July 15, 2005
India’s Poverty Feeds Modern-Day Slave Traffic
SURAJBAR JOT, India -- Joloy Sori Mallik doesn't question her 16-year-old daughter too closely about the time she was drugged and kidnapped by strangers near her north Indian village.
"Whatever she tells me, I believe," she says, squatting on the dirt floor of her verandah, in front of a mudwashed wall with a childish outline of a heart and arrow painted by her daughter, Sunita.
Sunita and her 30-year-old sister-in-law, Urmila, were kidnapped a few months ago by two Nepali men posing as lawyers helping her brother, who was in jail for timber smuggling.
They come from a tiny, closeknit Indo-Mongoloid tribe known as the Dhimal, who live in what they call the "Land of the Sun" in eastern India near Nepal.
Their version is that they escaped soon after finding themselves in the city of Pune, near Bombay, the nation's financial and entertainment capital, after being held for a brief time.
They say they later worked as servants for a local Nepali family to raise the money to come home.
But their story has many holes, including how they escaped so easily and how they found a friendly family in a strange city.
What goes unsaid among this tribe of barely 900 with little knowledge of the outside world is that they were victims of people traffickers feeding India's brothels.
"We are not asking about it too much, because it is a matter of shame and embarrassment," says schoolteacher and tribal leader Garjan Kumar Mallik, who helped bring the women back.
"We don't have things like prostitution in our society and it's hard for people to believe this."
MODERN DAY SLAVERY
Although the women have been accepted back by the tribe, they have moved to a nearby town, ostensibly in search of work.
The United States, which has put India on a watch list for failing to combat people trafficking, says this is the world's third-largest source of money for organized crime after drugs and weapons.
The State Department says it is also the fastest growing crime, with 600,000-800,000 men, women and children trafficked every year.
"Human trafficking is nothing less than modern-day slavery," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently. "Whatever form of cruel servitude it may take, trafficking victims live in fear and in misery."
Neighboring Nepal is a major source of trafficked women and children, many smuggled across the porous border just a few kilometers (miles) away from Surajbar Jot.
The Dhimal are mainly subsistence farmers, animists who worship the jungle and rivers around them. They live in crude bamboo huts in an area still menaced by wild elephants searching for food and the local haria rice wine.
Joloy was with Sunita and Urmila the day they were taken.
The fake lawyers took the three to a tea stall. Then they said they needed the younger women to sign some documents to free Joloy's son, Chaupal, and took them away.
"I had only 4 rupees (9 cents) on me," she says. "I spent it all in the tea shop and still they never came back and that really got me worried."
Eventually, the two women got word back to their family or were found by people sent to look for them. How is unclear.
"I felt really good when they came back," Joloy says. "I couldn't work, I couldn't do anything when they were gone. They were very weak when they came back."
As she tells her tale, the tough-spirited Joloy, who thinks she is about 50, is dressed in a single piece of fabric, wrapped around her like a bathtowel.
The children of her extended family are mostly naked, some playing with a bird they have trained to beg, or with their small black piglet.
Joloy, whose husband was the village witchdoctor until he died, hopes to meet the two "lawyers" again one day.
"If we find these two guys, I feel like killing them." ($1 = 43.5 rupees)