THE ROAD is orange, indicating that work on it is incomplete. Two small bridges stand forlorn and half-made, dusty diversions circumventing them. Deep inside Sukma, this is what the CRPF sought to protect when they were ambushed by Maoists Monday, leading to the death of 25 personnel.
Around 200m from the road, the trees allow very little sun, and the terrain is rocky and uneven. In one corner, next to a stone, is a small patch of leaves now shaded red. A little distance away, in a small cove, is another, bigger patch of red. Three jawans died here. In the middle, is an olive-green shoe.
On Tuesday, these are the signs that tell the tale at Ground Zero, of the worst Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh in seven years.
Those who survived, or have since been investigating the attack, speak of other things. Of a U-shaped ambush by at least 150 Maoists, of an intelligence failure, of possible genital mutilation, of human shields. And, of the weapons that are missing: 12 AK 47s, five UBGLs (Under-Barrel Grenade Launchers), two LMGs, two INSAS rifles, four AKM assault rifles, five wireless sets, two binoculars, 22 bullet-proof jackets, and 59 AK magazines and ammunition.
Officers say that at 6 am on Monday, 76 jawans left the CRPF’s Burkapal camp to secure the road and under-construction bridge on the crucial link between Dornapal on NH 30 and Jagargunda, a length of 56 km. The stretch is divided between the Burkapal camp and the one in Chintalnar, about 5 km away.
At 12.55 pm, they were on their way back when they came under a hail of fire from a massive, planned ambush, in an area considered a Maoist stronghold.
At the site, the earth speaks of the weapons used. In one corner is an improvised explosive, fitted on the end of an arrow nestled in the ground. In another, is the shell of an SLR rifle. Officers say the Maoists used AK 47S, SLRs, INSAS rifles, factory-made hand grenades, and indigenously made explosives.
CRPF officers probing the encounter say the spatter of blood at various spots indicates that the security personnel were not bunched together, with many in “good defensive positions”, covered by rocks at a height, or undergrowth.
Asked how so many were killed then, CRPF DIG D P Upadhyaya said, “There were 32 men on the northern flank, eight personnel on the road, and 36 on the south flank. The southern flank came under fire. There was a huge number of Maoists, who used human shields during the exchange of fire. Some of the fire came from behind villagers in Burkapal, which prevented one flank from joining the other. There were also armed Maoists in civilian clothing in the area, and therefore we could not immediately determine their identity under fire.”
He said, “The jawans had taken good positions and were not moving when they were attacked, and fought bravely… drag marks at the spot indicate that some Maoists have been killed as well. But no bodies have been recovered.”
Another senior CRPF officer, from the COBRA battalion, says it was clear that the troops had been attacked first with “distraction fire”. “It is natural to turn towards where the gunshots are coming from. But the majority of firing immediately came from the other side,” he said.
Officers say there are signs of genital mutilation, too, on the body of one slain jawan.
This attack comes close on the heels of another ambush on a road opening party on March 11, which left 13 CRPF men dead on the road between Injeram and Bhejji, 20 km from Burkapal in a straight line.
But the similarities don’t end there. That attack was also on a road-opening party, and police suspect that it was carried out by the same powerful Maoist military battalion operating in the area. “It is likely that senior commanders like Situ, Nagesh and Sonu, and chief of the battalion Hidma, were present,” said a senior officer.
Much like the Bhejji encounter, there has been a huge loss of weapons. And, both attacks were just a kilometre from CRPF camps. Newly appointed Inspector General of Police (Bastar), Vivekananda, who visited the spot on Tuesday morning, says that while the current spate of attacks is disturbing, they need to be looked at “holistically”.
“It is unfortunate that these attacks have taken place, and we will respond. But a holistic view needs to be taken. Much of Bastar is now increasingly accessible to forces, and these are acts of increasing desperation,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, the villagers of Burkapal sat quietly in a bunch outside the camp. Pawan Kumar, a resident with a house on the road, said that he stayed inside when the firing that lasted two hours took place.
In the 15 camps that dot the road, there is much anger: at the government, the hostile situation around them, even the media. The anger also hides sorrow, of 25 friends and colleagues lost. One jawan in Burkapal said, “Not one of us has eaten or slept all night.”