in Shahpur.

The weddings will be solemnised by the local maulvi at the nearby Idgah and the feast will take place inside the madarsa.

Most of the grooms are from local villages that were untouched by the rioting because they are predominantly Muslim. A few are from other parts of the state.

“Most of the young men are farm labourers; a few are welders and work in small factories,” Qureshi said.

But not all the young girls in the cramped tents are looking at the future with equal hope. Shaheen, 12, a resident of Majra, is wracked by anxiety that she may have to discontinue her studies.

“They set my house on fire before my eyes. My parents, two younger brothers and I ran for our lives. I don’t know whether I shall ever be able to go to school again,” she said.

Sony, 10, wasn’t bothered about school. She had just one question: “When will we all go back home?”

Most of the 40,000 people displaced in the district are holed up in 30 schools, madarsas and mosques that have been turned into relief camps, where the government is providing rice and vegetables.

District officials said the situation was under control but many of the refugees were refusing to return home fearing fresh bloodshed.