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Amid riots, some cross a religious divide

(Page 2 of 2)

In Ahmedabad, most camps are self-run, with Muslim community elders organizing the food and shelter for displaced Muslims, and Hindu elders organizing Hindu camps. But aid groups – from the Red Cross to the Hindu charity group, the Ram Krishna Mission, to the more secular amanpathiks – also play a crucial role in making sure that camp residents get the help they need, such as legal advice, medical help, and emotional counseling for children and adults alike.

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In Shah Alam camp, where more than 10,000 Muslims live on the dusty grounds of a 200-year-old mosque and shrine complex, young Muslim volunteers from the community visit each of the families to advise them of their rights and to urge them to remain peaceful. Amanpathik organizers – many of them Hindus themselves – plan to bring Hindu volunteers to this camp as well.

In the mosque's graveyard, amid the green and white painted tombs, amanpathiks are busy setting up outdoor classrooms for some 450 children, where they will be taught mathematics, and Urdu and Gujarati languages. Under the shade of a larger Mughal-style tomb, women learn hand embroidery.

"It is better that these people should listen to our words of humanity than to listen to the religious fundamentalists," says Mansuri Yusuf, an energetic volunteer who helps arrange legal aid for people who have lost family members or property during the riots. "It is very difficult to talk of peace in times like this, but we are trying."

Meherunnisha Shaikh, another amanpathik volunteer, remembers the time she told a refugee family that Muslims should all remain peaceful, and the family elder responded, "We did stay peaceful, and that is why we were beaten up." Miss Shaikh let the elder have his say that day, but since that time, some of the family members have come to her to learn more about the peacemaker program.

Across town, in the mixed slum called Guptanagar, amanpathik organizer Rajendra Joshi takes a visitor on a walk through a series of narrow dirt and stone alleys. One side of the narrow road is the Muslim community, with charred brick shops and broken corrugated tin doors. The other side is totally Hindu, where the shops are untouched, but have been shuttered for nearly two months because of riots.

"The road we are walking on is considered 'the border,' " says Mr. Joshi, who has organized development programs in these slums for nearly a decade. "Ultimately, it is the common people who suffer, and it is the common people who know they have to solve this."

At the small amanpathik center here, nearly 20 Hindu volunteers gather to train, and to discuss their next activity. On this day, they are unable to visit the all-Muslim camp at Juhapura district, because of a curfew. Two days earlier, there was a stone-throwing incident and the grisly murder of a Hindu motorcyclist by a Muslim mob.

"The first time I went to Juhapura camp, I went with a group of 10 amanpathiks, all of us Hindus," says Devikaben, a sprightly middle-aged housewife in a bright pink sari. "This Muslim couple saw us coming down the alley, and they turned around and ran away. We stopped them and explained that we were peacemakers, and they said, 'This is the need of the hour.' "