Free the Slaves raid and rescue operation
The six children from small villages near Allahabad and Bhadohi—in the carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India—never dreamed they could be free again. The carpet mafia had kept them in bondage for years, confined to a dark room and forced to hand weave rugs that would ultimately be exported to Europe and America.
The daily routine for bonded children is basically all the same. These children worked 12 hours each day, starting at 6 a.m. Their one meal was eaten at about 10 a.m.—bread and a few lentils in water or rice. Then they were forced to weave carpets until daylight grew dim at 6 p.m., when the children stopped working because they could not see the designs properly. Older boys were occasionally allowed to listen to music, but most of the time there was no electricity. The workroom had no windows and only one door. In the evenings, the children were not allowed to move around freely in the village, but were confined to the room with their loom. For years they had lived in this slavery.
I was part of a raid and rescue operation conducted by Free The Slaves partner Bal Vikas Ashram . I was very anxious about participating in a raid and rescue operation, because local and state law enforcement doesn’t always cooperate; sometimes someone tips off the loom owners and they hide the children before the raid; and sometimes middlemen try to disrupt the operation. And it is dangerous, rescuers often risk their lives during raids. But all I could think about was the children in bondage; I sympathized with the hopelessness and desperation their parents were experiencing, not knowing the whereabouts of their children all this time.
It was more than two hours’ drive to the loom. We stopped at several places for fuel, and I noticed we were followed by a few men. I was thinking maybe they would try to stop us or create hindrances, but they did not.
It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached the village. Men were working in the fields. Kids were playing; when they saw us, they became silent. My mind was blank—everything became sort of mechanical. We only had a few minutes to free the children. We ran into one dark loom where about 15 to 20 young boys were weaving carpets, wearing only underwear. It was a dark, stuffy, suffocating room with very dim light. Five of the children turned out to be below 14 years old, others had grown up in bondage. Some of them were so frightened and confused that they tried to hide under bundles of wool.
I was trying to read what was going on in their minds, but it was difficult. Did they know who we were or why we were there? When children are in bondage, they are told that raid and rescue operations will lead to them being hurt. They are told that the police take kids and beat them up or put them in prison. One child started crying—I wanted to console him, restore his trust, but I could not find the words.
The loom owner managed to escape, unfortunately, while his female relatives claimed that the children were part of their family. We asked the children, and found that none of them were even from the area.
During the raid, I studied how the policemen treated the children. I saw one scolding a kid who refused to come out, and though I didn’t like it, I could not interfere. After the raid, the children were brought to a police station. The local police were very cooperative; they gave food and beds to the traumatized children.
News spread and the loom owners gathered near the station while we were inside the police station. They contacted the local legislative representative or any other influential locals, trying to pressure us to withdraw the case against them.
We wanted to complete all the formalities quickly—as the crowd gathering outside the police station grew, so did the danger to ourselves and the rescued children. After a raid in the same village a few years ago, members of the rescue team were beaten up and two activists were left disabled for life.
After we gave statements in front of a local judge, the children, too traumatized to speak, were sent to the Bal Vikas Ashram. As I looked into their faces, my happiness at their freedom did not last. I had many fears and questions. I am afraid of what might happen if these children fall prey to the carpet mafia again. Would they ever be reunited with their families? What happens if their rehabilitation and education is not continued once they leave the Ashram? And how many more children must be suffering? Would the raids ever stop loom owners? Will loom owners ever be convicted for their crimes? I know these questions have no easy answers.
I first became interested in anti-slavery work when I was young. I was curious to know why there is so much difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ especially for children. I began working as a volunteer, and gradually anti-slavery work became my way of life more than my profession. I had opportunities and exposure to work in the field with a grassroots organization. But I don’t consider myself a professional—a professional uses logic and reasoning to solve a problem. I feel that logic has little relevance to issues like ‘slavery’ and ‘bonded labor.’
There are many women who are working for human rights and against slavery in India, but it is a challenging job. Every time we go into the field we have to have a male colleague with us. Many times I have taken risks while doing research, but I try to be careful. Presence of mind plays an important role in handling such dangerous situations. I do not claim that I have changed peoples’ perceptions, but I compel people to listen.
I am never content with my efforts and whatever I do to end slavery, because I know there are still millions of children, women, and men mentally and physically in bondage. Social injustice can be resolved only by changing one’s consciousness, and to change one’s consciousness one has to be heroic, courageous, and struggle through all life situations.