We had been warned about the badlands of Muzaffarnagar district in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. This sugarcane belt is notorious for banditry and lawlessness, and we had been driving for hours along potholed roads at night.
Suddenly we could see the outlines of hundreds of tarpaulin tents in an open field. Dark shadows moved around us under a full moon. Bodies huddled next to small fires while children coughed and cried in the distance.
This was Loi relief camp, the epitome of misery. There was no electricity and the temperature had plummeted to single digits. A dense winter fog had set in so we could only see the camp in eerie shadows and shapes.
Mohammad Shakir wanted to tell us his story. He took us into his flimsy tent where his four children and wife were bundled up under a blanket. If we had visited in November we would have met his nine-month-old son, Sofian. But the infant died of pneumonia on the first of December, unable to survive the poor living conditions and the onset of winter.
“I’m in so much pain that my life is just filled with darkness,” Mohammad said. “I don’t like anything. I don’t like eating or drinking, I don’t like sitting or sleeping. All day I’m filled with regret about losing my son.”
“He used to wake up in the morning and say ‘papa’. He had just started teething.” Mohammad breaks down in tears as his surviving children look on.
About 2,000 people live in Loi camp. Almost all are Muslims who fled communal clashes in their villages last September. They told us they have no homes to return to after they were looted and burned by members of another religious community.
District officials confirm that 65 people were killed while more than 600 homes and businesses were damaged. The situation deteriorated so quickly that thousands of security forces had to be deployed and a curfew imposed to restore order.
Three months on, government officials tell us that most of the 27,000 people displaced by the violence have been rehabilitated, and they’re doing all they can for those who are still in Loi camp.
“We have provided blankets, and a number of quilts through NGOs,” said Muzaffanagar District Magistrate, Kaushal Raj Sharma.
“Then a number of other relief measures like warm clothes have been provided. All the nutrients we have provided, milk powder we have supplied it. We are trying our best to prevent these people from death.”
But the state government has been increasingly criticised after unconfirmed reports emerged of at least 40 children dying in the camp.
The Supreme Court expressed its concern earlier in December and directed officials to improve services within 24 hours.
Mr. Sharma denied to us that 40 children had died but said authorities are stepping up relief to the camp.
But the conditions that we saw were still disturbing. Families were living in open plastic tents with cold, mud floors which they slept on. They used a handful of utensils to cook with and shared less than 25 toilets amongst 2,000 people.
Children were poorly dressed and residents told us they were increasingly suffering from pneumonia, fevers and cough as winter set in. Eleven children, including Mohammad Shakir’s son, had already died.
“It doesn’t matter how many blankets you have, it’s not going to make any difference in the open air,” said Faisal Chauhan, a member of the camp committee. “The wind comes straight into the tents and its damp because of the dew.”
The government wants to move the families to an official shelter, at least for the winter.
But families are demanding compensation instead, and land nearby Loi camp so they can rebuild their lives.
This stand-off between the authorities and the residents of Loi is likely to continue for months.
But squalor and sickness already fills the camp and we wonder how many more children will die here before the winter passes.