Nine-year-old Azra Qureshi hasn’t slept properly since the afternoon of 8 September. At the trauma centre in New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), despite sedatives and painkillers, the pain doesn’t go away. Neither do the horrifying images.
The mob was getting closer to Azra’s home in Bahawadi village in UP’s Shamli district. Anticipating trouble, she and 10 others from her family locked themselves in their tiny kitchen. But that didn’t stop the mob from entering her house and shooting dead her 70-year-old grandmother, her uncle and her cousin. Azra saw her seven-year-old cousin Iqra’s eye fall out of her head before she died.
And then, it was Azra’s turn. There were six people from her village, all of whom she can recognise. They slashed her stomach with a sickle. A man called Kamal shouted, “Cut her hand off too.” They hacked at her right hand until the muscles and nerves were ripped off and the bones crushed.
Five days later, a journalist found her at the Muzaffarnagar district hospital, with what was left of her hand wrapped loosely in bandages. The doctors said they were not equipped for the sophisticated surgery needed to save her hand. So she was brought to Delhi.
The doctors at AIIMS said infection had taken root in the gaping holes in Azra’s hand. This had to be sucked out through a special machine. Then they cut a pocket into her stomach, and stitched her hand in there so that fresh cells and skin can regenerate.
But what of the trauma in Azra’s mind? Her father and grandmother by her side say she wakes up in the middle of the night, screaming: “Ammi, woh log aa rahen hain (Mother, those men are coming!)” Any conversation around what had happened turns Azra’s face ashen and stiff with fear.
It will be a while before she can turn on her side. For now, she is stuck to the hospital bed and uses the bed pan for basics. In about six weeks, the hand will be removed from the stomach- pocket. And then the series of surgeries needed to reconstruct her hand can begin. The process will take at least a year.
The doctors are scared to discharge her now. They know her house was burned down. Her father, Aas Mohammad, was away doing daily-wage labour in Maharashtra when the riot erupted. All 35 members of her family are now living in a three-room dwelling in a Muzaffarnagar slum. If Azra is discharged at this point, she is likely to get an infection. But if she has to remain in hospital for a few more months, she will also need to take her mind off the trauma.
Can someone read her a story? Her father and grandmother do not read. But they distract her by dialling her mother and cousins in Muzaffarnagar. “How are you, Maa? I’m fine,” Azra tells her mother on phone, not seeing the irony of it.
For brief moments, Azra does try and forget the pain. “Pardesi, pardesi, jaana nahiiiiii…,” she sings, to the delight of everyone in the trauma ward. The lyrics from the 1996 Bollywood blockbuster Raja Hindustani.
No one really knows how many others like Azra are frozen in fear, lying in district hospitals in pain.
So, even with large metal screws sticking out of her hand, this nine-year-old is labelled as lucky. Lucky, she wasn’t killed like her cousin. Lucky, she was sent to Delhi. Lucky, that after her life has been so violently shattered, she can now try and put the pieces back again.
Meanwhile, her father appeals for help with rebuilding their lives. The immediate financial and medical needs have been met by AIIMS and (with some pushing by the CPM’s Brinda Karat) the UP government. But putting their lives back on track, with no house and no savings, won’t be easy once the media’s attention and the pressure on the state eases.
To help Azra, you can contact Sehba Farooqui on #9818297702