Why we need foreign bureaus

orissa riots 01Nothing makes you miss the former prevalence of overseas news bureaus like a really fantastic foreign service report. Emily Wax, who has moved from Africa to India, filed a personal but newsy account of the violence ravaging the state of Orissa. Here's how she sets the scene:

Babita Nayak was cooking lunch for her pregnant sister when a mob of Hindu extremists wielding swords, hammers and long sticks rampaged through their village, chanting "India is for Hindus! Convert or leave!"

The men, wearing saffron headbands, ransacked dozens of huts, searching for cash and looting bicycles and livestock. They torched the village church, leaving behind burned Bibles in the local Kui language and torn-down posters of Jesus. "Christianity is a foreign religion," they shouted over bullhorns, according to eyewitness and police reports.

Hearing that such attacks were spreading in the mist-shrouded hills of this destitute part of Orissa state, the sisters fled with hundreds of neighbors, trekking through forest land. After two days, they reached this crowded makeshift relief camp, set up on the campus of a dank high school, 15 miles from their village.

Wax goes into great deal, putting the story in context of the more common violence between Muslims and Hindus. Even with how bad things are for Christians in Orissa right now, it's been bad off and on for the past 10 years. There was the Christian missionary who was burned alive with his two sons in 1999. Last Christmas, there were four deaths and hundreds of Christian churches and homes burned. In recent weeks, some 4,000 Christian homes and 115 churches have been destroyed. Between 18 and 35 Christians were killed and 20,000 people have been displaced:

The violence is driven by rising anger over Christian conversions -- members of the faith here are a mix of Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics -- and economic tensions between communities, according to government and church officials.

She goes on to explain how even the economic tensions have a big religion angle -- the Hindu caste system is deeply threatened by conversions of the lower castes to Christianity:

Conversions to Christianity have been happening fast among impoverished tribal communities in Kandhamal, a remote district with few links to the outside world or state services. The Christian population here, largely made up of traditionally nature-worshiping ethnic groups, has swelled from 6 percent in 1971 to 27 percent today, according to government census data.

Some people who convert often get better access to schools and health clinics run by Western Christian groups. But they lose their official status with the government as members of a disadvantaged caste and with it jobs and university seats reserved under the affirmative action program.

Christians among one such ethnic group, the Panos, have recently been agitating to continue to collect those benefits anyway. Some Hindu activists see this request as ridiculous. They say that Christians have rejected the Hindu-sanctioned caste system and should not get the benefits.

The entire story really must be read. Wax does a fantastic job of folding more and more perspective into each paragraph. She quotes Pope Benedict XVI and national leaders. She talks about events that sparked the violence. And yet she puts all of this context into a very human story. After introducing readers to Shyamala Nayak, the 7-months pregnant sister from the beginning of the piece, she ends with an anecdote about Hindu women marching outside a refugee camp demanding some of the food being offered to the Christians:

The camp seems barely able to manage as it is. It's so crowded that children sleep on the floor of outdoor latrines. Most people have nowhere to shower and no fresh clothing.

Hearing the chanting women march by, Shyamala wiped her nose with her unwashed sari. She started to cry, again. Her feet are swollen and bloody, her stomach heavy. And she has a recurring nightmare.

"I am falling and falling down a big ditch. I see my newborn baby below me," she said, weeping. "And it is dead."

A heartbreaking story, beautifully told. Which is probably why she's such an acclaimed reporter.

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