Around 500 km from the Chhattisgarh state capital, and past several CRPF camps, lies Kondasawali, a village in Sukma district fringed by the Bailadila hills, home to high-grade minerals and thus conflict.
It’s here that seven people were killed in 2009, allegedly by Special Police Officers of the Salwa Judum, a government-backed militia formed in 2007 to take on the Maoists. Eleven years after the incident and six years after the first complaints in the case were filed, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in December 2019 ordered the state government to pay a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to each of the families of those killed. But two months after the NHRC order, the villagers are yet to get the compensation money.
Villagers even say they haven’t heard of the NHRC order. “We haven’t heard of any compensation. No one came to the village to tell us about this,” said Sundam Sannu, a former sarpanch and one of those who filed complaints against the killings of 2009.
In Kondasawali, a village of around 300 people spread across four hamlets and whose only approach road has been cut off, allegedly by Maoists to keep out the State, memories of that conflict hang heavy. So does the hurt of being so “completely forgotten” by the State. With no water or electricity supply, no anganwadi and a school with no teachers, the villagers decided not to vote in this year’s sarpanch election.
In 2008-9, as the Judum took on the Maoists, it herded people into camps, away from their villages. In Kondasawali, like in several other villages, many tried to hold on to their land and their jungles. But the consequences of holding out were often severe. In Kondasawali, seven people were killed in 2008-2009, and over 95 huts burnt, after which the entire village emptied out.
“We were scared. One after the other, we went into the forest, hiding from the forces. In 2012, some of us came back and then others followed,” recounted Lakhesh Joga, a villager.
In 2013, when most of the villagers returned, they decided to file a complaint on the seven killings and the burning of huts.
“We were worried that the Judum people would attack us again. So we filed complaints with police, district collector,” said Sannu, the former sarpanch, walking to a clearing, three km inside the forest, where more villagers have gathered to talk about the conflict.
Aite, in her 20s, is part of the group that has assembled at the clearing. Aite was barely in her late teens when her father-in-law Barse Nanda was taken away from their house in 2009, allegedly by the Judum. Then, after years spent hiding in the jungles, when the family came back, her mother-in-law Barse Nande too “vanished” one day. “She had gone to graze our cattle. We later learned that she was killed as she was one of the complainants,” she said.
Kunjam Boda also went “missing” when he had gone to pick mahua from the forest. “The people who killed him are still with the force, some in Dornapal, some in Jagargunda. When we step out of the jungles, they harass us,” said Boda’s nephew, who spoke on condition that he not be named.
Insisting they haven’t heard of the NHRC compensation, the villagers say they now won’t take the money.
“Did they tell us all those years ago that we are taking your men but we will pay you Rs 5 lakh later? We will tell them to leave the money at the graves of all of our deceased men,” said Deva, a relative of the Barse couple.
When contacted, Additional Chief Secretary Subrat Sahu said the district officials tried to approach the village but “couldn’t find anyone in the village”. “We are now planning to deposit the money in their bank accounts,” he said.
Sannu said that while most of the villagers had bank accounts, the passbooks are with a former panchayat secretary. “We don’t know where he is or where our bank documents are. We don’t even know which bank the accounts are in,” he said.
“We don’t want money. We want the government to help us. We need water, medical help, anganwadi and a school. Not because we were victims of the atrocity, but because we are still living here,” he added. And then, in broken Hindi: “Mare hue ko nahi bechate (We don’t sell our dead).”