India's street children get caught in communal crossfire

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(First Edition)

EVEN DURING the riots in Bombay, when the food shops shut and the streets were empty of all save the police, it was still possible for Sadiq, a 12-year-old boy, to buy heroin. Red-eyed, he crouched in the back of an abandoned lorry smoking unrefined heroin, known as 'brown sugar'.

'When the fighting started. There was no place for us to go. Other people have homes. When we tried to hide in the doorways, we were chased away,' said John, the 17-year-old leader of a gang of street waifs. John looks after Sadiq and around 25 other street children, some of whom are as young as eight.

They survive by collecting rags and paper, and by running errands for the pimps in the nearby Falkland Road brothel area. The children eat restaurant scraps when the restaurants are open, but during these past five days of curfews and religious strife between Hindus and Muslims, following the destruction by Hindu zealots of the Ayodhya mosque on Sunday, the restaurants have all stayed closed. Sadiq no longer cares about anything beyond his next hit of brown sugar. But the other children are starving.

They had shared some stale biscuits they found dumped on a mound of rubbish in the street, but otherwise these paupers had not eaten since Thursday.

Asked whether his street children were Hindus or Muslims, John shrugged and said: 'We have no God. Our only religion is finding food and a little money.' A wiry Goan, wearing the only clean shirt in his gang, John has attracted the other waifs because he is smart and fair. When I gave him 100 rupees (2), he spent it on 35 rotis (bread) and eight fish curries. It was just enough to feed his children.

Bombay, according to the United Nations, has more than 100,000 children living on its streets. Of them, 20,000 are orphans or runaways like John and his gang. During the sectarian unrest that wracked the city, they were its most vulnerable inhabitants. Police attacked them, and the children were often caught in the melee between Hindus and Muslims.

After Muslims in Grant's Road burned down the police station last Monday, riot police moved in where John and the boys slept in shop doorways and had their rag-sorting business. Even the eight-year-olds were clubbed by the police. John and his children jumped into a 10ft deep trench dug in the street for a sewer pipe. It is safe, and their few blankets are folded neatly at the bottom of the trench. 'I saw a policeman shove a revolver into a boy's stomach. 'Run,' the policeman said. The boy refused. 'If I run, you'll kill me anyway,' the boy said. Then the policeman shot him in the stomach. It happened right there,' said John, pointing to the burnt wreckage of a car that had been attacked by Muslim rioters. John had kept his boys safe in their new-found trench during the police firing.

While the other paupers were descending into the trench with curry wrapped in roti, the 12-year-old heroin addict watched, in a fading, faraway daze. Sadiq was so thin that his bones seemed unconnected and balancing precariously, one on top of the other. John worries that next time the police charge the Muslims on Grant's Road, Sadiq may not make it to the trench.

NEW DELHI The beleaguered Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, said yesterday that communal violence was decreasing, but Hindu-Muslim clashes pushed the five-day death toll to 1,060, with 110 people reported killed yesterday, AFP reports.