Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Saving minors from prostitution in India.

From Freedom Firm on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

We began the day in high hopes that by 4pm we would be on our way to rescue two minors who were located in the area. By 11am Sunemiya called the Senior Police Inspector to inform him as much, and our high hopes for a raid started to unravel at high rates. It was a short phone call with a clear message: “We understand that you have reliable information regarding two underage girls who have been illegally trafficked and are now in the area enslaved in illegal forced prostitution. But we are busy. Besides, there’s the big festival going on. Come back in one month. Better yet, we will call you.” By the time Sunemiya hung up, most of the oxygen had already left the room. The team’s mood switched from anticipatory to frustrated to pensive. But no one was surprised. If you caught the Inspector on a good day, he was India’s finest. But on this particular morning we were nothing more than a blip on the radar of Indian bureaucracy.

Slowly, the tiniest trickle of ideas began forming grooves upon the foreheads of everyone in the room. After some minutes, a decision was made and we jumped in the car in search of a computer printer that was capable of printing out a one page Word document. In this vast city of 10 million people, this was less straightforward than one would think. A few gray hairs later we sped off to our next stop, the SS branch, which is really just an unsettling name for a different police outpost in another part of the city. As we pulled up to headquarters, I seem to remember my watch saying 1:30pm. Even if we could gain a hearing with the Chief of Police, it would be highly unlikely that any sort of effective team could be thrown together on such short notice. What was even more questionable was the fact that Freedom Firm had only conducted one raid through the SS branch. It did not go well.

Evan and Sunemiya were soon power walking to the commissioners office and Rod and I waited in the car as chickens pick through a nearby pile of compost. After an hour or so they returned. As Evan slammed the door, he gave us the news: “We’re meeting them back here at 4:30 and they’ll have a team ready.”

At 4:30 we returned with bells on and I was brought inside the building to wait in the hallway while Evan and Sunemiya spoke with the Commissioner. As I sat on the wooden bench, neatly dressed men began to stare at me and talk excitedly in Marathi. I’ve already mentioned that Indians have perfected the art of waiting. A close second is their ability to stare at foreigners endlessly without blinking. I sat there in the heat of their gaze, a chai-wala sat down next to me and offered me tea. I politely refused even though it is against my value system to ever refuse hot beverage of any kind. After some counteroffers, he left and came back again. He gave the boiling tea to me in a plastic cup that was so thin I was positive that it would melt onto my lap. As I set it aside to cool, I was whisked into an office where a dozen men and women were standing around in light conversation. Suddenly I wasn’t the only one who looked out of place. Why did everyone look like they just walked out of a department store? I realized that these were cops dressed in “street wear.” I found myself wondering how they would ever pull this off with the tags still on their clothes. I turned to Evan and nervously asked which car we would be riding in.

Once it was clear that we could move, our entourage jogged down the many flights of stairs into the afternoon heat. There must have been two dozen people involved by now. Once outside of the building, Evan got a call from one of our investigators who informed him that we had ten minutes to get to the brothel. Any longer could pose a serious threat to the raid, not to mention their own safety. Suddenly, Evan’s conversation was drowned out by an impromptu gridlock of police vehicles, goats and chai-walas. It was positively existential. After about 10 circuitous minutes, our chariots awaited. By the time I went to get in Evan’s car, it was already full of police. I was directed to a follow car. I felt like I was a little kid in a gigantic shopping mall who just got separated from Mother. I ended up sitting in the worst possible place, right in the middle of the vehicle between two officers who were clearly annoyed and equally confounded by my presence. This would make it impossible to film the drive to the brothel, which was to be the opening scene of Horse & Rider (I’ll give away the beginning but I won’t spoil the ending). It was generally understood that if there was to be any filming of events, it would be done by the police for their own records. If they knew that I was carrying a camera, it could mean bad news for the raid. My number one priority shifted to hiding the fact that I was there to film as much as I possibly could.

