Simi Kamboj has been covering the Nandigram battle from Day One. Never has she come under fire the way she did on Tuesday. Photojournalist Sanat Kumar Sinha, too, never feared for his life more.
Our convoy was following Trinamul Congress MLA Partha Chatterjee from Nandigram police station to Mahe- shpur and onwards, when we heard of a CPM attack in Ranichowk and Satengabari around 12.30pm.
As we were moving along Brindabanchak, we noticed smoke billowing out from houses set on fire at a distance.
Further down the road, there was a woman hurrying along. She called out as we passed her. We could see she was weeping and stretching her hand out to us. We asked the driver to stop.
Monijaan Biwi said she had left her two lame sons at home, which had been set on fire. As I (Simi) spoke to her and Sanat took pictures, gunshots could be heard.
Someone shouted a warning that the shots were directed at us. We ducked and rushed to our car as a couple of bullets whizzed past.
The time between realisation that they were shooting at us and getting into the car was endless. We could be hit anytime.
The MLA’s Scorpio had fled. We tried to go in his direction. But hundreds of people fleeing their homes joined us on the narrow, kachcha road after a while and clogged it.
Soon, we were overtaken by 15-20 Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee members on motorcycles. Each had a rifle slung on the shoulder. They were coming from the nearby fields, where they were hiding earlier.
“Gaari guli hathaao, aage grambashi baanchuk (Move the cars out of the way, let villagers flee first),” they shouted.
They made us halt in a field and began abusing us.
Their leader, someone called Robin, hit our car with a bamboo stick. More joined him, hurling the choicest expletives at us.
One of them put his hand into the car and slapped me (Sanat) several times.
More hands shot in through the window towards me (Simi), but they could only graze my cheek as I was in the back seat.
They threatened to kill us and abused us for spoiling their “operation”.
A while later, Robin walked up and asked for our cameras and mobile phones. He asked the driver to give him the car key, too. He walked away slinging the cameras around his neck, the key in his pocket.
His accomplice, Barun, said: “Don’t say no to him when he is in a rage. We will return your belongings later.”
To me (Simi), he said: “Don’t hide your mobile. They will frisk you and find it.”
I (Simi) told him I wasn’t carrying one and hid my phone in my laptop case, which I shoved under the front seat.
We tried to explain that we were only following the MLA and were heading towards the site of the CPM violence, but Robin was in such a rage that he just kept hitting our car with his stick.
“Because of you, we lost our land. We took your arrival for another CPM attack and fled the field. Now, they’ve taken over our area. Because of you, we lost….” He finished with more expletives.
We were detained for around two hours, during which, most of the Raipur village had realised that we were not CPM members. Still, they refused to let us go and kept abusing us and took turns to hit our car.
They let us go around 2.45, after a phone call from a local Trinamul leader.