Early one morning last week a group of six men stood by the roadside in Bhairahawa, sipping anxiously at cups of hot tea. Ten days previously their villages had been visited by Shailaja C.M. and Dilu Tamang of Kathmandu-based NGO The Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation (EBMF). They'd brought the astonishing news that the men's sons, nephews and brothers, who had been given up for dead, had been found in children's homes in Delhi. The men were now waiting with nervous anticipation to join Shailaja and Dilu on the 24-hour bus journey to Delhi to bring the boys home.
The plight of Nepali children in Indian children's homes first came to EBMF's attention earlier this year. According to press reports, 500 displaced Nepali children are living in conditions that cater for only the most basic of needs. Their unwilling residents can expect to be discharged onto the streets, homeless and without prospects, once they reach 18.
EBMF research currently underway seeks to get to the bottom of the situation. What are these children doing in Indian children's homes, and what can be done about it? The initial impression is that many are child-trafficking victims who end up washed up on these desert islands that masquerade as childcare centres. EBMF's solution is direct action.
Last week's trip was the final chapter in a trial run to repatriate a group of these incarcerated children. Visits to two Delhi homes earlier this year uncovered six extremely wary Nepali children. A needle-in-a-haystack search around Nepalganj traced all six families. News of their children's whereabouts was met with both elation and suspicion. Hardly surprising. The uncle of one of the boys told of rumours of children being kidnapped and burnt alive.
After the successful rescue of three of the boys shortly after their arrival in Delhi, the hopes of the EBMF team were high as they departed for the Philwari Children's Home to retrieve the other three boys. The necessary paperwork was in place and significantly, family members were on hand to claim the boys. In spite of this, the father of 13-year-old Raju Chhetri (name changed) maintained he would not believe his son was alive until he saw him with his own eyes.
The party's confidence was somewhat shaken upon arrival at the home, where the families were greeted by ominous barbed wire topped walls and patrolling guards. Entry to the premises was denied for two hours until a local NGO interceded. In the meantime even photographs outside the perimeter wall were banned by overzealous security staff.
Forty-five minutes after finally gaining access, Akash Malla, brother of twelve-year-old Suraj Malla (name changed), reappeared ashen-faced. He had been informed that his brother had run away. The home insisted that Suraj had somehow 'disappeared' after being taken to hospital for treatment for a minor wound. Akash was doubtful, as there was a medical centre on-site and the details of precisely when Suraj ran away were sketchy. He had not been permitted to see his brother's file.
But there was respite for others. After battling seemingly insurmountable obstacles related to apparent identity inconsistencies in the paperwork, as well as the inexplicable absence of a key decision-maker from the home, the case went to Court. When the judge demanded a letter of authority from the Nepal Embassy, Raju's father announced his refusal to leave the court that day without his son. EBMF's local partner, ChildLine India Foundation, was summoned. Soon afterwards, following discussion of the provisions of the Indian Juvenile Justice Act, the judge relented.
Five days after their journey began, five freed children reached Nepalganj with their families. Our sense of achievement was soured by Akash having to return empty-handed. His only consolation can be that his brother, one of Nepal's many lost and trapped children in India, remains firmly on EBMF's 'missing' list. More trips south of the border will follow in an effort to bring Nepal's children back to their rightful home.
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