It was Monday, February 24, when I was told by my assignment desk to track the family of a policeman who was killed in the violence that erupted in Delhi over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or (CAA). After finishing my day's desk job, I went to Jag Pravesh Chand Hospital in Delhi's Shahadra, where we assumed the policeman was brought in dead. But on learning that all the patients have been admitted in another hospital, we immediately rushed to Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) Hospital, the biggest in the area.
It was 8 pm. I walked straight into the emergency ward of GTB Hospital. Before me stood several people and some police officers drenched in blood. Many of them, in their torn clothes, had bandaged themselves. They were being treated for all kinds of wounds.
Quite understandably, there was panic among patients and the people who brought them in. The hospital officials were trying to make sense of the situation, as was I. The task of finding out the number of dead and injured started so that we could start reporting.
At this point, all we knew was that at least four have been killed. Some were saying five, some six. The number varied because it kept coming in. My only focus at this point was not to get anything wrong, to not treat number as merely numerical. These were the lives lost. It was not about who got the number first; it was about getting it right.
This was only Day 1 of my five-day-long reporting from GTB Hospital. It was not easy to see bodies lying in a pool of blood two minutes before going live on air and keep a straight face on camera. I returned home the same night, recalling all that I had seen during the day, thinking how to put myself to sleep.
On Day 2, I returned to GTB Hospital a little more prepared. The portico of the casualty entrance became a spot for the press and this time I was with my colleague, Ravish Ranjan Shukla. I was sure in his company I'd be a little more confident in my reporting and he'd guide me if I went wrong. Little did I see this coming but what lay ahead of us were visits to the mortuary to seek details, and even more heart-breaking, to speak to the families of the victims.
This was my first time at a mortuary. I saw relatives of the dead cry endlessly; some wanting to identify the bodies, some hoping if their missing relatives were not dead, some lying unconscious, some who seemed to have no hope left, some who hadn't eaten or slept for days.
Amid all this, as I prepared to wrap up for the day, I realised I had lost all my belongings from the very same spot - a bagpack I always carry with me that has all my essentials - journal, credit and debit cards, identity cards, power bank.
Each day I was back to the hospital, the death toll kept increasing. While there was no official health bulletin released time to time, the medical director promised to give us journalists an update every few hours. Many other sources were giving us higher figures but I stuck to hospital officials and their data even if that meant not getting it first.
Saleem, brother of victim Anwar - killed in the riots narrated to me how he saw his brother killed before him. "My brother was shot thrice. I was sheltered by a Hindu family. I saw my brother from the window being put into fire by a mob. I couldn't save my brother. My children and I wouldn't be alive today if a Hindu family had not saved us," he told me while crying his lungs out.
I met a father who had come all the way from Bihar to identify his son's body. He told me while breaking down, "I have come from Bihar after borrowing money from people (chanda kar ke)"
I met a son who came to me asking for help. He told me, "The hospital officials are making me run from pillar to post because my father's name was wrongly spelt during admission. I haven't seen my father's body, it has been five days."
The aunt of Ashfaq Khan (killed in the same violence) had come from Bulandshahr had been waiting at the mortuary for four days told me "We still don't know who the investigating officer in our case is. It's been four days, we've been waiting outside the mortuary."
A father serving in the Railway Police Force who had last seen his son two months ago came to the mortuary to identify his son's body. "I spoke to him on the day of the violence. The next thing I know is he was killed. We who work in the forces are always posted away from our families protecting other. But my family was left unprotected."
In those four days, colleagues from other media worked together. It almost felt like an exam where we were seeking notes from each other, trying to remember names except, here were at a hospital, memorizing the names and number of the dead. At one point I remember going blank, not able to think so a friend from another publication and I excused ourselves from the mortuary and went to a quieter place at a tea point where we gathered our thoughts. It was not easy. On those four days, it wasn't easy to put myself to sleep either; when the only thoughts running in my mind were these words from some of the people I had spoken to that hit me very hard, "Kya fayda hua in sab se? Kaun jeeta?" "Kaha dil miley hue the aaj dil phat gaye" "prashasan se yahi dua karunga kabhi kisi aulad ka parivar na cheen"... "mera beta mera sahara tha... mujhe mere bete se nahi milne de rahe hai" "mere papa bohot hi seedhe aadmi the ilake mei, maarney wale ne unko bhi nahi chora."
In the midst of all this, I had completely lost track on a 2-day conference I was to attend in the UAE in the immediate week. Neither had I prepared nor had I packed for this trip because the only thing that was on my mind, and in all our hearts was the carnage that had cast a shadow in the national capital. This was my first international assignment and while I made it physically to the conference, I had left my heart and my mind back in Delhi.
We reporters are often reminded to not get too involved in our stories but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't emotionally involved since day one. Everything I witnessed in those five days will remain with me in this lifetime. While speaking to these families, there were times I shook while holding the mic, there was one time when I broke down at a quiet corner; this was my first time reporting on tragedy and violence. For someone who in an emotional person and still tears up at the prick of an injection, I tried very hard to not let emotions take over me.
First, from seeing blood and bodies to attending a 2-day conference in a Middle Eastern country (while also reporting on the Coronavirus situation from the UAE) and to losing all my belongings - I have not had a more physically and emotionally exhausting two weeks in my career so far. I used to tell my friends the very famous line on Delhi... "Dilli dil walon ka shehar hai..." but now the only line that rings in my head is..."Kahan dil miley hue the... aaj woh dil.. .phat gaye hai". This was certainly not the Delhi I had moved to eight years ago. A Delhi where death, fear, panic, chaos, sorrow, hopelessness, hate, bloodshed was in the air for days. As a journalist and as an individual, those five days have taught me a lot.
(Shonakshi Chakravarty is an Assistant Output Editor, NDTV)
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