Around 3.15 am on Sunday (APR 15), someone banged on Mohammed Zafar’s door. The 35-year-old autorickshaw driver put on a vest and opened the tin door of his shanty to find his neighbours Shakir and Abdullah outside, their faces pale with fear. Behind them was a wall of fire.
As Zafar woke up his wife and three children, aged between two and six years, Shakir ran from door to door in the Delhi camp for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine region, asking them to leave their homes quickly, said Abdullah, a refugee from who works as a security guard in the cit.
“There were men who were running naked, as their lungis caught fire,” said Zafar.
Within 20 minutes, residents said, all 46 houses in the Rohingya camp in the Kalindi Kunj localit on Delhi’s south-eastern periphery had been burnt to the ground. Two people sustained minor burn injuries. Most families lost all their belongings, including their documents.
“Nothing could be saved – money, clothes, essential belongings or even our identity cards,” said Zafar.
About 30 minutes after the blaze broke out, two fire tender reached the site. Eight others followed. It took the firefighters over two hours to douse the flames, fire department officials said. But late into the afternoon, clouds of smoke were still hanging in the air. The police and fire department have not yet been able to establish the cause of the fire.
The Kalindi Kunj Rohingya camp was set up in 2012 by a non-government organisation on a 150-odd square metre plot that it owns. It has 226 residents – 100 of them women women, with 50 children.
While hundreds of Rohingya refugees live in Delhi, the camp in Kalindi Kunj was the only one of its sort for the community in the national capital. Other Rohingya refugees live in rented accommodations, mainly in localities in the eastern and western part of the cities, closer to where they can find work.
Most of the refugees who live outside the camp work as daily wage labourers. In the Kalindi Kunj camp, many of the residents are aged but have found stable work with private enterprises. Some run small shops near the camp. Most of the residents have landed in the Delhi after stints in Rohingya camps in Jammu, where they have repeatedly been targeted by Hindutva groups, and Bangladesh. People who live around the the Kalindi Kunj area often refer to the camp as a settlement of Bangladesh refugees, with little knowledge about the actual migration.
Sunday’s fire in the Kalindi Kunj camp originated from the extreme right corner of the camp where the residents had washrooms, a hut used as a madrasa and a tin office in which volunteers helped them with documentation pertaining to healthcare and other essentials.
Till Sunday evening, none of the residents had any idea about the cause of the fire.
This was the fourth fire the camp has experienced over the past six years, residents recalled. The first incident took place in 2012, starting from the earthen hearth in one of the houses. The second blaze occured in 2016; the cause was suspected to be the embers of a discarded bidi. The third fire was mysterious. On the wee hours of a morning in 2017, there was a fire that was suddenly spotted in a tarpaulin sheet outside the residence of Johar, who is a political activist too. The tarpaulin was not near any source of fire or electricity.