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     Volume 7 Issue 36 | September 5, 2008 |

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Special Feature

Back from Hell

“It was a long ride,” says Anwara Khatun. “I was told that I would be taken to a place where I could work and earn money. But the train ride would not stop. I think we spent at least three days and nights on the train before reaching a house in Goa. A man, his wife and their children lived in that house. The woman would beat me regularly, with hangers, sticks, iron spoons and sometimes even her hands. Sometimes she would make me go hungry, only because I would cry and would want to go home to my family.”

Elita Karim

A large number of teenage girls are trafficked out of Bangladesh every year.

On 21 April 2008, 24 girls were flown into the country from India on a Biman aircraft. These girls were trafficked out of Bangladesh nearly two years ago. Most of the girls were between the ages of 14-26; one girl was also bringing back her 9-year-old daughter, Khushi. After arriving at Dhaka airport, they were taken to several homes and shelters in the city. Later on, they were sent to their own villages and homes. Many of them hailed from Chittagong, Rajshahi, Comilla, Sylhet, Jessore and Dhaka. All of them share a similar story -- they were made to believe that a better life awaited them, somewhere far away from their own shabby homes and that they could earn a decent living and help their families to survive. Poverty stricken and eager not to be a burden to their families, these teenage girls would end up in brothels in Mumbai or other places in India. With no knowledge of the foreign language, not to mention being unable to read and write their own language Bangla, their frightening screams of despair would go unheard. Locked up within the four walls of a brothel for months, these girls did not know how to defend themselves, until Oasis, a human rights organisation in India raided the brothels with the help of the police and sent the Bangladeshi girls home.

19-year-old Mosammat Anwara Khatun lives in Shatkhira, located on the outskirts of Jessore. She was one of the girls flown back to the country after being rescued by the Oasis team in Mumbai. At the age of only 17 years, Anwara was tricked into accompanying her cousin's husband to Kolkata who had convinced her that he would get her a job. "My family is very poor," says Anwara. "My father doesn't do much of anything. My mother helps out families nearby with their housework and earns a little. I wanted to help out in the family and when my brother-in-law told me that I had opportunities elsewhere, I could not say no to him."

Anwara had, however, refused to listen to him in the beginning. "My cousin and her husband live in Bikrampur," she says. "My younger sister and I had gone to visit them. While we were there, my cousin's husband would keep telling me about how he can get me work. I would be able to earn a living for myself and also send a portion of it home." Even though the arrangement seemed very tempting to Anwara, she was scared and would not agree to her brother-in-law's proposal. After a two-week stay at their cousin's, their brother-in-law brought Anwara and her younger sister home to Shatkhira. That was not the end of his prodding Anwara with his offers. "He returned after a few days and forced me to go with him," says Anwara. Anwara's mother saw him taking her daughter on a motorbike. "I screamed for them to stop but they did not," says the tearful mother. "After that, I would go to Bikrampur frequently and ask my niece about my daughter's whereabouts. Both her husband and my niece would assure me of my daughter's safety. They would tell me that she was earning a lot of money and very soon she would be sending home money as well. But I knew something was wrong and would never be at ease."

It was only after Anwara was brought back home that everyone realised that her cousin's husband had tricked her. "I remember being very exhausted after spending days and nights on the road," relates Anwara. "I was in a car, then on a train and finally I was taken to a place where I was fed. I had to spend a few days with a man who lived in the house with his wife and children. The wife would sometimes beat me and not give me food because I would not stop crying and would always want to go home. I was on the road once again and transferred to another place. At one point, I realised that I was in Mumbai, Goa." Anwara says she is scared and ashamed to admit that she had spent months in a brothel. According to reports from Rights Jessore, an organisation in Jessore, which worked alongside Oasis to bring back the trafficked girls back to Bangladesh, Anwara was found by Oasis officials in a brothel in Mumbai city during the police raid. "Several women and girls were then taken to the police station in Mumbai, many of whom were underage and trafficked from Bangladesh," says Tawfique-uz-Zaman, Fact Finding Officer of Rights Jessore.

Similarly, Kobita was only 16 years old, when she was tricked into leaving her home. Now living with her husband, she grew up in a village in Benapole. Talking to Kobita and her mother, it was clear that lives near the border are all the more poverty-stricken hence sometimes being forced to get involved in illegal activities such as smuggling and sometimes even prostitution, for mere survival.

