Power cuts are frequent in the north-eastern parts of India’s capital New Delhi, particularly in slums such as New Seemapuri. And when power fails during the evenings, people step out of their small one- and two-room homes and congregate in open areas – be it alleyways or common courtyards – to get some fresh air and to while away time without television.
But late on a Sunday evening earlier last month, scores of families had gathered outside a home. They were there to share in the joy of the Mahmoud family.
The reason? Their 13-year-old son Sonu had returned home after six long years of captivity in Bangladesh.
‘I’m just so overjoyed to have our son back with us. We thought we’d never see him again,’ says his mother Mumtaz, hugging him. ‘I’m not going to let him out of my sight again.’
Sonu didn’t think he’d see his parents, siblings and friends again, and can’t believe he’s in his real home.
Gently caressing his arm, which still bears marks of the torture the boy claims he was subjected to while in captivity, Mumtaz, 38, says they still can’t believe their son is back.
Sonu’s father Mohammad, 42, a motor mechanic, smiles watching his little boy safe in his mother’s arms.
It was on one such night six years ago that Sonu went missing while playing outdoors with his friends.
‘We used to share a rented house with a Bangladeshi woman named Rahima. One day she and my wife had a quarrel when Rahima refused to return some money she borrowed from us,’ says Mohammad.
Perhaps to get even with the family over that skirmish, more than a year after that incident, on May 23, 2010, Rahima kidnapped their child, he says. On that fateful night, during a power failure, Sonu and his friends were playing outside when Rahima approached the boy and asked him to accompany her to a grocery store nearby.
‘Aunty was riding pillion on a bike with a man and she asked me to hop on, promising to buy me an ice cream,’ says Sonu. ‘However, the bike raced off to some place far from home, in Delhi.’
The boy believes he was given a sedative because ‘I don’t remember screaming or shouting for help throughout the journey’.
He says he was kept in a house in Delhi for two days, after which he was taken by train to Kolkata. ‘From there, I don’t remember much because I think I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was being held captive by some people.’
Meanwhile back in Sonu’s home and neighbourhood in Delhi, his family was panicky.
‘Initially we thought he was playing somewhere with his friends,’ recalls his father. ‘But as the night wore on and there was no sight of the boy, we got scared. We checked everywhere in our locality, quizzed his friends and their families. Even asked random passers-by if they had seen our son.’
The neighbours too joined in on the search, combing every nook and cranny of the overcrowded slum area, but there was no trace of the boy. ‘Finally, we went to the police station and filed a complaint.
‘The cops did claim to search for him but when they could not develop any leads, they closed the case in 2013. Not knowing what else to do, we too gave up on Sonu’s return.
‘But there has not been a moment when we have not thought about our second-born.’
Sonu’s mother Mumtaz wells up when recalling those harrowing days.
‘Although I’m blessed with three more children – Abhisekh, 14, Mahsud, six, and daughter Mannat, five – I could never stop missing Sonu every single moment. When I made a dish that he used to love, I’d think of him more and break down. If there was a celebration at home, my heart would long for Sonu.
‘When no one was at home, I’d open the box where I kept his photos and look at them and cry. I’d hug his teddy bear – a birthday gift from us – and imagine that I was hugging my son. My constant prayer was that he be alive and safe.’
Sonu’s life meanwhile, was gruelling.
He had to wake up at 4am and do household chores. Failure to do them would result in severe beatings, he says. He was in a house along with 30 people including Rahima, her six sisters and their families. He wasn’t allowed to step out.
‘One day, a dog entered the kitchen and ate the food prepared for lunch. They thought I had eaten up the food, so they kept beating me until I fell unconscious,’ says Sonu.
Some days, when he had a few hours free, he would sit by the window and see kids going to school, holding the hands of their parents. ‘I used to miss my home and my family and I used to cry.
‘I begged my captors to send me back to my parents, but they would beat me when I pleaded with them.’
A few months after the kidnapping, Sonu’s family received a call from Rahima asking for a ransom of Rs100,000 (about Dh5,500) for the release of the boy with a threat not to inform the police.
