Around 3.15 am on Sunday, someone banged on Mohammed Zafar’s door. The 35-year-old autorickshaw driver put on a vest and opened the tin door of his shanty to find his neighbours Shakir and Abdullah outside, their faces pale with fear. Behind them was a wall of fire.
As Zafar woke up his wife and three children, aged between two and six years, Shakir ran from door to door in the Delhi camp for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine region, asking them to leave their homes quickly, said Abdullah, a refugee who works as a security guard in the city.
“There were men who were running naked, as their lungis caught fire,” said Zafar.
Within 20 minutes, residents said, all 46 houses in the Rohingya camp in the Kalindi Kunj locality on Delhi’s south-eastern periphery had been burnt to the ground. Two people sustained minor burn injuries. Most families lost all their belongings, including their documents.
“Nothing could be saved – money, clothes, essential belongings or even our identity cards,” said Zafar.
About 30 minutes after the blaze broke out, two fire tender reached the site. Eight others followed. It took the firefighters over two hours to douse the flames, fire department officials said. But late into the afternoon, clouds of smoke were still hanging in the air. The police and fire department have not yet been able to establish the cause of the fire.
The Kalindi Kunj Rohingya camp was set up in 2012 by a non-government organisation on a 150-odd square metre plot that it owns. It has 226 residents – 100 of them women women, with 50 children.
While hundreds of Rohingya refugees live in Delhi, the camp in Kalindi Kunj was the only one of its sort for the community in the national capital. Other Rohingya refugees live in rented accommodations, mainly in localities in the eastern and western part of the cities, closer to where they can find work.
Most of the refugees who live outside the camp work as daily wage labourers. In the Kalindi Kunj camp, many of the residents are aged but have found stable work with private enterprises. Some run small shops near the camp. Most of the residents have landed in the Delhi after stints in Rohingya camps in Jammu, where they have repeatedly been targeted by Hindutva groups, and Bangladesh. People who live around the the Kalindi Kunj area often refer to the camp as a settlement of Bangladesh refugees, with little knowledge about the actual migration.
The Rohingya community has been fleeing Rakhine state for the past several years, fearing ethnic persecution by the Buddhist government in Myanmar. Myanmar has refused to grant Rohingyas citizenship. In October 2016, it launched a military offensive against the community, claiming that it was targetting extremist groups.
Sunday’s fire in the Kalindi Kunj camp originated from the extreme right corner of the camp where the residents had washrooms, a hut used as a madrasa and a tin office in which volunteers helped them with documentation pertaining to healthcare and other essentials.
Zafar’s house was the closest one to where the fire had started, residents of the camp said. The blaze then spread towards the left, engulfing one home after another. As residents left the colony, they said, they ducked in some sort of a reflex action every time they heard a gas cylinder explode. The camp is fenced by tin and bamboo. It has vacant plots of land on two sides.
“The biggest challenge was to guide the women and children through the narrow lanes without knowing at what point we could face a blockade,” said Ali Johar, 23, a resident of the camp.
Till Sunday evening, none of the residents had any idea about the cause of the fire.
This was the fourth fire the camp has experienced over the past six years, residents recalled. The first incident took place in 2012, starting from the earthen hearth in one of the houses. The second blaze occured in 2016; the cause was suspected to be the embers of a discarded bidi. The third fire was mysterious. On the wee hours of a morning in 2017, there was a fire that was suddenly spotted in a tarpaulin sheet outside the residence of Johar, who is a human rights activist too. The tarpaulin was not near any source of fire or electricity.
However, in all these previous instances, the residents of the camp had doused the fire themselves and they did not need to summon the fire department, they said.
As the clock struck noon on Sunday, help started tricking in. Volunteers began to bring in food, clothes and other essentials. By then, most of the Rohingya families had settled under a temporary hut set up by non-government organisations and some locals. As one of the voluntary groups appeared there with food, children dashed towards them to grab the bananas they had to offer. The immediate concern of the adults, however, was to find shelter by evening.
“Finding a shelter is urgent because the outdoors in this area becomes inhabitable because of mosquitos after sunset,” Shakir said. “At this point, we can’t afford to fall sick.”