A new home in Chhattisgarh is giving shelter, education and more to children whose parents became victims of the insurgency.
Eight-year-old Manju loves to knit, and goes to her room at night to silently sew a sweater for her 4-year-old brother, who is fast asleep in the adjoining room. Her friend Surmi loves to tease her and often crashes around to distract her.
But life is tough for these children. In June 2009, their fathers, who were field workers, went to Chhindgarh village to buy pesticides. Returning to their own village Chittalguda, the men were killed by Maoist insurgents who had invaded their homes.
There are scores of children in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh like Manju and Surmi who are victims of militant violence. Now the orphans have a ray of hope in Aastha (Faith) – a shelter for homeless children from Dantewada and other Chhattisgarh districts. The home is a joint initiative by the district administration and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
"The Maoists, in a bid to expand fast, have left a trail of death and destruction in Chhattisgarh. Their attacks on innocent people left several in the region orphaned and homeless," Lata Usendi, the Chhattisgarh Minister for Women and Child Development, Social Welfare, Sports and Youth Welfare, told Khabar South Asia.
"Aastha is the first step in this direction and its success has made us decide to set up many more such homes for those affected by the Maoist violence. Actually, there are several hundred such children and we have just been able to provide succour only to a few. Much more needs to be done," Usendi said.
Around 123 boys and 127 girls have found shelter in Aastha. Some children's mothers are also given shelter, and they help with cooking and cleaning.
Vime Yadav and Kureshia Begum, mothers of 6-year-old Shiva Yadav and 2-year-old Shahid Khan respectively, work as cooks for the shelter home.
"Aastha has been a big support for us. If they had not stood by us, we would have been left with no alternative but to end our lives," Kureshia told Khabar.
Helping kids make a new start
Fourteen-year-old Kamla remembers the day her father's body was recovered. He had been taken away to the forests and hacked to death by the Maoists.
"I cried and cried, and my world collapsed when my mother died too in 2006," she told Khabar.
She was overcome by depression at times, but she has learned to tackle it by singing. Sushma Das, who is in charge of the girls' hostel, initiated coaching sessions for the petite girl.
The Aastha children are also provided coaching for school admissions and study in Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central school). Older children are given coaching sessions for entrance tests like medicine and engineering.
As part of a project dubbed 'Chhoo Lo Aasman' (Touch the Sky), they receive training in mathematics and science. The initiative, started in 2011, is the brainchild of Dantewada district collector O. P. Chowdhury.
"Teachers, many of whom are from outside the region, have been put up in residential schools in Balood and Karli in Dantewada and they taught science to those who were interested after the first board exams," Aastha superintendent Sumathi Lal told Khabar. "Around 320 children, including 180 girls, are being taught in these schools with the state government bearing all expenses."
Veena, a student from Karli, surprised her teachers when she cleared the pharmacy entrance exam. Resmi, another Karli student, is keen on clearing the test for medical school.
"I'm really working hard to achieve the objective," Veena told Khabar with a smile.