According to her mother Kobita's sudden disappearance was very mysterious. "We never approved of her marrying her present husband," her mother says. "He is into drugs, but Kobita was set on marrying him after having a brief love affair with him,” adds the mother in an embarrassed tone. Because of this, she informs, her father would never let Kobita step out of the house. One day, her paternal aunt came to take Kobita to her house in Jessore to keep her away from mischief. “That is when she made a plan with the boy and ran away and got married to him,” says her mother. “They began to live in Jessore. After a while, we heard that Kobita was missing and that she had been taken to India.”

According to Kobita, her husband was a drug peddler and an addict. “The police came to our house one day and took him away,” she says. “I was scared and did not know what to do. I decided to travel back to Benapole to my village and get help when I met a man on the bus. He asked me if I needed to work and earn money. He told me about a home in Kolkata who needed a housekeeper and would pay a good salary.” Even though Kobita was a little wary of the man, she could not help but think that the man had been a blessing. “My husband was in jail,” she says. “I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what and how to eat. After giving it a thought, I said yes.” After days of travelling on the train, she finally reached a place where everyone was speaking in Hindi. “I figured out that I was not in Kolkata and I was screaming at the man who brought me and

Not all families welcome their daughters back home

threatened him that I would go to the police,” she says. “But he was calm. He just smiled and said that the police would take me in instead.”

Kobita says that she was made to shameful things with men that she would not like to mention. “Otherwise, I would not be given food,” she says. “I would be beaten and tortured. At the end of the day, I would be exhausted and would not have enough strength to fight them.” Kobita went through nothing less than hell itself. What made everything worse was that she, along with many others, were locked inside brothels. Their fates were uncertain at the hands of their captors.

“I was adamant for a while, and would not do what they would ask me to do,” says 19-year-old Rekha Khatun. Speaking hesitantly, Rekha informs that she was made to wear very short dresses and strapless blouses. She was also regularly beaten by the women inside the brothel. “They used to make me do dirty things,” she says. “I would be asked to wear indecent clothes and get ready for men who would touch me in a dirty way.” Just 17 years old then, Rekha says that in the beginning she would refuse to wear such clothes or go to regular 'grooming' sessions and let men touch her. “For more than three days, I was not given food to eat,” she remembers. “In the beginning when I was made to spend nights with unknown men, I had the habit of begging for my life in front of them, just to see if I would be spared. Some of them were very nice and would talk to me, give me sweets to eat and sometimes money. One day, one customer got very angry and immediately called the people at the brothel and told them that I refused to cooperate with him.” That was the end of Rekha's whimpers for help. She was given a good thrashing at the brothel and was threatened to be taken to the police since she was living illegally in India. “Since then, I never argued,” she says. “But would pray to the Almighty that the customer would not hurt me too much.”

According to these girls, a large number of Bangladeshi girls worked at these brothels. “They were brought at a very young age and did not have any way to escape,” says Tawfique. “But now, it is very difficult to understand their nationality. Many of them have expert command of the Hindi language and prefer to live in India. They do not want to return to the poverty back home. Moreover, not all their families would take them in.”

In the case of the families of Anwara and Kobita, it took quite a lot of convincing by Rights Jessore officials to take the girls back in. They would be asked if the girls were 'dirty' and if they were touched or not. It took quite a while for these scared teenage girls to get back home after a stay at the shelters. Rekha, however, still lives at the Ahsania Mission Shelter for Women in Jessore. “Her father refuses to take her back,” says Tawfique. “Rekha's mother is deaf and mute and was abandoned by her husband a long time ago. She wants to bring her daughter back home, but can't do so because she has no money, food or a home herself.”

Poverty-stricken and eager not to be a burden to their families, many young girls leave their homes on the lookout for work

Both private and government organisations are now trying to locate the other Bangladeshi girls who were trafficked out of the country and bring them back home. However, lives have not changed much for the young girls who were brought back on April 21 from their ordeals in the hellholes. They are stripped off of their dignity every single day in their own villages even today. Their family members, fellow neighbours and local hoodlums remind them of the nightmares that they are trying so hard to forget.

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