How THE HELL do you take in all this without a wide-angle lens, I grumbled to myself, trying futilely to steady the Minolta in my sweating palms and groping for a stable perch on the uneven mound of loose soil. Then I cursed loudly. The half-dead dog convulsed violently as I stepped on it in my desperate search for a vantage point along the edges of that scorched patch of farmland. I barely managed to avert worse-tumbling onto a heap of mangled bodies. But no amount of hopping around could save one from stepping on dismembered bodies and limbs, strewn around like rotten cabbages.
The sun shone fiercely, hastening the putrefaction, and an unbearable stink rose from terra firma – a smell to which I was increasingly getting accustomed. “Don’t waste time, sir. We have work to do. I have to go and survey the whole area and you are so taken up with this, a mere 135 bodies. Come along, there are hundreds more,” beckoned H.B.N. Appa, the haggard yet enthusiastic sub-inspector of the 10 Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force, casually wiping the sweat off his forehead. Then, inexplicably, he rubbed it into the barrel on his Sten gun. Sharing Appa’s disapproving looks was a flock of vultures, waiting ever so impatiently for us to leave.
Appa’s cynicism was understandable. “Nothing new, sir. It was just like this in Bangladesh”, he said tilting his helmet and remembering gory deeds of the Pakistani Army in 1971. “But I was much younger, then. Now I am old and tired. No food, no water, for two days. We are just two platoons of tired jawans, desperately running around since we reached here last afternoon. How can we guard the entire area from attacks by more than 10,000 men? Yet, thousands more would have died if we had not reached here.”
But even they could not prevent the deaths around Nellie from touching the 1,500-mark.
I counted 256 bodies in less than an hour. The wounded who walked or crawled past, on their way to national highway no. 37 in search for help, spoke of hundreds more dead in their villages, where Appa would not let me go. “Fresh attacks are feared any moment. With the force we have we can hardly guard the camps of survivors at Nellie and I don’t fancy facing a mob with just one Sten.” In the village, everything had been burnt to ashes. You could see radio sets smashed to pieces, bicycles twisted and burnt, and even two burnt pump sets. The invaders had no interest in looting – the murderous instinct had wiped out everything else. Even the few surviving patches of paddy were singed.
From Muladhari, one of the completely devastated villages in the cluster around the highway township of Nellie, the uneven mud trail was sickeningly scary. A woman, with no more than a rag around her waist, screamed uncontrollably. Her breasts bore ghastly lacerations. Abdul Hannan, one of the very few survivors who was now helping collect the wounded, said she was in the sixth month of her pregnancy –aborted when a spear-handle was thrust deep into her vagina – and left to die after the marauders spent a few minutes disfiguring her body. She now screamed not with pain but with grief, and pointed to the pieces of a “two-year-old, her first, who was drawn into two.”
“They grabbed his limbs, two from each direction and pulled him into pieces,” said Hannan, and mumbled as an after-thought, “Why doesn’t she die now?”
The primary school building at Nellie was like what field hospitals in medieval battlefields must have looked. There were hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children walking or crawling around aimlessly with gaping stab, spear and bullet wounds all over their bodies. The wounds, unattended, still bled. Blood and grime mixed and even a non-medic could smell the gangrene and tetanus lurking around the corner. But the more immediate problem was making one’s way to the small, crowded first-aid stall in the middle of the vast sea of bleeding humanity without spoiling one’s shirt-sleeves.
I gave up, rubbing shoulders freely. Later that day, while driving back to Guwahati airport, I very nearly got mobbed thanks to the blood-smeared shirt when I stopped briefly to take a look at a furiously burning market at yet another highway township of Sonapur. A fireman coolly offered to help and the bloodstains vanished under the jet of water.
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Back at Nellie, the bloodstains showed much more prominently on the once spotless white uniforms of the four nurses and three para-medical workers who struggled desperately with the crowds. The nurses cried uncontrollably and a CRPF assistant sub-inspector trying to comfort them joined in. The first-aid boxes had no more than tincture of iodine and Savlon and most wounds were beyond the stage where antiseptics could help. The grown-ups were cool, but the children screamed as the tincture burned into the deep gashes. The nurses cried even louder.
Inspector Rai of the CRPF bravely went around asking everyone to bear with it for a while as the army doctors were about to arrive. No one believed him and it was not until the next afternoon that any substantial relief could be organised by a demoralised government.
Suddenly, everyone’s attention was diverted and there were loud clicks of safety-catches slipping. The CRPF men, rifles and Stens at the ready, sprinted eastwards from where, said a bunch of immigrant Muslims, a new attack was developing.
Panic seized the camp and a stampede was averted only by the sudden return of the relieved CRPF men who, nevertheless, gave a dressing down to those responsible for the false alarm.
My trance was broken by a tug on my sleeve. A sobbing Nageswar Rai, the driver, showed me his watch. “Just 90 minutes for the flight to leave for Delhi. Do you want to send the film today or not?” We hopped into the car and I vainly searched for Appa to thank him.
He was already gone, leading a patrol, following yet another alarm.
The 80 km journey back to Borjhar airport near Guwahati gave one time to reflect on the day’s happenings. Colleague Hemendra Narayan, who had seen part of the attack the previous day, called it “darkness at noon” but he wasn’t sure how many people died. My first reaction, too, was that this was yet another instance of arson and a few killings, as had been the trend so far, but I had casually decided on a hunch, to come and have a look anyway. It was intriguing why there were no other newsmen at Nellie.
At Borjhar airport, things looked absolutely normal. Assam government officers loitered around in the lobby waiting for the consignments of fruit and bread from Delhi to feed the poll personnel. Half-a-dozen news photographers and reporters milled around the counters looking for passengers willing to take their films back to Calcutta or Delhi. No one talked of Nellie. Till then, everyone had accepted the government’s figure of 35 dead.
The work over, we all retired for the customary late lunch at the airport cafeteria, which often tended to become a conclave of tired braggarts. Chicken biryani was the sole dish on the menu. Hungrily, I dug into the plate and then stopped midway. Those chunks of chicken! Why did they look so much like the raw human flesh one had just seen lying all over the paddy-fields?
A lot of people at the restaurant looked surprised as I rushed out, made it straight to the toilet and retched.
This is an edited excerpt from Assam: A Valley Divided, published by Vikas Publishing House in January, 1984. It is now out of print.