Lost And Rarely Found

  • Bilal Handoo
  • Publish Date: Aug 2 2017 9:50PM
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  • Updated Date: Aug 2 2017 9:50PM
Lost And Rarely Found

                                               Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI

 

The sad saga of Kashmir’s missing children

Tariq Baba went missing from Sopore on May 3, 2015. He was barely 10, his distraught father told the police when he went to ask for help to find him. His boy was fair-skinned, blue-eyed dimple-chinned, Abdula Rahman Baba said, he had gaps in his teeth and a pointed nose, and he spoke slowly. Two years later, the boy remains missing.

Two months earlier, Amreena Qayoom had disappeared from Malik Sahib in Safakadal, Srinagar. Abdul Qayoom Khan’s daughter was a fair-skinned, round-faced, lanky girl of 15 with burn marks on her long nose. She, too, is yet to be found.

Tariq and Amreena populate a long list of Kashmiri children who have gone missing in recent years – Mehreen Showkat Misger, 15, of Safakadal; Majid Ahmed Reshi, 14, of Shah Anwar Colony; Showkat Ahmad Iwan, 13, of Dara Harwan; Iqra Mehraj, 16, of Khanmoh, Pulwama.

Amid the raging bloody conflict in Kashmir, such children are often ignored as victims of “routine crime” - statistics in police files. For their families, they fill their nightmares.

“It’s worse than death,” says Amreena. “We live in perpetual trauma.” For the life of them, Amreena’s relatives “cannot convince themselves that she is no more. Her disappearance was so sudden and shocking, we are yet to make peace with it.”

The police say they did all in their power to find Ameerana, but came up empty. This is the fate of hundreds of children who disappeared and were never found.

In the last three years alone, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti informed the assembly early this year, at least 162 children have gone missing in J&K -  86 in 2014, 29 in 2015 and 47 in 2016.

Apparently, she downplayed the numbers. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, at least 1,897 children have disappeared in J&K since 2008 – 1,371 in Jammu and 526 in the valley. Contrary to the chief minister’s claim that 86 children went missing in 2014, the NCRB puts the number at 490. Of them, 235 children – 126 boys and 109 girls – have been traced so far. The police registered FIRs in only 139 of the cases in 2014 and filed charge sheets in 49 cases. None of the 122 suspects arrested has been found guilty so far.

The popular perception is that most, if not all, of the children who go missing are abducted, but the chief minister said this was not the case. No case of abduction "by an organised mafia" has been reported in J&K so far, she told the assembly.

 J&K ranks seventh among states with the highest number of missing children. This is alarming, not least because the spurt has been sudden. J&K had not reported any missing child in 2011, Jitendra Singh, India’s deputy home minister, told the parliament on October 16, 2012. The minister had said “almost 40% of the missing children don’t make it to home” ever.

Then, what happens to them?

According to a report by the central government’s Social Statistics Division, missing children are generally held for ransom, sent abroad, forced to beg, sold into prostitution or trafficked for illegal harvesting of organs.

“Such crimes against children take place as the police in our state is busy in counter-insurgency operations,” says Shabir Ali, a lawyer who handles juvenile cases at Lower Court, Srinagar. “That’s why J&K sees zero convictions for crimes committed against children.”

Taking cognisance of the police’s inaction in one such case, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court last month asked for a status report on the police’s search for a beggar’s child who had gone missing from Gole Market, Udhampur, in May 2017.

“There should be proper investigation in such cases,” Ali says. “And the accused should be chargesheeted within three months of the crime.”

But ask about their poor track record in tracing missing children, the police have a ready explanation. “It’s not as simple as it appears,” says an officer who was involved in the operation that brought home Tawseef Famda, 16, who had disappeared from Harwan, Srinagar, on February 9 this year, from Punjab’s Sarhind. The police mainly relied on technical intelligence to find Tawseef. Turned out he had run away from home.

“Fact is, there is no common pattern to these cases. Each case is different because different culprits and methods are involved,” the officer says.

“Some children go missing after being abandoned by their families because of poverty,” he adds, apparently referring to a child who was recently found abandoned in Srinagar’s Nishat Garden. “Some children simply run away to escape unhappy homes.”

Zahid Tariq Bhat was one such child. The 13-year-old disappeared from his aunt’s house in Warpora, Sopore, on May 19 this year. His family filed a missing persons report with the police after their search proved futile. “But a day later,” his uncle says, “the boy was found at his parent’s home in Fatehpora, Baramulla.” He had walked all the way from Warpora, a distance of about 10 km. “He was unhappy and missing his parents.”

 “The biggest problem for us is that not all such cases are being reported,” the police officer complains.

The NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan supports the officer’s claims, estimating that only half the missing children are reported to the police.

No exact figures are available of runaway children. But the police have now begun to maintain a database on missing children and enhanced inter-state cooperation, so that a child lost in one state and trafficked to another could be traced.

Recently, this same system helped the police locate a 13-year-old girl from Andhra Pradesh in Jammu’s Samba. It also came to the rescue of a Kashmiri girl, who was found by the Odisha Police on Jan 16, 2016. She was one among the 122 children rescued by the police in a joint effort with the state’s Women and Child Development Department.

A similarly helpful system is the 1098 Service, a telephone helpline for “children in distress” that was set up in Srinagar in March 2011 in collaboration with the NGO HELP Foundation.

“Ever since we launched the service in Kashmir, we have been able to connect many parents to their missing children,” says Nighat Shafi Pandit, chairperson of HELP Foundation. “Our team gets a call and we act accordingly, taking the police on board.” One such call led to an 8-year-old runaway child from locality, Srinagar, being reunited with his parents.

“I think, tracing our missing children isn’t an individual or organisational task at the end of the day,” says Pandit. “All of us need to join hands to bring them home.”

Still, despite this collective effort, the cases of Kashmir’s missing children are only piling up.