By Biswajyoti Das
Guwahati, Aug 7 : Hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in squalid, overcrowded camps in India's northeast desperately need food, water and medicines after fleeing some of the worst communal violence in a decade, officials and aid workers said on Monday.
At least 12 people, including four children, have died and thousands are sick with diseases such as diahorrea and malaria caused by poor conditions in government-run camps in Assam state, where up to 400,000 people have taken refuge.
"We are in a state of high alert," said Assam's Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. "People in the camps are suffering from diahorrea, dysentery, malaria and high fever. We are concerned about the condition of the babies and pregnant women."
Violence between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh erupted on July 20 when unidentified men killed four Bodo youths. In retaliation, armed Bodos - which dominate Assam's Kokrajhar district - attacked Muslims, suspecting them of being behind the deaths.
The fighting has tested the ability of India's security forces to restore order in Assam, famed for its tea plantations and home to the constituency of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited the state in late July to appeal for calm.
So far 61 people have died - some hacked to death with machetes, while dozens of villages have been razed to the ground, forcing both Bodos and Muslims to flee to schools and community centres which have been converted into relief camps.
Sarma said around 8,000 children under two-years-old are sick, while hundreds of others have tested positive for malaria. There are also around 4,000 pregnant women in the camps who need medical support, he added.
FEARFUL TO RETURN HOME
Aid workers described the camps as "suffocating" with livestock living alongside people, few toilets and little access to clean water. Many people sleep in the open and women have little privacy, forced to wait for dawn or dusk to find a place outside to defecate.
Authorities have been overwhelmed by the numbers of displaced -- camps designed to accommodate 400 people are brimming with five times that amount, said aid workers.
"The government is lost and they are somewhat overwhelmed by the number of people who are displaced. They came in hordes and while relief is being distributed, it is totally inadequate," said Mrinal Gohain, northeast manager for the charity ActionAid.
Authorities are encouraging some of the displaced to return home, saying that the situation is under control with police and army patrols, as well as a curfew in some areas.
But aid workers distributing relief in the camps say survivors are too scared to return, especially after reports that five more people were killed over the weekend.
"There is a serious safety issue. Despite what the government says, people are traumatised and fearful and unwilling to return," said Geeta Majumdar from the charity Catholic Relief Services.
"Given the conditions inside the camps and the lack of security and safety outside, we are extremely concerned. Health is a priority and we are worried about epidemics occurring with such unsanitary conditions in such cramped spaces."