Eighteen-year-old Nilima Baskey was picking up the clothes put out for drying when she heard gunshots in her neighbour’s house. Even as she tried to find out what was happening, she saw at least seven uniformed men walk into the courtyard of her house, opening fire in all directions.
“I saw my two sisters and a brother killed on the spot. My father-in-law and mother-in-law, who were sitting on the verandah, were also hit. I somehow managed to run away into the jungle. I ran until I reached the next village. As I was describing what had happened, I continued to hear gunshots, accompanied by shouting and crying, from my village,” said Baskey.
Besides her three siblings — seven-year-old twins Sita and Ram and two-year-old Suki — Baskey also lost her mother, Dalham Hasda, and cousins Luski Tudu and Kalyani Tudu. “Today, I came to know that Baha Baskey, my mother’s sister, and her two children were also killed,” she said.
Baskey is among the over 2,000 Adivasis who have taken shelter at the Tinisuti High School, about 10 km from Sonajuli. While she managed to escape, the others were not so lucky. As many as 31 people from her village were killed in the attack on Tuesday evening. Among the victims were 15 children, two of them below two years of age.
Charan Kiskoo, 60, lost four family members — a daughter and three grandchildren. “Luckily, my wife Menaka had gone to visit a relative in another village. But what will she remain alive for…. we have lost our daughter and grandchildren,” said Kiskoo, holding a spear and a dao (machete) with which he hopes to protect himself if the attackers come again.
The militants are reported to have come from the north-west direction, close to the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh inter-state border. Both Kiskoo and Baskey said there were 20-30 militants.
“They were wearing army uniform, so people first thought they were army jawans,” said Lakhinath Hembrom, another survivor.
Meanwhile, the protests against the attacks took a violent turn on Wednesday as mobs burnt houses belonging to both Bodo and Adivasi families in the area. While houses belonging to Bodos of Balidanga — who had fled last evening after the attack on the neighbouring Adivasi village — were first set on fire this morning, smoke and fire soon rose from Sonajuli-Phulbari and other Adivasi villages by afternoon.
The fleeing Adivasi villagers first gathered at the local church at Tinisuti, and then shifted to the Tinisuti High School, closer to a police outpost. The army and troops of the SSB and ITBP were also out later in the afternoon, but marched or drove only on the main road, as smoke continued to spiral from the villages close to the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh.
“We came and settled here after we were evicted from Kokrajhar district. While we were living in peace alongside some Bodo families who had also arrived to set up villages here, I still cannot understand why our village was targeted,” said Kiskoo.
Sonajuli was among the five Adivasi villages in the two districts of Sonitpur and Kokrajhar where the NDFB militants struck. These Adivasis, who are originally from Chota Nagpur region but migrated to Assam as tea plantation labourers in the mid-19th century, settled in these villages inside the Pabhoi reserved forest after they were uprooted from Kokrajhar district following the 1996 ethnic violence. Over 2.7 lakh people, most of them Adivasis, were rendered homeless in Kokrajhar in 1996, when about 300 people were killed.
Most of the Adivasis living in these villages are marginal farmers, who set up their bamboo houses by clearing the jungles inside the Pabhoi reserved forest bordering Arunachal Pradesh. While they have given their own names to these villages — Sonajuli, Phulbari, Balidanga, Nahorbari, Rangajan, Samukjuli, Sudembari — some Nepali and Karbi families have also settled in these areas.