(Names of some characters in the story are changed, in view of their security)
"Swords and sticks in their hands, I saw them through a window burning my paternal house, which soon turned into ashes. People begged, cried, and asked for mercy, but these goons spared none," describes Farooq as he walked me through the lanes of Baria relief camp, 40 km from Randhikpur, a village in Limkheda Taluk in the Dahod district of Gujarat.
Farooq was 13 years old when he witnessed the trauma that scarred him for life. He, along with his disabled mother and his 5-year-old sister, ran from home to home, seeking refuge. Farooq's father passed away in the early 1990s, which made him the sole breadwinner of his family at a very tender age.
As I started interviewing Farooq right outside the relief camp, he began by saying that he must narrate his past trauma. Only then will people understand why he and his family left their village to seek refuge in a relief camp.
"It was the morning of February 2002 when I woke up to a lot of commotion. I heard people screaming in fear. Within no time, my family and I were on the move after witnessing shocking scenes in our neighbourhood. People with swords, sticks, and stones in their hands were burning and looting homes while the mob was chasing the rest of the people," continues Farooq.
Farooq is a prime witness in the 2002 Godhra riots case, which destroyed many Muslim houses. He was presented before the Bombay High Court at the time of the case hearing.
What Farooq saw later that day gives him the chills even today. He says, that was the prime reason he fled his village on August 16 this month, just a day after all the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case walked out of the Godhra sub-jail after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy.
Farooq couldn't help but peek from the window from where he was taking refuge to see what was happening outside as the cries of people continued on that fateful day in 2002.
Farooq says as soon as the news of the release of the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case emerged, many muslim families in Randhikpur went into a huddle. The traumas of 2002, the current state of polarisation in the country and uncertainty about what the future beholds made them take a decision. They decided to flee, leaving behind their lands, homes and everything they had kept close to their hearts.
More than 150 people have taken shelter in Gujarat's Dahod district’s Baria relief camp which is 50 km from Godhra. In Randhikpur, many Muslim families who did not take refuge in the relief camps have gone off to their relatives' homes.
More than 70 homes make up the relief colony in Devgarh Baria, which was founded in 2004—two years after the Godhra riots in Gujarat.
The people here face multiple problems related to clogged drains, untimely water supply and inadequate sanitation facilities. The families also live in constant fear of threats to their lives. The Baria colony is at present crowded with Muslim families who fled the village following the release of the convicts.
While the local police inspector almost brushed off the matter and refused to comment on the issue, a few days ago, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, along with the local police officials had set up a meeting with the Hindu community members of the area to deliberate on the fear of Muslims and to mend fences and bring them back to the village.
A local source informed us that the DIG suggested to the Hindus that they must make the first move, meet with the Muslims and restore peace in the minds of the community who left the village in fear.
"I saw them attacking my husband. How can I return to my village knowing they are roaming free?"
Aafiya, a 72-year-old woman, lost her husband and her sister-in-law in the 2002 riots. She, her husband, and her eight daughters were in the house when they heard her neighbours shouting and crying for help.
Wiping her tears in a firm voice, Aafiya told The Probe that she was sure that few of the 11 convicts who were released were part of the mob that attacked her husband that day. Her husband was given some treatment and stayed with Aafiya for a few days in the relief camp, but he later succumbed to his injuries.
Aafiya says her misery didn't end there. In 2004, she was threatened by a man named Subash Jain, who forcefully took her signatures and snatched her land - the only source of income for her after the death of her husband. Aafiya informed The Probe that the last time she went back to her village, she saw a bungalow in place of her thatched house.
"They built a bungalow right opposite Bilkis's house where I resided earlier." Because of her old age and her eight daughters, Aafiya says she didn't file a formal complaint with the police.
The people in the relief camp assert even though they didn't receive any threat from the released convicts or their families after the convicts’ release, it was the duty of the police to give the Muslim villagers security. Many Muslims asked us to answer a question that sums up the state of affairs in Randhikpur today - Why were the criminals roaming free while the innocents had to flee their homes?
The fear, trauma, and anxiety have had such a deep effect on these people living in the Baria relief camp that they start gathering around each other the moment they hear the honking of a car. Most families here have stopped talking to the media altogether out of fear of being exposed.
"We don't trust any media channel, and we have been betrayed a lot of times. We say something, and a wrong narrative is spun around our comments," shouts a man from the crowd in anger.
