Stories of Women in a Conflict Situation

Chitaa Soren: A Life History
(*all names have been changed to protect the identities of the individual respondents)

Chitaa Soren is a married Adivasi woman living in Koraibari village in the heart of the forest near the Bhutan border. Chitaa is married to Barku who is her second husband. She has 5 daughters and one son. In her lifetime Chitaa has been displaced twice by 2 ethnic conflicts between her community of Adivasis and the Bodos i.e. first in 1996 and again in 2014. When the conflict between Bodos and Adivasis erupted in 1996 and they fled to the camp, she had two daughters then – 5 years and 8 months old. The rest of her children were all born in the Deosri relief camp. When the conflict in December 2014 erupted again between the Bodos and Adivasis, she and her family again fled from Koraibari to Deosri relief camp.

Experiences during the 1996 conflict- Death of eldest daughter and husband
Chitaa’s eldest daughter died in the relief camp because of pneumonia and cholera. The child was taken to Gopinath’s pharmacy near the relief camp after 3 days of her illness. The pharmacist gave her injections and medicines. When the daughter was brought back to the camp she started vomiting and died after that. They had spent approximately ₹5000.00 for her daughter’s treatment.

Four months after the death of her daughter, Chitaa’s husband was killed when he was out for hunting in Debadangi forest with his friends. Her husband had accompanied his friends from the relief camp when a group of NDFB militants who were hiding in the forest fired at them. When the militants started firing some of the men managed to escape and came to inform Chitaa that her husband was left behind. On that night Chitaa kept on waiting for her husband’s arrival till mid-night. The next day the men from the camp (mainly those who were out for hunting the previous day with him) went searching for Chitaa’s husband till Sorbang Road. They continued searching for three days but could not find him. When the leaders from the camp and Chitaa’s brother-in-law asked them to search in the place where they were fired the other day they found his body lying dead on the ground. The bullet had hit him on his head and the body was almost rotten.

Chitaa was worried after her husband’s death because she was left only with her baby daughter and her in-laws were already living separately. She had a difficult time in the relief camp for 2 years. She and her daughter often went hungry as going for work in the houses of the nearby Nepaliswas also difficult because her daughter was very small. She said “Luckily both the mother and the daughter did not suffer from any major illnesses in these two years.” She brewed alcohol with the little relief rice she received in the camp and sold the alcohol to get more money to buy rice so that they could eat regularly.

She received compensation money of ₹1,000.00 after the death of her husband. She was supposed to receive another instalment of ₹3,000.00 but the camp leaders cheated her. After 2-3 years of staying in the relief camp she received some ₹6000 in connection to the death of her husband. She spent the amount in performing the death rituals of her husband and daughter.

After 2 years of her husband’s death, Chitaa remarried again in the relief camp to Barku Soren. Together they had another 3 daughters and 1 son and when they were released from the relief camp in 2005 (after 7 years), Chitaa and her husband and children moved back to Koraibari. Their house used to be near the Bhur River but because of the floods during monsoons, they shifted and made their house on a high land where they are living presently.

Daughter out for work
5 years ago after returning from the relief camp, her second daughter (from the 1st husband) went to work as a house maid in Gelengphu, Bhutan with her cousin sister. She and her cousin sister were working in a Nepali house. Suniram used to go and collect the payments from the master for whom the daughter was working.

One day the two sisters shifted to another family for work. While working there the cousin sister eloped with a boy from Garghutu who was also working in Gelenphu. After few days when the parents went to collect money from the master’s house they were told that the girl had run away. Chitaa and her husband looked for the daughter everywhere in Gelephu but could not find her anywhere. Chitaa enquired about their daughter from the cousin sister who was working together. The cousin sister told Chitaa that their daughter was still in the master’s house when she had ran away. Chitaa informed the case of her missing daughter to BIRSA, the Adivasi militant group but till date nothing has been done and there has been no news of her.

