Waheed Ghani, 18, arrived at Howrah Station two months ago with his family and a few essentials. The engaging poet, who studies in class 12 and often writes about war and weapons, remembers exactly how he felt that December morning.
“The first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the station. I had read about it. It’s so much more impressive when you are actually standing there. But my mother was terrified seeing the crowd,” Ghani says, walking through long nearly identical rows of flapping tents to find her.
The teenager from Baramulla district, along the India-Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir, is one of the nearly 1,000 Kashmiris taking ‘asylum’ close to Kolkata to evade the bitter cold and sharp rise in exchange of fire between Pakistani and Indian troops in recent months.
Ghani’s family shares space with six others in their cramped plastic tent with carpets laid on the ground. Their possessions, for obvious reasons, are minimal. Each of the dozenodd bathrooms are shared by almost 50 people and with no sewage system, waste water runs through the camp.
Naturally, hygiene goes missing. Many residents even complain of chronic respiratory ailments, skin allergies and high blood pressure, while several children suffer from diarrhoea. With limited electricity and water supply - life here is tough.
Ulfat Jahan considers the condition daunting; but counts herself lucky. “We’re all just about keeping ahead of our problems. Out of all the camps in different parts of India, this one comes on top!” the 15-yearold with a cherubic face says.
At the makeshift camp, under Vivekananda Setu, near Dakshineshwar, almost half the population comprises children and youth from border districts such as Baramulla, Uri, Poonch and Anantnag.
A woman who gave her name as Rubina averred the winter storms this year in Kashmir have been the most deadly in decades. They were fierce enough to “kill children and old people”. But she is glad to be in Kolkata where the situation is less life-threatening. Like a lot of women, and men, at the camp, Rubina, asked to be identified by her nickname in fear of mocking by relatives still living in Kashmir.
“We are desperate. We eat whatever is given and wash our clothes in buckets. There is lack of dignity,” she says, “But we come from respectable families.”
Despite his ready smile, Imtiaz Ahmed anxiously pulls at his lower lip while agreeing with Rubina on the condition at the camp. “We need food. We are always short of oil, rice and pulses. The total expenditure on food is Rs. 25,000 a day, but we sometimes manage with just Rs. 5, 000,” said the 37-year-old father of a toddler.
A teacher by profession, he also encourages school-going children-over 200 of them- at the camp to get a sense of routine and keep boredom at bay.
But the bitter winter in Kashmir wasn’t the only problem that forced these people to shift their base to Kolkata. The trouble, says a man who goes by the name Shah, was compounded by the ongoing tension between the two neighbouring countries.
“Life here, although temporary and uneasy, is better than what we have at home right now. Our children are safe here,” says the man in his early fifties. He pulls up the leg of his loose pajamas to show burn scars on his legs, adding, “We want to keep our family away from all this.”
“It’s a big city; we’re treated differently, but not discriminated against. Many Kolkatans understand our situation and come out to help.”
But Shah and other will have to return soon. Almost all of them are leaving in mid-March. Till then, its Kolkata they choose to call home.