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In heart of India, a little-known civil war

Villagers are caught between two unforgiving sides: a communist insurgency that's left much of the country ungoverned, and a tough-as-nails 'peace movement.'

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He estimates that his unit has killed 60 people this year. Asked if the dead were all Naxalites, he says he has no idea: He and his colleagues don't speak the local language so they rely on the judgment of the SPOs.

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Though he says he has so far avoided killing anyone, he adds: "It's so brutal, and we can't understand what's going on."

While the superintendent of police in Bijapur, R.L. Dangi, says his officers have killed about 40 Naxalites in the past year he insists that "we haven't killed any civilians."

As for the incident in Santoshpur, Mr. Dangi says he has not received any complaints so far. Asked if he knew of a raid against Naxalites there, in which several people were killed, he said Naxalites often carry out attacks and blame them on the police.

'All these villages are being broken up'

No one at the refugee camp thinks that was the case. They contend that of the nine people killed in Santoshpur, only one – Sannu's brother, Bojja – was a confirmed Maoist sympathizer.

In the filtered light of the mango tree, Sannu's mother, Bime, sits on a small cot strung with woven grass rope. The rest of the refugees gather around her in a circle, some listening wordlessly to her, others tending to hissing pots and the crackling fires beneath them.

When Bime speaks, her voice is steady but distant, the lines of her face drawn into an expression of stoic resignation. Her sons had chosen their path well before the morning of March 31, and she had been powerless to prevent it.

She had known that Bojja was getting mixed up with the Maoists. She pleaded with him to stop, "but he never listened to me." She says she never got the chance even to talk to her elder son. One day, Sannu vanished without a word. His friend, Kudmul Laxmiah, knew Sannu had applied to be an SPO, but he, too, was surprised to find him gone. Sannu could not be reached for this article.

In Dantewada, where villagers emerge from the deep forests like listless shadows, life is barely less primitive now than it has been for centuries – scratched out from the earth, the monsoon rains, and firewood gathered in bundles and brought home atop the heads of village women. To some seeking a new life, the promise of an SPO salary of $35 per month is an opportunity never imagined. To others, it is a chance to do something at last.

"I have come here to fight the Naxals," says Gita Kunjan, a young SPO standing at a roadside security post, and running through a checklist. She has a uniform; many SPOs do not. Another young SPO nearby with a rifle slung over his shoulder says he got a year of basic training, though he was put on duty right from the start.

The Naxalites "kill people, saying, 'You are associated with the police,' " says Ms. Kunjan quietly, but with conviction. "I have a rifle, so that is helpful, but I am afraid for my family."

For her part, Bime would like her son to "come back home and be with me. But it is his decision," she says. "He thinks that if he comes back he will be killed, so he wants to die with the government."

It is the same for Salwa Judum supporter Jurri, who knows he has made a decision that has changed his life. "I am afraid, because I have burned houses and people have seen it," he says. "I fear that if I go back, there will be revenge."

This could be Dantewada's mantra. "There is this huge suspicion of fear and terror," says Nadini Sundar, who took part in last year's independent investigation. "All these families are being broken up and all these villages are being broken up."

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