Mumtaz says: ‘Rahima asked for the money in exchange for my son. I arranged Rs90,000 somehow and we handed it over to the person she wanted us to. But after receiving the money, she betrayed us. There were no calls or negotiations after that.’
And Sonu would have been separated from his family forever, if one day he hadn’t been spotted by Jamal Ibn Musa, a supervisor in a private company in Jessore.
On his way to work, Jamal, 45, would often see a boy doing chores outside a house. ‘He used to seem sad and was being treated badly by the members of the house,’ says Jamal.
While other kids from the family went to school and wore better clothes, the boy in question had no such luxury. This prompted Jamal to strike up a conversation with him. The boy told him that he didn’t belong to the family he was with. That he was kidnapped from Delhi and brought here by Rahima.
Jamal pressed him for more details and learnt the boy’s parents’ names, address and where his father worked.
Keen to help Sonu, Jamal then confronted Rahima, who flatly denied Sonu had been kidnapped and brought there. ‘When I told her a child would never lie like this, she got angry and asked me to go away,’ says Jamal.
The next day when Jamal saw Sonu, the kid looked unhappy and heartbroken. ‘It appeared that he was beaten. She also apparently threatened to beat him up again and not give him any food if he dared narrate his story to anyone,’ says Jamal.
But the supervisor was not going to give up so easily. Determined to help the little boy find his parents, Jamal arrived in India in May this year.
Sonu’s father Mohammad picks up the thread of the story.
‘Based on the details provided by my son Sonu, Jamal reached the Meena Bazar area where I work. After asking around he finally and to our luck met a friend of mine, who quickly brought him to me. Jamal asked if I was Mahmoud and if I was Sonu’s father. He then showed me a photo of my son. It was truly the best day of my life. I was so relieved to know my son was alive that I think I hugged him for several minutes.’
Jamal then gave the family all details about Sonu and where he had been locked up in Bangladesh. Mahmoud then approached the local police station and pleaded with them to trace and bring back his son. ‘The case, which was closed in 2013 due to lack of proof, was reopened,’ he says.
An officer at the police station suggested if they wanted a quick resolution, they should go and see Sushma Swaraj, the minister of external affairs of India, at her office.
‘We rushed off to see the minister. We weren’t sure if the ministry would help us as we are poor and from a slum. But much to our surprise, the officials were very nice to us.’
Since he was illiterate, Mohammad approached a few media people who were in the office and requested them to draft an official letter to the minister as directed by the security staff. ‘They not only wrote the letter for us, they made it their cause thereafter.
‘That evening we were in the studio of a national TV channel telling the entire country our story,’ he says. Almost overnight, things began moving at a brisk pace. ‘The next day, Sushma Swaraj met us and listened to our story patiently.’
The External Affairs department in India got in touch with their counterparts in Bangladesh. The boy was rescued and lodged in a childcare home. Authorities haven’t released any details on the sequences of the rescue.
To confirm if the boy was really their son, Mumtaz’s DNA sample was taken and compared with Sonu’s. Sushma Swaraj took to Twitter and said, ‘Sonu – who was kidnapped from Delhi was found in a shelter home in Bangladesh. We matched the DNA with his mother. The test is positive.’
On June 30, Sonu, accompanied by a ministry official, arrived in Delhi. ‘I feel happy,’ Sonu said to the media persons waiting outside the VVIP lounge at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, while securely holding on to his parents.
On his arrival in New Delhi, Sonu was taken to the office of the ministry, where he and his parents met Sushma Swaraj.
‘I still can’t believe it,’ says Mumtaz. ‘Sushmaji was just unbelievably helpful. This is the best Eidi of our life!’
The family is whole again, and mother Mumtaz describes Sonu’s return as ‘the family getting its soul back again’.
For the past six years, the family hasn’t celebrated Eid. ‘How could we when our loving son was missing from our lives? But this time, Sonu’s return spiced up our Eid celebrations. We are so happy. The family has got its soul back!’