Pooja Gaud, 16, is finally able to rest her head on her mother’s lap after nine long years.
Pooja, who was seven years old at the time, went missing on January 22, 2013. She claims she was picked up from outside her school in Mumbai, Maharashtra, by a couple who attracted her with ice cream.
She was found on August 4 in what has been described as a “miraculous escape.” Poonam Gaud, her mother, says she is overjoyed.
“I had given up hope of ever finding my daughter. But the gods have been kind to me,” she says.
According to BBC, the child was allegedly kidnapped by Harry D’Souza and his wife, Soni D’Souza, because the couple did not have their own child. Mr. D’Souza has been arrested.
Pooja was last seen in a small house in a suburban slum with her two brothers and parents.
She had left for school with her elder brother on the day she went missing, but the two had a fight, and her brother went into the school, leaving her behind because he was running late. That’s when the couple allegedly kidnapped her and promised to buy her ice cream.
Pooja claims that the couple took her to Goa and then Karnataka, both in western and southern India, and threatened to harm her if she cried or drew attention to herself.
She claims she was allowed to attend school for a short time, but after the couple had their own child, she was pulled out and the family moved to Mumbai.
Pooja claims that the abuse became more severe after the baby was born.
“They would beat me with a belt, kick me, 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 chores at home and work in 12 to 24-hour-long jobs outside.”
D’Souza’s house was close to her family’s, but she says she was unfamiliar with the roads, was always watched, and didn’t have any money or a phone, so she couldn’t call for help or try to find her way home.
Pooja, on the other hand, managed to get her hands on the couple’s phone while they were sleeping and typed her name into YouTube. She found videos and posters mentioning her kidnapping, as well as phone numbers she could call for help.
“That’s when I decided to seek help and escape,” she says.
But it took her seven months to find the strength to confront Pramila Devendra, 35, a domestic helper who worked at the same house where Pooja worked as a babysitter.
Ms. Devendra agreed right away to help her. One of the numbers on the missing poster led them to Rafiq, Pooja’s mother’s neighbor. The mother and daughter first communicated via video call, and then a meeting was arranged.
Her mother claims she searched for a birthmark only she knew existed on her daughter and was overcome with emotion when she found it. “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.
Pooja’s return home has brought joy not just to her family, but to everyone who knew her. Neighbors who saw her when she was little have been dropping in to meet her.