Experiences during the 2014 conflict
During the 2014 conflict her family fled to Deosiri relief camp. While running to the relief camp in Deosri, they managed to take only their ox but the ox died when they were living in the relief camp. In the relief camp the family received only 50 grams of rice per person per day. They also got dal and potatoes but the rations they received did not last for many days and was over long before the next rations were distributed. After 3-4 months of staying in the relief camp, they returned to Koraibaribut found their house completely burnt down. They lost the paddy and mustard which was yet to be harvested. They survived on jungle potatoes. Chitaa says they started eating rice only after she and her husband went out for daily wage labour. They main struggles are around food, water and elephants. Since they lost their pair of bulls, they had to hire bulls for ploughing and could cultivate fresh paddy in 2015. Later, with the money they got as relief from the NGO Oxfam, they managed to buy 4 bulls and cows.

Illness after returning to village and death of daughter
After returning back to Koraibari village her two daughters – Sumila Mardi and Joba Mardi were ill with jaundice and fever. The daughters were taken for treatment to the ojha guru(medicine man) a week after they fell ill. Both did not recover from the illness. Sunila,the four years old sister of Joba was deteriorating day by day, with newer episodes of respiratory distress. They wanted to take her to the doctor, but it was too late by then. Considering the symptoms, the villagers added that she suffered from malaria though she had not been diagnosed by the doctor or the hospital.

Sumila died first and the other daughter Joba was taken to Shantipur hospital by her husband’s nephew and his wife. On the day when Joba was taken to hospital they could not go with her because they had to bury the body of Sumila. Looking at the symptoms, the villagers said that the girl suffered from malaria though they were not diagnosed as malaria by any doctor or in any hospital. Chitaa believes that the unhygienic conditions and their environment are responsible for malaria and that her daughter would not have died if she had been treated by doctors in time.

The other daughter Joba’s treatment cost them five thousand rupees. She was taken to the pharmacy for treatment and where she tested positive for malaria. The family sold two of the cows for the treatment of the daughter and the entire family fled their village and went to stay with her husband’s relatives in another village. The girl recovered only after 5-6 months. During that time, Chitaa and her son also suffered from diarrhoea and both took medicines from the medicine man called ojha.

It took time for them all to recover and then return to their home in Koraibari. She believes that something is wrong in their house because they were all falling sick and so to “cleanse” and purify their house, they did pujas for which anotherRs. 1000 was spent.

Chitaa believes that the unhygienic conditions and the environment nearby are responsible for malaria. She is aware that malaria is a disease, which is spread by mosquitoes. Since last year the local health authority had been made aware of their situation. Couple of time people from health department took samples of blood to detect malaria. But it was in some irregular drop in centres which are at times, inaccessible to the villagers.

House of an adivasi at present in Koraibari
House of an adivasi at present in Koraibari

Third daughter missing
With the first daughter dead and the second one lost, Chitaa’s third daughter (the eldest child from the second husband) has now gone out to work as a maidservant in Arunachal Pradesh. She went in the month of March 2016 with her friend from the village.After 6 months, the friend returned informing them that their daughter would be returning home the following year i.e. in March 2017. Chitaa is waiting. She does not have any contact with her daughter nor does the daughter send them any money. She says that she and her husband had advised the daughter against going outside for work but the daughter still went. She is not sure if she will return home.

Life at present in Koraibari village
The family now lives in a single hut with walls made up of cloth and plastic sheets but they have a tin roof which they received from the NGO. Drinking water is a big problem for the family. The common water source is the nearby rivulet which is polluted by the chemicals dumped from Bhutan factories. They collect water from this canal for their washing, cleaning and other daily use. They have to go far to collect drinking water as both the well and the hand-pump installed by Oxfam in their village after the riots is equidistant from their house! They sometimes go to a neighbouring village to bring drinking water. The family members drink boiled water when they fall ill but when there is no illness, they drink the water without boiling.

These days they supplement their farming income from daily wage. They do not have any livestock in their house after their last pair of ox which they bought with the relief money has also died (they feel the ox died as they drank water from the chemical laden rivulet). Chitaa’s husband said that they are not prepared and do not have money for emergencies if one of them fall sick.If they fall sick, they will first have to get some money by doing hazira (daily wage labour) and then only seek treatment. Chitaa laments that if there had been no conflict, they would be “rich” because they cultivated maize and mustard before the 1996 conflict and after that they started cultivating paddy before losing everything in 2014 conflict. Till then, they had enough rice and money to run the family but now, every single day is a struggle.

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