On Thursday, when Sam Stafford, his cousins and friends set out for Guwahati’s Latasil playground, the city was under curfew. But the spirits were high — almost everyone in their locality was heading to the field for the protest organised by the All Assam Students’ Union and Zubeen Garg against the citizenship law. Sam (17) was especially excited. A percussionist, he was going to see Garg — his favourite musician and idol.
The largely peaceful protest ended 3 pm and Sam and his friends headed home to Hatigaon Bhetapara, 9 km away. By then, there were sporadic protests in the city — with tyres burning, road dividers destroyed, stones thrown, and clashes between security forces and protesters.
When they reached Hatigaon, a group of protesters — about 500 strong — were in the area. “We were only shouting slogans,” says Ibadul Hoque, Sam’s classmate. Suddenly, the streetlights went off, police started firing, and he “ran for his life, it was terrifying”, he said.
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“When the firing stopped, we heard someone had been shot,” says Hoque. Then they saw Sam lying on the road, dead. “He was shot through his mouth,” says Hoque on Friday, at Sam’s home, as relatives and family members waited for the body to be brought from Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.
Hoque has a hunch that Sam was up in front trying to help people, because that was how Sam was: always smiling and helpful. “Sam dada asked me to join him in the protest. He told me not to worry because he was there to save me,” says 15-year-old Shenaz Ahmed, a neighbour.
At Sam’s family home in Hatigaon Bhetapara, his relatives were inconsolable, and Sam’s parents (Biju, his father, who drives a city shuttle) and mother (Mamoni) were in no condition to speak.
“I don’t think he even knew the full meaning of the citizenship law, he just went to protest because everyone was doing so. He also went to see Zubeen Garg,” says Dolly Deka, Sam’s 22-year-old cousin, sobbing. “People are dying and the government paid no heed. We voted for them. We thought they would do something. But what they did was they killed our brother, who had no evil intentions.”
Sam’s friends from the Phalguni Rabha Assamese medium school say he was saving up money from his small tabla performances around the city. “He was going to start a YouTube channel for Assamese music,” says Intaj Khan, a friend.
His friends say they didn’t discuss the citizenship law much, until the protests began. “But, as Assamese boys, we were worried about the future of Assam. We never wanted illegal Bangladeshis to take over,” says Hoque.
About 30 minutes before the body arrived, Garg arrived at the Staffords’ house, in tears.
While The Indian Express was unable to access Sam’s post mortem report, eyewitnesses said he was shot point-blank in the face. ADGP (L&O) G P Singh confirmed the death.
“He had sinusitis, it was common for him to cover his face with a black mask. He was hefty too. Is that why the police fired at him?” asks Bishop Stafford, Sam’s uncle.
According to information available at the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital, as of Friday 6.30 pm, 26 people were injured, 11 discharged and two dead. Apart from Sam Stafford, the deceased included 21-year-old Dipanjal Das, who hails from Chaygaon (Kamrup district), an employee at Sainik Bhavan canteen in Guwahati.
While Das was shot at in the city’s Ulubari area, Sam died during a clash in Hatigaon area.
The Indian Express spoke to the families of some of the injured. On Thursday evening, Nazmeen K Afroz, a 51-year-old housewife, set out with her daughter, Suzana, 25, and neighbour (also tenant, Najma Begum, 45). “We needed milk. We heard a few shops had opened. We could see tyres burning and vandalism, but there were so many people, so it seemed safe,” says Suzana.
Suddenly, she said, the road plunged into darkness and they heard gunshots for five minutes. “Everyone started running and we took refuge in a lane. My mother and I lay flat on the ground,” says Suzana, “I heard my mother whimper in pain. I touched her leg and felt blood and flesh. It was then that I realised she had been hit with a bullet.” A bullet also grazed their neighbour Najma’s ankle.
Both women got back home late Thursday, and are recovering.
Rajen Medhi, an auto driver in his sixties, had stepped out for groceries. “He was shot in the thigh and is in hospital,” says Amrendra Yadav, a neighbour.
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