After driving a short distance, the caravan stopped at a random location so that the cops could get out and stand around for apparent reason. This took at least five minutes. With everyone out of the cars, it was my only chance to reconnect with Evan. As I walked towards him, I was intercepted and put in Sunemiya's car. Just as I was preparing my camera, my door opened and I was thrown into a white SUV with more police who were as equally confused at the sight of my face. Since I was already in their ill graces, I went a step further and outright refused to sit in the middle (This way I could have a chance at filming). Then the police started asking me questions in Marathi. When that got them nowhere, they tried Hindi. We finally settled on me writing down my information for their records.

I turned on my small camera and hung my arm out of the window as we made our way towards our target. The drivers were instructed to stop their vehicles and we would travel the rest of the way by foot. We all rolled out and I set out to find Evan. After a mere five paces I was ordered back into the car to wait. Clearly there has been a communication breakdown. I chalked it up to the fact that they were not familiar with this type of crime fighting and were trying to remove as many variables as possible. Fair enough.

Soon someone got a call and they all started walking. I got out of the car to join them only to be put in another empty car and told to wait. When everyone was out of sight, the driver put the SUV into first gear and crawled along for about fifty feet. As soon as I saw the large crowd gathered, I knew I had missed the raid, but I also knew that amidst all of the circus of shenanigans, a raid had been pulled off. I jumped out of the car and filmed as much as I could while asking Evan for the details. One girl was rescued. The second girl was never found. The police rounded up a dozen other girls into the vehicle, presumably for questioning. Some were crying while most were silent. The rescued girl was showed no emotion whatsoever. She had been rescued and released three times before, and every time her brothel keeper would gain custody of her by posing as her mother and giving false assurances to the police that she will not put her back in to prostitution.

Evan and Sunemiya went to the station with the girls to spend the next several hours doing everything they could to ensure that this case would be handled properly and that she would not be re-released to her brothel keeper. I took a car and met up with Rod who was busy providing real-time updates of the events as they unfolded. While I was sorting out my elation and disappointment and crashing endorphins, Rod told me some really welcome news: The brothel keeper now identified as Vaijantibai Kalkhor was arrested and was being held at the station. As Evan described it later, her goons were coming in to negotiate her release all night long. If she is denied bail, this could be a positive turning point for many trafficked minors who end up in that district. But Vaijantibai is a very powerful woman, and only time will tell if her case will go to trial. In the meantime, the rescued girl will be put in a government home to begin the next chapter of her life.

Rod and I ended up waiting outside of the police station to try and capture some undercover footage of Vaijantibai being loaded into the police car. We waited for a few hours until Evan and Sunemiya had to rush to pick up their luggage and catch the overnight train to Pune. Rod and I went and had buttered chicken at a nearby place with a blue neon sign. We slept well that night and rose early to begin our final destination in the mountains of Ooty.

Please see The Times of India report on the raid:

This is the article

Nine girls rescued from red light area, one held
TNN Aug 27, 2011, 07.13am IST

Flesh trade|Brothel Rescue
NAGPUR: City police, aided by a Pune-based Non-Government Organization (NGO), raided a brothel in Ganga Jamuna locality on Friday evening. Nine girls, several of them likely to be minors, were rescued in the raid and a brothel-keeper nabbed. Sources said that one of the girls had been rescued for the third time.

Crime branch squad and the NGO team raided the locality after they were tipped-off about possibility of minors being forced into flesh trade. The NGO team had information about the presence of one of the minors, aged around 15 years, in the brothel. She had been twice rescued earlier.

The children welfare committee had earlier released the girl to woman identified as Vaijantibai Kalkhor, who claimed to be her mother. Though she was rescued as a minor a year ago, Lakadganj police had arrested her as a major the following year. A source in the raiding team claimed that Vaijantibai, who has been arrested in the action, had forced the teenager into prostitution despite claiming before the court that she would ensure proper care of the girl while pledging for the bail.



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