It was a video call that Poonam Santosh Gaud had given up hope of ever receiving after nine long years of waiting.
On the other end was Pooja, her daughter who went missing in January 2013 outside her Mumbai school in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, when she was only seven years old.
She was taken by a couple who promised to buy her ice cream and then took her to another state, Pooja told her mother, forcing her to work and earn money for them. Mumbai police have arrested Hari D’Souza and his wife, Soni, and a spokesperson said they could face charges of kidnapping, wrongful confinement, and flouting child labour laws.
“I could see tears in my mother’s eyes,” Pooja said, of the moment that she realized she had found her real family.
Her mother still finds it hard to fully express her happiness at her only daughter’s “miraculous” return in early August, saying she now feels alive instead of dead inside.
“When I wake up in the morning and see my three kids together, it feels so good,” Gaud, 30, said. “To be able to see Pooja in front of my eyes.”
It’s big shift after years of waking up racked with constant worry and unanswered questions. “Two of my kids are with me, but where is she? Is Pooja even alive? It would just be those thoughts.”
‘I felt like I was in jail’
Pooja was alive but she said she grew more and more terrified of the couple, who, she alleged, would threaten to hurt her if she cried out or drew attention to herself, and later began regularly beating her.
“His wife would hit me for every single thing,” she told CBC News. “Sometimes with a rolling pin, sometimes with a belt, and she would use really abusive harsh language.”
“Once she hit me so much that my head started bleeding,” Pooja recounted. “I only realized [how bad it was] when someone told me that my clothes were soaked in blood.”
The teenager believes she was kidnapped because the couple did not have a child and desperately wanted one, but once the woman gave birth, their treatment of her worsened.
The World this Weekend3:35Pooja finds her way home
At first, Pooja was only made to do all of the housework in their home but after the lockdown imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she said the couple forced her to work as a cleaner and nanny in other locations, taking all her wages.
“I felt like I was in jail,” Pooja said, recalling how she was confined to the house, only able to leave to go to her place of work and, occasionally, the market.
“There was no way to escape,” she said. “I had to stay because I couldn’t remember anything about where I used to live when I was a child.”
“I wasn’t sure if I would ever see my parents again.”
She did not get the chance to see her father again. He died four months before his daughter found her way home.
Missing poster leads the way
Pooja only found her way back to her family through luck, and the fact that her case had generated enough attention when she was taken in 2013 to make the news.
One day, she was able to get her kidnappers’ mobile phone and Googled her name. She stumbled upon her missing poster online, but the five phone numbers listed at the bottom for the public to send tips were too blurry to make out.
It took several more months for her to find the courage to confide in an older woman she worked with, who she trusted.
“We would talk and share things like mother and daughter,” Pramila Devendra, 35, said. But still, she was shocked when Pooja told her she had been taken as a child, and that her real name was “Pooja,” not “Hani” as she was referred to by the couple.
“When she told me that they weren’t her real parents, I did everything I could.”
“She had always known but must have been too scared to share her story,” added Devendra. “But she told me everything. They were torturing her a lot.”
Devendra had always suspected the teenager was unhappy and ill-treated, as she would often come to work in tears, and would frequently get nosebleeds and complain of pain. But she never dreamt it was because she was a kidnapping victim.
The older woman immediately recruited a friend to find a better quality version of the missing poster online, and tried calling all five telephone numbers listed. Only one was still active and it belonged to a neighbour of the Gaud family.
“When I got the call from Pramila … and when I saw Pooja on the video call, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it,” Mohammad Rafiq told CBC News. He had been involved in the search for the missing seven-year old from the early days of her disappearance, helping the family cope with the stress.
But his shock and happiness at seeing the young girl reunited with her mother and two brothers soon turned to anger when he heard of what Pooja had been through.
“They should get the strictest possible punishment and she needs to get justice,” he said. “Nine years of her life have already gone.”
Number of missing children soars
Cases such as this one, where a missing child is found after nearly a decade, are exceedingly rare, with the problem becoming more acute in the two years since the economic pain of the global pandemic hit India.
The number of children who were reported missing in 2021, according to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau, was 77,535 – a more than 30 per cent jump from the previous year.
That averages to a child going missing every seven minutes across India.
Child rights organizations have attributed the sharp increase in children going missing, forced to work, or being trafficked, to the economic pain and deepening poverty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The number is probably going to increase further,” predicted longtime child rights advocate Bhuwan Ribhu.
“In a post-COVID scenario [in India], as is the case with the majority of the world, the children are in an increased state of vulnerability,” he added. “And in many situations, a missing child is not being reported.”
Few cases end in conviction
Mumbai police were so buoyed by news of Pooja Gaud’s reunion with her family in early August, they subsequently bolstered their efforts to track missing children.
The city’s police commissioner launched a month-long initiative to push for leads on kids being forced into employment called Operation Reunite, which ended in mid-September.
Pooja’s family, however, have little faith in the police’s ability to secure a conviction, despite the fact the couple has been arrested.
Less than one per cent of trafficking or missing children cases in India end in conviction.
But Ribhu said even without a conviction, high-profile arrests that make newspaper headlines can be a deterrent for kidnappers and organized child-trafficking networks.
Every arrest, according to Ribhu, serves to push other police departments across India to invest more heavily in technology and other methods to trace missing children.
“More awareness is there in terms of the local police, in terms of the anti-human trafficking units, in terms of parents [understanding the risks].”
Adjusting to life at home
As for Pooja, the ordeal is not fully over. She is readjusting to life at home while trying to cope with the trauma of what she’s been through.
The 16-year old falls sick often and her medical bills are piling up, with doctors telling the family several bones in her back are swollen because of the beatings.
Pooja also gets nightmares and is constantly imagining she hears her kidnappers’ voices behind her. The whole family is preoccupied with the idea that the couple, who lives nearby in western Mumbai, will be released from prison.
Pooja’s mother blames the kidnappers for “taking everything” from her: her husband because of the stress of searching for their daughter, Pooja’s good health, and the missed milestones from Pooja’s formative years.
“I am alone and I have to take care of her,” Gaud told CBC News. “I worry about how everything will work out in the future.”
Still, she can’t help but smile, even with the tears welling up in her eyes, and Pooja has a matching one.
“It feels so good to be back with my mother,” Pooja said, feeling complete “now that I am back home and surrounded by my family.”