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Lost and not found: Orissa’s orphans

Almost five days after a mob set on fire a remote orphanage run by a Christian organisation, nobody can tell us for sure where and how the little children — 21 in all — are coping, reports Zia Haq.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2008 01:04 IST
Zia Haq

A blue, Team India t-shirt still hangs on a clothesline. Size: small. It belongs to 13-year-old orphan Golki. His whereabouts: unknown.

Almost five days after a mob set on fire a remote orphanage run by a Christian organisation, nobody can tell us for sure where and how the little children — 21 in all — are coping.

The children escaped the deadly communal fire because their caretaker, Rajani, managed to pull them out on time through a small path. Rajani, however, died after she was allegedly pushed into the fire by rioters. Ask officials in this far-flung, tiny, subdivisional town and their standard reply is: “They have all gone back to their native villages nearby”.

The details are confusing regarding which villages they belong to, who they are staying with and whether they have enough to eat. Most of their parents had died of untreated leprosy. So these children belong to a class of untouchables nobody wants to mingle with.

The orphanage that was torched 16 hours after suspected Maoists extremists gunned down revered Hindu leader Swami Laxamanda in Kandhamal district must have been a place the children loved.

An unarmed Orissa Home Guard man, now deployed to protect the vacant place, sits on a swing the kids would fight to get on every afternoon.

The priest who ran the place, Father Eddie, has fled to his home state Karnakata.

By the side of a charred jeep used by Rajani to buy vegetables from the nearby market, Padampur’s revenue inspector Govinda Bhoi sits down with orphanage chowkidar Tanti. “I am here to survey the place and take down details of everything, including the 21 inmates,” says Bhoi.

Bhoi has been sent by the local tehsil (civil administration) to record details of the orphans, full five days after the incident.

“The children are with their relatives in nearby villages and safe,” claims Bargharh district's superintendent of police, Ashok Biswal. Biswal, a patient gentleman in his 50s, has been finding it difficult to handle the situation because of acute manpower shortage.

Most of the children at the home, like their dead caretaker, were Hindu children. “These Hindu right-wing people did not even realise this,” says SP Biswal.

Padampur is about 700 km away from Kandamal, the flashpoint of the current communal unrest after a Hindu leader’s killing. How did the news of his killing travel so fast, in about 16 hours, in a place where newspapers reach two days later?

Padampur is the hometown of Subhash Chauhan, a senior state-level Sangh Parivar official who is helping organise rallies to protest killing of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanand in Kandamal .

“Phone calls were made to organise the rally in Padampur to protest the killings by Chauhan that later turned violent,” says a senior police official not wanting to be identified. “But we do not have evidence that he ordered the violence in any way,” he adds.

Chauhan denies the charge that VHP is behind Rajani’s. “We do not believe in violence. Don’t blame us. And please protect us from Christian militancy,” he tells the HT.

Bargarh district, where Padampur falls, has no previous record of communal violence. On the morning of September 25, a procession of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the World Hindu Council, menacingly marched past Padampur’s police station before zeroing on the orphan home.

They first torched a church just 20 meters away around 1.30 pm. How? The police do not know.

“I’ll tell you how,” says Barnaba Lohar, the church’s secretary. They torched and fled and the police kept watching.

And the 21 orphans? “We have some idea. We can’t tell you. We will reach them once our people come back from hiding,” is all Lohar says.