It took The Probe nearly three days to finally get people from the Baria camp to open up about their past traumas. While we continued with our interviews, we saw a rickshaw carrying the luggage of another family that had just arrived at the relief camp. One of the ladies described the haunting silence she witnessed when she went to collect her belongings from Randhikpur.
"All shops of our community were closed with police stationed outside for security. There was absolute silence. It was almost like a ghost town."
The 11 convicts refused to speak with me. One of the local journalists informed The Probe that ever since the international media covered the issue of the release of the convicts, they have been strictly advised to stay underground and keep away from the media. Immediately after the release, a few convicts had initially given interviews to the press. They were also accorded a grand welcome by a right-wing group.
Convicts allegedly threatened the witnesses when out on parole
There is a stark difference between the living conditions of the Hindus and the Muslims in Randhikpur today. Both the communities often don't engage in conversations until absolutely necessary. While the difference was easy to ignore for the residents, it became problematic when the convicts came out of prison on parole.
Almost everybody in the Baria camp alleged that multiple paroles had been granted to these convicts in the past. "When they came out of prisons on parole, we still had fear, but the police used to visit them every day to get their signatures. So, we had a sense of belief that they would eventually go back to jail,” says Farooq.
But he quickly adds, "releasing them as if they are innocents puts our lives at great risk."
As we probed further, we were told that the acts of these convicts when out on parole, would often intimidate the Muslims living in the area. The villagers allege that the convicts would roam on bikes, often stand outside their homes staring at people, and sometimes get into heated arguments with the innocent villagers.
Amongst all the Muslim families, Farooq and three other witnesses in the 2002 riot case are more fearful than the rest. These witnesses have penned down what they saw in the Bombay High Court and are now afraid of living in the same village with the people they testified against.
Farooq alleges that Radhey Shyam threatened him while he was out on parole.
"I remember that day very clearly. A few of our kids were playing outside, to which Radhey Shyam opposed and when I confronted him and asked him to keep the children out of this, he threatened to kill me”.
Farooq immediately wrote a letter to the police department, to which, he alleges, he got no response.
Along with VIP cars, crackers, and loud music - people allege late night meets
On August 25, the Gujarat government received notice from the Supreme Court of India regarding a group of petitions challenging the remission given to the 11 convicts who were on life sentences. Mahua Moitra, a member of the Trinamool Congress, Subhashini Ali, the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and another petitioner were all present in court to hear their cases. The decision to release the convicts has been hotly debated in the Indian and international media and within social and political circles here.
On the second day of visiting the families in the Baria camp, they opened up to the feeling of intimidation when they realised that the loud music, firecrackers, and the preparations for a grand welcome they had been witnessing since morning were for the people who were part of the mob which 20 years back had shattered their lives.
31-year-old Hamza stood staring at the VIP cars and loud music systems, and firecrackers being burst by jubilant people. "I stood looking at all this celebration, and I didn't bother to find out the reason and went ahead with my work. It was only in the evening that I was told that the celebration was for none other than the culprits of Bilkis Bano, who had been set free".
He adds, "I was taken aback and shocked".
Though The Probe couldn't independently verify the claims, many others present there corroborated the same. Some said such a screenshot of a WhatsApp status was being circulated on social media.
Late-night meetings were one of the patterns that followed for days before the 2002 riots broke in Randhikpur. The same was happening now, alleges Firoz from the crowd. "My brother who is a driver was travelling at 2 a.m in the night when he saw Radhey Shyam along with the others at the chowk."
Though this doesn't point to anything, it just shows the sense of fear amongst these families. "The point isn't that they were meeting, the point is the pattern that follows. In 2002, we saw them holding a meeting and we all know what happened later. We couldn't take any chance this time around, and we decided to flee," sighs Firoz.
"Being a close family member of Bilkis Bano, I can be seen as an easy prey," he adds.
A middle-aged man running a stable was hesitant when I approached his doorstep. At first, he was sceptical but later accepted how these past few days had been traumatic and dreadful for him and his family.
"After these men were released, I have been trying to cut my connection with the outside world to prevent any sort of threat to my family and me. I mostly keep my cell phone switched off and avoid going to the city," he says.
"I cannot go back knowing that the rapists of my sister are roaming free."
The families are hopeful that one day they might be able to return to their villages, but that day is neither today nor tomorrow. Not until justice is served.