published Aug. 25, 2022, 11:20 a.m. by mariamagboola
After nine long years after being kidnapped, 16-year-old India girl has finally reunited with her family.
Pooja Gaud went missing on 22 January 2013 when she was seven years old. She says she was picked up outside her school in Mumbai city in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra by a couple who lured her with an ice cream.
On 4 August, she was found after she made "a miraculous escape” from her captors. Her mother, Poonam Gaud, says she is over the moon with happiness to see her girl again.
"I had given up hope of ever finding my daughter. But the gods have been kind to me," she says.
Police have alleged that the child was kidnapped by Harry D'Souza and his wife, Soni D'Souza, because the couple did not have a child of their own at the time they stole her.
Before she went missing, Pooja lived with her two brothers and parents in a small house in a suburb and slum area.
On the day she went missing, she had left for school with her elder brother, but the two had a fight and her brother went into the school leaving her behind as he was running late. That was when the couple allegedly took her away, promising to buy her ice-cream.
Pooja says that the couple initially took her to Goa and then Karnataka, states in western and southern India, and would threaten to hurt her if she cried or drew attention to herself.
She says she was allowed to attend school for a short while but after the couple had their own child she was pulled out of school and they all shifted to Mumbai.
‘They would beat me with a belt, kick me, and punch me. One time they beat me with a rolling pin so badly that my back began to bleed. I was also made to do house chores and go out and do outside job for about."
Where the D’Souzas lived was quite close to her family's house but she says she was unfamiliar with the roads was always watching to see if anybody will identify her. I had no money or phone and couldn't reach out for help or try to find her way home; she said.
But one day, Pooja managed to get her hands on the couple's mobile when they were asleep and typed her name into YouTube. She found videos and posters mentioning her kidnapping and numbers that could be called for help.
"That's when I decided to seek help and escape," she says.
But it took her seven months before she could muster enough courage to discuss it with Pramila Devendra, 35, a domestic helper who worked at the same house where Pooja worked as a babysitter.
Ms Devendra immediately agreed to help her. One of the numbers on the missing poster connected them to Rafiq, a neighbour of Pooja's mother. The mother-daughter first spoke on a video call and then a meeting was arranged.
Her mother said it was when she checked for a birthmark on her and found it that she was filled with emotion. "All my doubts were immediately gone. I knew I had found my daughter," she says.
Ms Devendra is happy to have played a part in this reunion. "Every mother should help a child coming to her for help. We might not be their biological mothers, but we are still mothers," she says.
After the meeting, Pooja, a few family members and Ms Devendra went to the police station to lodge a complaint. "I told the police everything. I even told them where my kidnappers lived," she said. This led to the identification and arrest of the accused.
Milind Kurde, Senior Inspector at Mumbai's DN Nagar police station, told BBC Marathi that cases have been registered against the accused for kidnapping, issuing threats, physical violence and for flouting child labour laws.
Meanwhile, her mother is trying to make up for the lost time with her daughter - cooking her favourite food and combing her hair. The two try to spend as much time as they can together but life at the moment is tough for them.
Pooja's father, who was the sole breadwinner of the family, died four months ago from cancer. So, her mother took up his job of selling snacks at a railway station to provide for herself and her three children. But the earnings are meagre and she's struggling to make ends meet.
"Now I also have legal expenses. Our condition is such that if I miss a day's work, we won't have money for food the next day."
Pooja is still processing her trauma. She gets nightmares and feels sad that she'll never get to see her father again. For her safety, she spends most of her time at home or is accompanied by a family member whenever she goes out.
"I want to help my mother financially but I'm not allowed to. I also want to study," she says.
But despite these problems,t he mother says she couldn't be happier. "Work is exhausting, but every time I see Pooja, I find my strength again. I'm just so happy she's back," she says.