Dantewada lies at the axis of three roads. Today each of these roads are lined with government-run refugee camps, home to at least 50,000 villagers -- mostly tribals -- that have been relocated since Salwa Judum began. Far from a sign of state control, the camps exist because authorities have defaulted control of vast swathes of the backcountry where Naxalites roam.
Of the 22 official camps throughout the south Bastar region, Dornapal is by far the largest. Row upon row of mud and sheet metal barracks shelter more than 17,000 people, though there are surely many more.
Accompanied by my interpreter, Chandan, a Dantewada-based stringer for a Raipur newspaper, I arrived mid-day with the sun pounding down like a fist. We were met by a "development officer", who, like it or not, said he had to escort us through the camp since we were "special guests."
In fact, the swaggering man wanted to ensure that no one uttered a single complaint about Salwa Judum or bad conditions in the camp. The government was giving out plenty of food, he insisted, and schools were full; life really couldn't be better. If someone said a false note, they were quickly cut off in a booming tone that softened into a sanitized explanation of the comment. Others were basically told to shut up. As we walked along, it became clear the straight story was not likely to come from anyone at Dornapal.
So we were left to our observations. Near one of the camp entrances, a group of women in torn saris wielded pickaxes and shovels on a dirt pathway. They were said to be part of a state rehabilitation program that provides guaranteed work at the rate of 100 rupees an hour (about $2.50), but there was no way to confirm if they'd been paid since all were mum with our escort around.
In a thatched-roof hut nearby, a mother of four was busy distilling a local berry called mawa into a sort of homemade hooch that I soon learned was highly popular among camp residents. To make some extra money on the side, enterprising women like her sold it in re-used plastic soda bottles. Men did the drinking, squatting in the shade and waiting for nothing in particular.
Tarps emblazoned with the logos of CARE International and the UN refugees' agency could be found in some places, their staff working through local NGOs to cope with malnutrition and other health-related matters. (Doctors Without Borders also has medical field teams that work in the camps, opting to keep a lower-profile after the state government levied accusations they were treating wounded insurgents.)
Further inside its warrens, trash heaps and pools of fetid water were navigated by naked children with swollen bellies. Leathery elders sat in what shade they could find, silent. The general atmosphere was one of dull resignation. Save for the piercing call of a rooster.
When we stopped for a drink, a crowd quickly gathered around to inspect us. I was hoping to do the opposite, and again asked a clutch of young men what they thought of Salwa Judum, camp life, the Naxalites. More scripted answers without a tinge of feeling in the voice, coupled with glances at our ever-watching escort, who tried to ply us with cups full of berry wine. Frustrated, I scanned the eyes of the men assembled looking for someone who might step forward and speak from the heart.
Then, unexpectedly, one of them said he was fed up with being stuck in the camp and wanted to return to his village 10 miles away where he could work his family plot, regardless of the risks he was told awaited him. Big Brother was displeased. It was time to move on, he said.
Before leaving, we passed a makshift helipad, really just a circular patch of gravel. We were told by a security guard with a walkie talkie in each hand that some improvements were being made ahead of the arrival of the Chhattisgarh chief minister, due to visit in a few days. Meanwhile, armed guards surveyed the site. On the other side, another team of village women did the dirty work, digging and hauling the baked earth.
We drove on. Police outposts encased with razor wire hugged the road every 20 miles or so, with occasional checkpoints. The consensus among local journalists and aid officials was that police had tenuous authority over towns, camps and country roadways during the daytime. At night, it was accepted that the roadways -- nevermind the dense forest beyond -- were a toss-up.
Hoping to find a camp where we might roam freely, we passed by some smaller sites and continued on to Kunta, less than 15 minutes drive from the Andhra Pradesh state border. Even here we were told that we needed permission from the camp director to enter. He wasn't home.
By now the sun was melting into the horizon, and many miles lay between us and Dantewada through uncertain darkness.