When Afsana, 18, a Muslim living just outside the Indian city of Ahmadabad, heard that a Muslim mob had torched a train carrying Hindus in the nearby town of Godhra, she knew what would come next: furious Hindus seeking revenge. And sure enough, her family soon spotted a mob nearing their home. The girl fled with her 5-year-old brother and hid in the home of Hindu neighbors. From the neighbors' roof, she saw her parents and her two elder brothers beaten, doused with gasoline and burned alive. Her four sisters, she says, were stripped, raped and killed.
Later the neighbors told her it was safe to go out. But they were wrong, or lying. Afsana and her brother were walking home when a pack of men fell upon them. "They were people I knew," she says, "people who lived near us." She and her brother were tossed to the ground and set on fire. She got loose, grabbed her brother and, her clothes still burning, tried to scale a wall to escape to the roof. Then her brother's hand slipped from hers. From atop the wall, she saw the crowd ignite him again. He died in flames.
Afsana's family were among the estimated 400 people who perished last week in vicious ethnic mayhem in India's western Gujarat state. The worst such outbreak since 1993, the killings tested anew the fragile relations between India's 830 million Hindus and 150 million Muslims, and underscored the challenge Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee faces trying to settle their volcanic disputes. At the heart of last week's bloodshed was the northern city of Ayodhya, where in 1992 Hindu militants destroyed a 400-year-old mosque built on the site they believe to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
The latest troubles began when a group of Hindu pilgrims returning by train from Ayodhya, where they had gone to participate in rituals they hoped were a prelude to building a temple on the disputed site, passed through Godhra. Suddenly, someone pulled the emergency brake. The train halted in a mostly Muslim neighborhood, where a mob was waiting with stones, knives and gasoline. The horde burned down coaches occupied by pilgrims and murdered any it could catch. Most of the 58 victims were women and children, unable to outrun their predators.
The killings were shocking enough, but rumors quickly emerged that aggravated the situation--of Hindu women raped on the platform, of girl survivors being carried away. Local leaders of the chauvinistic Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the group planning to rebuild the Ram temple, gave instructions to destroy all Muslims. In Afsana's neighborhood, Naroda, a crowd of 2,000 armed themselves with sticks, stones and bottles of gasoline and went hunting. At least 65 people were killed, their remains left outside their burned homes. After all the Muslims had died or fled, a Hindu mob surrounded the local mosque and started to break it down, imitating the 1992 episode at Ayodhya. Not a policeman could be seen. One rioter said with pride, "We did this ourselves." Another man boasted that he had killed nine Muslims. "I was acting for all Hindus," he said.