End Ukraine war, stop creating traumatised refugees, urges Rajendra Aneja

The Ukraine war continues to rage. Civilians and soldiers are dying. Many citizens are trapped in homes. Others are escaping the war as refugees to various countries. The plight of refugees is always very grim. They suffer the loss of some family members or separation from them. Many are reduced to penniless paupers.

The refugee influx, reminds me of the time, when my parents were also reduced to migrants, when they had to flee their homes, lands and business in 1947, after the bloody partition of British India into India and Pakistan. I recall, my father telling me over the years, “The attacks would come in the nights. Large crowds carrying torches, axes and swords would descend on homes, accompanied by drum-beaters. We barricaded the main door of our home with sacks of grains, furniture, etc., to block intruders. Women in many families were given portions of poison to swallow, in case the men were killed.  My wife and sisters kept portions of poison tied perpetually in their “dupattas” (headscarves), to commit suicide in case of abduction.

Due to the fear that rioting between Muslims and Hindus could break out at any time, we kept extra stocks of basic foods like flour, rice, oil, salt and sugar at home, in case the markets were to shut completely.

Terrifying rumours floated around. Trainloads of refugees were being attacked and killed on both sides of the new border. There were reports of gunshots in many localities. There were stories of entire “mohallas” (localities) being looted and set on fire. Smoke billowed out from many homes. We kept our house without any light in the night, to avoid drawing attention.

When the men in the families were slayed by marauding crowds, the women committed suicide by jumping in wells and drowning themselves. Many young girls were kidnapped, the forced into marriages with strangers. A young girl from our town, was kidnapped for many months. She was later rescued by the army. A young Indian married and rehabilitated her.

There were also heroic instances of neighbours helping each other. Many Muslim families saved their Hindu neighbours by hiding them and providing refuge to them till they could make their way to India.

Crops rotted in our fields and warehouses. Business had come to a grinding halt. We were trying to ascertain what was happening in Delhi and Lahore. There were no telephones, so we depended on scraps of information collated from friends. Our old radio was not very clear. We did not know how accurate were the reports and whether we could trust them.

Throughout August 1947 my brother and I would take turns to keep vigil during the dark turbulent nights. We debated joining the refugee exodus to India. My parents insisted on staying at home. However, as a precaution, we brought the women and children to India to ensure their safety.

As the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947 India woke to freedom. However, we were yet huddled in a tiny room in a town, which had just been given away to Pakistan. There were lights and celebrations in many cities in India. However, our town was plunged in darkness. We never stirred out of the house. There was only one thought: how to move the families safely to India.

It would be another month of dreadful living, till an army convoy escorted us to India in September 1947. We reached Amritsar at 7 pm. We did not know anyone in India. We did not know where to go. We were penniless. Therefore, we slept in the street, using bricks as pillows.

My elder brother, went back with an army convoy to escort our parents to India. He was late by a few hours. Our home had been attacked the previous night and our parents killed. There was a shortage of firewood in those dark days. The shops were shut.  My brother completed the final rites of my parents using furniture in the house as wood for the pyre.

There was an iron safe in the bedroom of my parents. It had been cracked open with an axe. The valuables had disappeared. A solitary ring lay on the floor. It must have fallen and escaped the eye of the safe-breaker. So, before we could fetch our parents, our home was ransacked. I never saw my parents again.

We had always taken our parents for granted. They were always there. Now, we were alone, without direction. The emotional trauma was compounded by news of the massive slaughter and bloodshed along the border. My heart was full of grief, but there was no time to grieve. About 20 family members comprising of my brothers, sisters, their children had to be fed food.

Our world which was stable for many decades had collapsed in just one night. We had no money to buy food, clothes or even rent a room. We were stranded and depressed. All our homes, offices, fields in Kalarwala, Harappa, Tandalianwala were blown away in the ferocious winds of human rage and brutality gusting along the borders. Now, we were penniless paupers. We registered as refugees in Amritsar.

We were in Ludhiana on India’s second birthday on 15 August 1948. The town overflowed with refugees who had suffered immensely during partition. There were no celebrations or illuminations. We were yet grieving the loss of parents, brothers, sisters and children. I was struggling to find a livelihood to feed the family. Nevertheless, we were determined to make a new beginning. A new saga had commenced.

The global press provides statistics of the number of refugees pouring out of Ukraine. Every refugee is reduced to a number, a digit. However, refugees are human beings, with fears and uncertain futures. The world must unite to end the Ukraine war, to prevent more refugees leading tough lives in foreign lands.

 Aneja was the Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania. He is an alumnus of Harvard Business School, and a Management Consultant