Way back in 1987, two desperate unemployed youths named Dasan and Vijayan, goaded by a buck-toothed agent named Gafoor, had jumped from a fishing vessel, swam across a rough sea and emerged drenched on the far end of the Marina beach near the Karl Schmidt Memorial thinking it was Gulf. Though their plight was profoundly sad, Malayalis had laughed a lot watching that movie 'Nadodikattu'.
Something similar happened to three poor illiterate Nepali housewives last February. Thinking it was Kuwait, they landed in Thiruvananthapuram. But this was no fiction, and therefore no laughing matter.
The women were arrested for carrying fake Nepali passports and were sent to the Attakulanagara Women's jail where they remained confined for over five months.
On July 10, the judicial first class magistrate released them on the basis of a crime branch report that concluded that these women had no knowledge that they were being transported illegally.
"Not only were these women illiterate but they couldn't even tell anyone that they did not know to read or write," crime branch IG S Sreejith said, reasoning why these rustic women who knew only Nepali could not convince the Bureau of Emigration officials at Thiruvananthapuram International Airport.
Call from Prajwala
For nearly two months the women were forgotten and then in April lawyer J Sandhya of Human Rights Law Network got a distress call from social activist Sunitha Krishnan who runs Prajwala, an NGO that rehabilitates human trafficking victims. Sunitha was contacted for help by the Kathmandu-based NGO Maiti Nepal. The Nepal Embassy, too, had taken an interest in the matter.
Sandhya then started visiting the three women in the women's prison. She also got the help of a Kollam-based Nepali man Bahadur Chettri, who had been settled in Kerala for nearly 30 years, to communicate with the ladies.
"These women were first flown to Delhi last December," Sandhya said. But they were stranded in the national capital for one-and-a-half months. When their trip was getting indefinitely delayed, the women panicked and told their agent that they wanted to get back home immediately. "Flying them to Thiruvananthapuram could have been a hastily put up plan by the traffickers to avoid a crisis," Sandhya said.
Before they were put on the flight, the agent handed them a few travel documents saying they were all secured from government offices. "These women had no reason to suspect the agent as he had not sought any money from them. He had told them that he would get his money directly from their employers. They even thought him to be very magnanimous," Sandhya said.
The women faced no problems at the Delhi airport and were under the impression that they were flying to Kuwait. But the moment they landed in Thiruvananthapuram, they sensed something amiss. They immediately called their agent in Delhi and he told them to walk across to the international terminal. They did so and were caught.
All the three women are married. The eldest is 50, and the other two are between 25 and 30. They come from three different places in Nepal, all poor farming villages. One of them had to leave her three-year-old child.
"It just shows how desperate they are," Sandhya said. "I am told that some women from their villages had gone to the Gulf and had made some money. Their agent might have facilitated these travels, too. This might have prompted these women also to try their luck," Sandhya said.
By the end of April, the court was ready to release the women on bail but on the condition that each woman furnish a bond of Rs 10 lakh. Even the Nepal Embassy said it was helpless.
Aftermath of a jailbreak
Then Sandhya drafted an appeal to the DGP, Loknath Behera, in the name of the three women. This worked. The DGP ordered the crime branch inquiry that eventually freed them.
But by the time the CB began probe, jail life had become harder to endure. On June 25, two women convicts escaped from the Attakulangara prison and, all of a sudden, even the little freedom that women convicts enjoyed was withdrawn. Earlier, they could walk around the small courtyard of the prison but after the jail-break the inmates were kept shut inside their dingy cells.
Their ordeal, thankfully, did not last long. The women are now at a short-stay home in Thiruvananthapuram. "The police want them here till at least they record a statement before the magistrate against the traffickers. The women are willing to cooperate," Sandhya said.
IG S Sreejith said it was important to track down the traffickers. "These poor women were promised a housemaid job in Kuwait but no one knows where they will finally end up. There is information that women taken to Gulf countries finally land in Yemen as sex slaves of ISIS," Sreejith said.
The IG said the police still had no idea whether the traffickers had their men in Thiruvananthapuram to guide these women when they entered the international terminal. "But we know that traffickers are using Kerala as a safe transit point to Gulf countries," he said.
The crime branch head is especially wary because many young Malayali women who were promised respectable jobs in various Gulf countries had ended up as sex slaves.
In 2016, 60 young women, most of them below the age of 30, were lured into a prostitution racket in Bahrain. "Fourteen of them had returned. The first two told what happened to them, and it was traumatic and grotesque," Sreejith said.
These girls did not escape from their captors but were sent back; used and thrown. "They were so battered and bruised that they couldn't work any more. After two to three abortions they had become sexually dysfunctional," the IG said.
These women had told the police that the brothels in Bahrain function out of large flats. It is a highly secretive affair. It is almost as if nothing is happening. Only the customer and the woman gets to see each other, the pimps and the kingpins keep themselves invisible.
It is a number-lock system that they follow. "These flats will be locked using a number lock. After the female is picked from a list of pictures sent to him on mobile and the money transferred, the pimp gives the customer the number of the lock on the flat in which the woman he had chosen is lodged. The woman is forever closeted inside this flat," Sreejith said.
Already nine Indian agents of the traffickers have been nabbed but the investigation has virtually come to a standstill. "After the first two returned and revealed their story to the police the others are refusing to cooperate. Though they had lived unfortunate lives in Bahrain the impression they have given close relatives and neighbours back home is that they were in some respectable jobs. They don't want this illusion to be shattered," Sreejith said.
But the Nepali women, despite their long suffering, are willing to take the fight to the end. "Hats off to their spirit," Sreejith said. "They said they don't want such a thing to happen to any poor women ever again," Sreejith said.
The women have to be in the state capital for at least a week more. Sandhya said they have still not been allowed to call their homes. "The mother of one of the ladies had died recently, and we don't want them to panic," Sandhya said.
Meanwhile, Bahadur Chettri, the Nepali translator, is busy collecting money from Nepalis he know, most of them watchmen or daily wagers, for the women's train journey back to Nepal.