Muni Birsa was sitting by the door in her mud house in Pakriguri village in Assam’s Kokrajhar district on December 23. Her husband Som Tudu was next to her, and two of their children were sitting in a corner adjacent to the door. Then, they heard the gunshots. As bullets came through the mud house’s walls, the family ducked. A moment later, a bullet drilled through the wall and hit Som Tudu in the head. He collapsed. Before Muni could realise what had happened, a militant broke open the door and shot Muni several times in the chest. She died instantly. Their children sitting behind the door went unnoticed.

Today, there are still bloodstains on the floor. While Som Tudu is recuperating in a hospital in Guwahati, nearly 260 kilometres away, his four sisters are looking after the children. Surma Murmu wails as she carries Som Tudu and Muni’s two-year-old child who too survived the attack. The other two children watch with fear as their aunts remember the horrors. They had to bury Muni on Christmas Day.

“We are telling the little one that his mother has gone to the farm and has not returned because she has a lot of work but is bringing food for him,” Surma said angrily in Santhali, a rosary hanging from her neck. “The local administration has given us some ration for my sister-in-law’s death. Is this justice?”

It was a dark Christmas for thousands of people across Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts. On December 23, a brutal attack on adivasi villages, allegedly by the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, claimed 81 lives. The fear of more strikes prompted lakhs to flee their villages. On Christmas Eve, houses continued to burn. And in retaliation, adivasi youths set fire to dwellings in Bodo villages.

Memories of violence past

For both Bodos and adivasis, the recent violence brought back memories of the ethnic clashes in Assam in 1996. Living in peace until then, the two communities, many of whom follow different denominations of Christianity, were filled with fear and suspicion. Those divisions deepened with more attacks over the years.

In Som Tudu and Muni’s Pakriguri village, there are numerous stories of grief inflicted by violence.

Stephan Hansda, 20, and Pramila Soren (name changed), 17, were married for a year and were living with Stephan’s parents Som Hansda and Mariam Murmu last December. On that fateful evening, Mariam was washing her hands at the tube well near a road. Som Hansda was behind their house, while Stephan and Pramila were in the kitchen. Hearing gunshots, Som Hansda ran into a thicket of bamboo trees behind the house and hid in a trench. After what seemed like a long time, he felt the approach of militants. He ducked down further, and they crossed over the trench without noticing him. Only when he could no longer hear their shoes did he run back towards the house.

Outside, his wife lay dead and nearby the family cow killed. Inside, his son lay in blood. Pramila, who was standing near the door, escaped unseen and unhurt. The walls were riddled with bullet holes. Som rushed to the neighbouring house and found Muni dead, Som Tudu injured and their children wailing. He heard more cries from the other houses in the row. Later that night, the police came and took Stephan, who was still breathing then, to Barpeta town. He subsequently succumbed to his injuries.

“The administration came and gave me some money to perform the last rites,” said Som Hansda, looking at the graves in the backyard. “I buried my wife and son on Christmas Day.” He and Pramila now spend the day in the house, but head to a nearby relief camp at night.

What does he seek now? Justice? “There is no option for us but to form our own group and get arms to defend ourselves,” he said. “The village nearby is inhabited by Bodos and we used to trade with them all the time. Now they cross us without acknowledging us.”

Church unable to build peace

In West Bharatpur village, charred shells of houses stand without roof and with heaps of ashen grains. Sukurmuni Tudu walked into what was her home and found a page with the drawing of a lotus flower that had survived the fire. A dog and its litter followed her around as she recalled that the family cow had been shot. “We had brought clothes for Christmas,” said the 11-year-old. “I could not save them. Three days later, I came to see if anything was left in the house. But everything was burnt.”

According to Sanjay Barbora, who teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati and has studied Assam’s indigenous peoples, about a third of Bodos and about 60% of adivasis are Christians.

Many of them follow the same church diocese but have separate churches, said Barbora. So could the church become an instrument in bringing peace in the tense region? “The Catholic Church has been involved in peace building since a decade, but the problem is that most priests are from Jharkhand and Kerala and so there are fault lines within the church,” explained Barbora. “It isn’t powerful enough in forging conversations between different groups. People do not gravitate to the church for security.”

Sixty-year-old Nobin Narzary remembered how his village, inhabited by Bodos like himself, lived amicably with the neighbouring adivasi villages. Today, he is surviving in a relief camp.

“We drank their chai-paani (black tea with salt), and they drank our milk tea,” he said. “We lent our cattle to each other and ploughed each other’s fields. We ate meat at each others’ homes during Christmas and danced together. Only god knows why this violence goes on. This has been a dark Christmas for us, and I don’t know how many more days like these we will have to suffer. Those who pick up arms do not care about their own families. How could they bother about other people, whether Bodos or adivasis?”