When the accused in the Godhra train burning case were convicted last month, Sairaben Sandhi from Ahmedabad felt the irony pierce her.
In Sandhi’s Gulbarg Society, where 68 people were killed during Gujarat’s communal riots of 2002, a large number of the accused rioters still roam free to haunt and threaten her.
“It is traumatic to live with the murderers around, who have been given more land by the state government and openly offer us money to take back our allegations,” said Sandhi, a daily wage worker whose only son was burnt before her eyes during the riots.
Sandhi is among the hundreds of victims who survived the Gujarat riots and began appearing for eyewitness testimonials in special courts appointed by the Supreme Court since May 2009.
Five of these women eyewitnesses were in Mumbai on Wednesday to talk about their nine-year struggle to be heard and evidence recorded.
“When I broke down in court while talking about my dead son, the judge was insensitive, and he even forced me to identify the accused from a long distance, which is difficult after nine years have passed,” said Rupaben Modi, also a resident of Gulbarg Society who lost her only son.
According to Teesta Setalvad, secretary of organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace, which has helped the witnesses go up to the Gujarat high court to ensure legal representation, their fight for justice is now no longer a communal struggle.
“Those who claim that Muslims in Gujarat are prospering are an elite section of the community, and the for these victims it is now just a lonely battle,” said Setalvad, who has demanded closed-circuit television cameras for the courtrooms so that judges’ behaviour towards victims can be monitored.
Witnesses are currently being given police security to guard them from the accused in their neighbourhoods.
“But how long can this continue? We don’t mind being killed for it but we want justice for our dead first,” said Shakila Pathan, a survivor of the Naroda Patiya society massacre in Ahmedabad where 110 people were killed.