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India: Two children ran away. It took them 13 years to get home again

By Geeta Pandey BBC News, Delhi

29 February 2024, 00:06 GMT

Neetu Kumari with photos of her missing children

On a hot summer day in June 2010, two Indian children upset with their parents for hitting them left home.

The siblings - 11-year-old Rakhi and seven-year-old Bablu - planned to go to their maternal grandparents who lived just a kilometre away. But a few wrong turns and they were lost.

It's taken them more than 13 years to find their way back - with a lot of help from a child rights activist - to their mother Neetu Kumari.

"I missed my mother every single day," Bablu who grew up in orphanages told me on the phone. "I'm very happy now that I'm back with my family."

Video footage of their reunion at the end of December shows Neetu sobbing as she welcomes Bablu home, embracing him tightly and thanking god for "giving me the joy of holding my son again".

Bablu then hugs Rakhi, who had returned home two days earlier. Though the siblings had been in touch for a few years, they were meeting after more than a decade.

The separation

Bablu and Rakhi lived in the northern city of Agra with their parents Neetu Kumari and Santosh, who worked as daily-wage labourers.

On 16 June 2010, Neetu, who had been unable to find work that day, took out her frustration on Rakhi and hit her with metal tongs she used for cooking.

Rakhi and Bablu left home after their mother stepped out for an errand.

"My father would also hit me sometimes if I didn't study properly, so when Rakhi came to me and said let's go and live with grandma, I agreed," says Bablu.

After they got lost, a rickshaw driver gave them a lift to the railway station.

The family had an emotional reunion in December when Bablu returned home after 13 years

There, the children boarded a train where they were spotted by a woman who worked with a children's charity.

When the train reached Meerut, a city nearly 250km (155 miles) from their home, she handed them over to the police who took them to a government orphanage.

"We told them we wanted to go home, we tried to tell them about our parents, but the police or the orphanage officials did not look for our family," says Bablu.

A year later, the siblings were separated too - Rakhi was moved to a shelter for girls run by an NGO near the Indian capital, Delhi. A couple of years later, Bablu was moved to another government orphanage in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state.

The siblings connect again

Whenever any important officials, charity workers or journalists visited the orphanage, Bablu would tell them about Rakhi in the hope that he would be reunited with her.

But it was only in 2017 that this paid off - one of the new shelter caretakers decided to help him when he told her that his sister had been sent to an orphanage for older girls somewhere near Delhi.

"She called every single orphanage in Noida and Greater Noida (suburbs of Delhi), asking them if they had anyone called Rakhi and after a lot of effort, she found her," says Bablu.

"I want to tell the government that it's really cruel to separate siblings. Brothers and sisters should be put up in centres next to each other. It's not fair to separate them," he adds.

A copy of the complaint Bablu and Rakhi's parents lodged with the police in 2010

Once the siblings reconnected, they would often talk on the phone. But whenever the conversation veered towards finding their family, Rakhi was doubtful. "Thirteen years is not a short time and I had little hope that we would be able to find mumma," she told me.

Bablu harboured no such doubts. "I was really happy to find Rakhi and I also felt confident that now I would be able to find our mother too," he said.

In one of the places he stayed in, Bablu said, the caretakers and older boys would often hit him. He says he tried twice to run away, but then got scared and returned.

Rakhi, on the other hand, says the NGO where she grew up took good care of her. I ask her if she thinks her life would have turned out differently if she had remained at home.

"I believe whatever happens is always for the good and maybe I had a better life away from home," she says.

"I didn't belong to them but they still looked after me very well. No-one ever hit me and I was treated well. I went to a good school, I had access to good healthcare and all other facilities that come with being close to a big city," she adds.

The activist who reunited the family

On 20 December, Agra-based child rights activist Naresh Paras received a call from Bablu who now lives and has a job in Bengaluru.

"You've reunited many families, can you please help me find mine?" Bablu asked him.

Mr Paras, who has been working with children since 2007, says this was not a simple case.

The siblings didn't remember their father's name and their government-issued Aadhaar cards had different names for him. They had no idea which state or district they'd come from and their orphanage record said they were from Bilaspur, a city in the central state of Chhattisgarh. Mr Paras's calls to orphanages and police in Bilaspur drew a blank.

Neetu Kumari burst into tears when Naresh Paras put her on a video call with Bablu

A breakthrough came when Bablu remembered seeing a dummy railway engine outside the station from where he had boarded the train.

"I knew it had to be Agra Cantonment station then," Mr Paras says.

Looking through city police records, he zeroed in on Jagdishpura police station where the siblings' father had lodged a complaint in June 2010.

But when he went looking for the family, he found that they had lived there on rent and had moved away.

Rakhi then told him that she remembered her mother's name was Neetu and she had a burn mark on her neck.

Mr Paras then went to the labour chowk - a place in Agra where daily-wage labourers gathered every morning in the hope of finding work. He didn't find Neetu, but some of the labourers there said they knew her and would pass on the message.

As soon as Neetu Kumari heard that her children had been found, she went to the police, who then contacted Mr Paras.

Reunited - after 13 years

When Mr Paras visited Neetu, she showed him photos of the children and a copy of the police complaint. When he connected her on video calls with Bablu and Rakhi, they all recognised each other.

Neetu Kumari told Mr Paras that she "regretted hitting Rakhi" and also about the efforts she had made to find her children.

Neetu Kumari with her children and activist Naresh Paras after the reunion

"I borrowed some money and travelled to Patna [capital of Bihar state] after hearing that my children were seen begging on the streets there. I visited temples, mosques, gurudwaras and churches to pray for their safe return," she told him.

At the emotional and tearful reunion with her son and daughter, she said she had got a new lease of life.

Rakhi said she felt like she was "in a movie" because she never expected to see her mother again. "I felt very happy," she added.

Bablu says his feelings were "mixed".

"It's incredible that Mr Paras took only a week to find my family. I was angry with the police and the NGO workers who did not help me despite repeated requests but I was very happy talking to my mother. She was weeping, saying 'why did you leave me?' I told her 'I would never have left you. I got lost'," he said.

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