Ayesha's mother shakes one of the three small tins that make up her kitchen, hoping it will have some last few grains of sugar. The daily supply of 300 grams milk stopped over a week ago, so the tea is always black. Not that Ayesha would mind, since her mother ensures it is sugary. Ayesha is four and her mother, 20, can only make her one glass of tea that must be drunk in small sips to last "as long as possible".
Ayesha's father, Irfan, a carpenter, has gone to Basikala in Muzaffarnagar to look for work. A small fire of dried leaves and sticks from sugarcane fields burns outside their tarpaulin tent, the only other comfort they have in the cold nights on the open fields in western UP's Shamli district.
It's 11 pm at Malakpur, one of Shamli district's relief camps and where 699 families displaced after the Muzaffarnagar riots are camping under open skies with only tarpaulin sheets for shelter. While her mother looks for sugar, little Ayesha moves through a crowd of children to get as close as possible to another fire. She has no shoes, and the fire is the only comfort for her tiny feet. Children claw at one another, trying to get close to the small pile of burning sticks.
A spark flies on to Ayesha's right foot. She screams and jumps back. A patch of brown skin has come off, leaving a reddening wound. Her mother rushes out with a dupatta and a bowl of water from the tubewell, her tears flowing. "It's a small burn. By morning it will be fine," says her grandmother. The sugar and the tea are forgotten.
About 5 km away, in Bipur, another mother struggles to keep her seven children warm. It is around midnight and Sajida, 28, has used up a second dupatta to support her roof of patched pieces of tarpaulin. Within half an hour, the roof starts dripping with dew. "We have only two blankets for the nine of us," she says. "I try hard to keep this dew from dripping through by packing my clothes against the tarpaulin, but the dew soaks up our blankets by morning. Three of my children already have a fever."
Arzoo, 2, has diarrhoea but there are no toilets in the camp. "I take her out in the fields," Sajida says. "There are two tubewells, but the water is so bad I have to boil it every time, or walk 4 km to the government tubewell that is deeper and has better water."
Dark, cold, filth
These camps, hamlets of tents, mostly tarpaulin, with a few waterproof ones from donors, are home to thousands of families from six villages in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, where communal clashes broke out in September. People from other districts such as Baghpat and Meerut too have settled here, having arrived in anticipation of violence.
"We count our lives by the nights. There is no watch, no calendar. We watch our children make it from one night to the next," says Iddu, 48, of Bawdi village who is now camping in Barnawi. Most families prefer to spend the night gathered around a fire outside their tent, cuddling up under shared blankets only near dawn.
Solar bulbs have been put up by an NGO, Astitva, in one camp in Malakpur, but are not working yet. Every tent has been given a packet of candles, but the families use them sparingly. "When the fires turn cold in the night, we light one candle for an hour or so," says Mehrbeen of Kutba village, camping in Malakpur.
Garbage has piled up in front of the camp. Nine toilets were built here by local BSP leaders in September-end, bricks packed together to make enclosures for some privacy. Three months since then, only three are usable, and a pool of water has gathered around the area. There is no cleaning, no lines for the water to flow. So around midnight, when Mehrunisa of Lisar has to relieve herself, she chooses to gather three women to walk with her to the next field.
"It's not safe in the dark, but what do we do? If we walk in the toilets, we walk on excreta, and there is no light. We have to go like this in groups," she says.
With night temperatures expected to dip over the next few days, blankets and woollens are a luxury few have. Momeena of Lisar, now camping in Malakpur, has three children between one and five, and one sweater for them. "They get the sweater by turns every night. That way each gets one night of some comfort," she says. "I also boil water for them. What else can I do?"
She has sent two other children, 7 and 9, with her sister-in-law in Kandhla. Her husband has gone looking for a job there so he can stay close to them. "May Allah never put any mother in a situation like this," Momeena says. "I had to choose which of my children to keep here. If I had kept them all here with one sweater, they would all have died."
While the children and their mother have one charpoy to sleep on, in Bipur camp a couple aged about 70 to 75 spend the night on the grass, under their tarpaulin tent. They have one blanket between them. "If we get another blanket, we can spread it on the grass. Then, it won't be so cold," Zidana Begam says.
Life and death
In the madrasa camp in Suneti, the smallest with 95-odd families, are six mothers who have each buried a child in the last three months, three of the six having been born in the camp. Ruksana, 18, who buried her 10-day-old daughter last week, has only two dupattas to keep herself warm. She says every week a child has been dying in the camp. "Before my child, my neighbour's 15-day-old son went. There is no milk from the government, and I am barely getting one meal a day, so I am not lactating. The children are hungry, and cold. How can we save them?"she says, breaking into tears.
In Malakpur, 29 children have died since September, when the first families started arriving. The 699 families here with nearly 4,000 people make it the largest of the camps. A small graveyard of children has come up a few metres from where people stay.
A small economy has flourished here in the month since state rations were stopped, to "encourage" people to return home, according to authorities. The men, many of whom worked as painters and carpenters or sold cloth, now work on farms or in brick kilns for around Rs 200 a day. A vegetable vendor comes here everyday; a barber has set up shop. One of the families has opened up a kinara store under a tarpaulin tent and sell bread and chips.
Anger at home
Meanwhile, in Lakh village where Ayesha's family is from, their two-storey house has been burnt down, leaving only a shed with a pile of cowdung cakes. Irfan, her father, Irfan, filed a case of arson and loot against a neighbour, Baru Master, a retired headmaster, and Irfan is spoken of with contempt in the village.
"I taught Irfan at school, and he says I have looted his house," Baru tells The Indian Express. "I am 70 years old. He has registered a case against my son because he wanted to destroy his career, but why an old man like me?"
Irfan's is among 27 Muslim houses in the village that were burnt in the rioting. Four bodies were recovered from the village. Suresh alias Billu, the pradhan, says 700 FIRs with names and 800 without have been registered by Muslims against Jats and Brahmins. Most of these are against young men about to start their careers, villagers say.
Not one Muslim family has returned since they fled the village between September 8 and 10. "We have lived as neighbours for so many years, now they have registered false cases against us to get compensation. No one from our village was involved in the riots, they were all people from neighbouring villages," Suresh says.
He says he, along with Baru, saved 200 families who were hiding in their homes, and these included Irfan's. Now, they are not interested in knowing where Irfan and is family are.
"Now they have named us in their false FIRs. Why doesn't Irfan return to face us? He is scared because he knows he has lied, and has destroyed our sons' careers," Suresh says.
No more rations
Shamli district magistrate P K Singh says 2,877 riot-affected people are staying in three camps, in Kandhla, Malakpur and Barnawi. He calls the other camps "offshoots" of these main camps. Locals say there are at least 12 such camps and the number of people in them would be at least 14,000 to 15,000.
"We gave rice, wheat, oil, sugar, salt, potatoes and masala worth at least Rs 5 crore," Singh says. "Now after affected families have taken compensation, we had to withdraw the rations. Most of the people staying here are from Baghpat and Saharanpur, where there were no riots. We have contacted the district authorities there to convince them to return."