India: for Kandhamal Christians, bitter memories of a massacre linger on
HINDU MOBS—enraged by false charges that Christians had murdered a prominent swami—rampaged through the Kandhamal district in Odisha State in India in August 2008. The attackers killed more than 100 Christians, tortured children and the elderly, and raped women. Some 600 Christian villages and almost 400 churches were destroyed in addition to numerous Christian-affiliated buildings, including schools and hospitals. The rioting–which continued for several weeks–also left 5,600 houses in ruins, with 54,000 Christians ending up homeless. Under the threat of death, more than 2,000 Christians converted to Hinduism. For Prabin Nanda, 39, a local Catholic who survived the tragedy, the memory of the Kandhamal Christian community’s darkest hour remains a source of pain:
“The incident I am about to describe happened right in front of my eyes. It was Christmas Eve 2007. I remember it very well. At the church, we were busy decorating for the Christmas celebration. Carols echoed everywhere; we sang and danced.
“While we were there, we heard about an attack in the village of Bamunigam: a Hindu group had burned Christian homes. We were terrified, so we stopped decorating, and that Christmas we celebrated simply.
“The next year, the night of August 23, we learned that the Hindu seer Swami Laxmamanda had died, reportedly killed by Christians.
“His death incited violence in nearby towns; we watched it unfold on television. People were terrified. Shops, schools, colleges, and hospitals were closed; transportation was stopped. No one left their home. We just stayed in the colony and prayed together. And when we heard mobs approaching, we hid our most valuable possessions underground and ran toward the forest. We ran with our children, our wives, and our elders.
“At the time, my wife was pregnant, and we had our two small kids with us. Her health was deteriorating, and I was helpless. We were terrified, especially at night, when we could hear our children crying.
“In a subsequent attack, there were 500 people with firearms; they wore red cloths around their heads. We were shivering, surrounded by the sounds of bombs and gunfire. Again, my family and I escaped to the forest. It was unforgettable. My brain stopped functioning. I could only think about my family.
“Due to heavy crowds, I was separated from my wife as we rushed to the forest. I had one child with me; the other was with her. I thought that they were close behind me, but I could not find them. By the grace of God, we met again. None of us knew where we were running to; we just ran to save our lives.
“In the evening, we saw torchlight and began to pray, not knowing the source of it. We soon learned that they were members of the Central Reserve Police Force, there to rescue us. They took the men and left the women and children. They could not distinguish the Christians from the mobs. My relatives and I went with the police.
“When I left the forest, I saw many dead bodies. I thought only of my wife and children, and of what the police were doing with them.
“They took us to the market place. There, the police had gathered many men. There were communication barriers, as the officers did not know the Oriya language, or much Hindi. They collected our names and took our signatures; then they left. Without delay, I rushed to our village, and I was shocked to see our churches and homes burning. There were no police present.
“The next day, the police took us to the camps they’d set up, which were close to my village. I asked the officers about my wife’s pregnancy, and they allowed me to visit her at a local hospital, where she was forced to stay on the floor. There were no beds available.
“I stayed there with my family for 15 days, and I returned to the camps after her delivery. Eventually, we were allowed reentry into our village. Everything had changed. People had lost their jobs; education was interrupted for many children, and some people migrated to find work. We were afraid to go to the market place.
“The Bible says that we will have to face persecution, but this incident was so painful. I continued to pray and be hopeful, but there was nothing I could do to spare my family.
“The wound of Kandhamal has not yet healed, and the global Christian community must remember that. The rest of India would like you to forget, but we must not allow the erasure of hate and violence from the public consciousness: Christians are still targeted, and justice is systematically denied. Most cases of communal violence result in acquittals, and those who try to help have been imprisoned for it.
“Innocent lives have been taken, and the culture is not changing. Not any time soon.”
One of seven Christians in prison on charges of murdering the swami was ordered released on bail in late May 2019, after more than 10 years in prison.