“This is my father’s cell phone number. He’ll be looking for me. Please call him. Tell him to get me out of here.” A customer is probably the last person that would be willing to listen to the pleas of a girl forced into prostitution. At best he’d ignore her, at worst he’d complain to the brothel manager. 17-year-old Neelam* knew this. But she was desperate and Amar seemed different.
Neelam Khatun and her sister Shabnam lived in a small village called Bora in West Bengal. In September, 2009 their neighbour, Roopa, had persuaded them to accompany her on a visit to her husband’s sister in another town. She took the unsuspecting girls to Howrah and sold them to a trafficker called Shashi Thapa. The woman took them across India to Pune, a city close to Mumbai. There, in the infamous Budhwar Peth red light district, they were forced to work as prostitutes. Neelam had spent the last two months in this living hell. Compounding the horror for the young girl, her sister had been separated from her soon after their arrival in Pune. Now, Neelam had no idea where 16-year-old Shabnam was.
After trying all avenues of escape Neelam felt that Amar, who had listened sympathetically to her story, would not forget to do as she had asked.
Her instincts did not fail her. On 17th November, 2009, Amar called the number Neelam had given him and spoke to her father. Neelam’s father, Asraf, had been looking for the girls ever since they had disappeared from the village and had filed a Missing Persons Complaint with the police.
Amar told him what had happened to his daughters and described to him the area in which they were being held. He also offered to help find the girls when he came to Pune. A frantic Asraf contacted BUP, a partner organisation of Justice and Care, for help. The Justice and Care office in Kolkata swung into action and sent details of the case and a photograph of Neelam to the Investigations team in Mumbai.
The Justice and Care investigators called up Amar and asked him if he would help them trace the girls. Amar asked them to call him when they arrived in Pune.
The team arrived in Pune to find that Amar, possibly afraid of getting directly involved in the rescue, had switched off his mobile phone.
Their biggest lead had gone to ground, but a girl’s future was at stake and the investigators were not about to give up. Armed with only a photograph and a description of the building that housed the brothel, they began an arduous search of what is said to be India’s third largest red light district.
They finally reached a building that fit the description Amar had given them. Two investigators went into the brothel, posing as customers. Used to raids, the brothel manager had a clever way of making sure no one on the inside could contact the police, she insisted that customers give up their cell phones at the door. When one of the investigators saw this, he managed to conceal his cell phone and entered the brothel with it. Once inside, he quickly located Neelam and called up the Justice & Care team to tell them he had found her. She begged him to help her escape.
The investigators returned to the team and they decided there was no time to lose. The team planned a raid for the same day and returned with the police. Neelam was finally rescued.
Neelam told the investigators that the brothel manager knew where her sister was being held. The brothel manager was arrested and interrogated about Shabnam, but she refused to yield any information.
Neelam has returned to her family, but the re-union has been bitter-sweet. Despite the best efforts of the Justice & Care team and the police, her sister Shabnam is still missing.
*all names have been changed to protect identities