Rajmani Singh, a gaunt tribal mother of a teenage son who dreamt of becoming a footballer, heard a distant explosion when she was grazing her goats in Katiya forest on the morning of January 8.
An encounter between Maoists and security forces the previous day in another part of the forest, 30km from district headquarters Latehar and 150km from Ranchi, had killed several jawans.
Rajmani did not know that after she left home, her son Gannu and other villagers had been taken by the forces to remove the bodies. Or that one of those bodies had been booby-trapped by the Maoists with a bomb that exploded when it was being moved.
She returned home as usual at dusk to Amwatikar, a poor tribal village of about 155 families in the Palamu forest division, to find Gannu dead. The Class VIII student had been killed in the explosion.
"My son was tall and well-bodied. He was a sports lover and dreamt of becoming a footballer. I too dreamt that some day he would get a job…. Why did police force my son to lift the body?"
The mother shivered when she asked the question ' her torn clothes offered no protection against the bitter cold ' stopping to speak as she fled the village with her other children and fellow villagers on the evening of January 20.
"Why did they involve my son?" echoed Rajkumar Bhuiya, another goatherd. "It was the police's fight with Maoists. They are trained and paid for it. Why did they involve my son and others?"
Jogeswar, his son and a father of five, was also killed in the explosion while trying to remove the bodies of the CRPF and Jharkhand Jaguar jawans. The small farmer who doubled as day labourer had moved his family to safety the day the encounter started but could not save himself, Rajkumar lamented.
Birendra Yadav and Promode Sau were the other two villagers killed.
Bimli Devi, a relative of Rajmani who was among the 200-odd villagers who had accompanied the security forces into the forest on January 8, alleged that Gannu and the others were forced at gunpoint to lift the jawans' bodies.
Only half of Gannu's body was found. Jogeswar and Birendra also died on the spot. Promode died of his injuries later. Bijoy Turi, another injured villager, has survived but remains in hospital.
Villagers said the security forces beat them up and abused them when they tried to flee after the explosion. They said they had fled the village, home to Parhaiya ' among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribes and of which Rajmani is a member ' and Kharwar tribals, after the encounter began on January 7 and returned at night. Eleven jawans died in the encounter.
The next morning, Promode, the village shopkeeper, and Baldeo Parhaiya, mukhiya of the neighbouring Nawadih village, conveyed to the villagers that the forces wanted their "help". Men, women and some children from Amwatikar, Nawadi, Painiya, Churra and some other villages were assembled. The CRPF and state police forces arrived with tractors.
"We had no choice but to join since refusal would invite beating. Women came since they feared harm to their husbands and sons. Men too felt women's presence might save us. Some mothers took their children along,'' said Mohon Bhuiya, who works at the Amwatikar middle school.
But there were arguments on who would lead. "The uniformed men forced us to walk in columns flanking them on both sides. They wanted us to act as cover in case of Maoist attacks, '' Bimli Devi said.
Another woman said: "Police were abusing us, saying we give food and shelter to the Maoists, so we must obey police now."
On reaching the spot, the villagers wanted the police to take the lead in lifting the bodies. "But the forces started slapping and beating us with rifle butts…. They held some men at gunpoint and asked them to pick up one body. As soon as they lifted it, a huge explosion took place," Bhuiya said.
As villagers tried to run, a second round of beating began, Bhuiya and another villager Suresh Parhaiya alleged. They had to remove some bodies, including that of Gannu, Jogeswar and Birendra.
Rajmani did not even get time to mourn her son. She fled home with many other villagers. Gannu's body was taken for post-mortem and returned days later.
Bihari Yadav, Birendra's father, alleged that policemen beat up him when he went to bring back the body after post-mortem, calling his son and the others Maoist supporters.
The CRPF refused to comment on the allegations, saying it does not speak about anti-Naxalite operations.
On January 20, when a media and human rights team visited, the site was littered with spent cartridges ' proof of the encounter in which the Maoist guerrillas took the advantage of their position on higher slopes to gun down the securitymen. A crater 3ft deep and 5ft wide held what looked like a mangled explosive container, part of a water bottle and a torn shoe. Villagers said Maoists had cautioned them that unexploded grenades, bombs and booby traps might still be there.
The villagers were again fleeing home, after the forces returned to Nawadih earlier in the day. "Now that forces have returned, they will beat us up demanding information about Maoists," said Chandradeo Bhuiya, leaving with four children and wife.
In the dark, a woman's wails broke the silence. Nilmani Kujur, a government health and anganwadi worker, had come to Amwatikar for work leaving her three young children at home in Katiya village inside the forest. But by evening, villagers had started fleeing Katiya and Nilmani was afraid to go back alone. "Who will take care of my children,'' the widow cried.