I would have found out sooner if I hadn’t been out all day.
Turning down the alley I could see that something was up. People were out of their homes, disturbed, grouping. I started towards them but then they rushed to me instead.
“Four boys! They’ve been missing since 3pm yesterday! It is your kids – Saeed, Kaseem, Ishrar, Sadaab! No one knows where they are!”
My heart sunk when I heard, “3pm”. We’ve had several missing persons over the years but usually the big scary moments were after several hours. These boys had already been gone overnight and for the bulk of a day. What could have happened?
The family and neighbors feared they had been kidnapped.
I almost began to hyperventilate. Kidnapped! The family showed me the missing poster which police had helped them create. The neighbors were about to block traffic on the main road and asked if I would help. They wanted to stop all the cars and use the attention to pass out fliers and get energy directed towards finding the boys.
All of this happening at a rush intimidated me. I ducked out with the excuse that I had to talk to Peregrine first, put my bags in my room and took a breather, called her and told her what was going on. She expressed skepticism at the traffic-stopping plan. But if you were one of those poor families, you have no power and no one listens to you, how else could you get help?
In the back of my head was the thought that they possibly had not been kidnapped but had run away like our friend’s brother three years ago. But these boys were younger and didn’t strike me as the type. A greater fear was that they had drowned playing in the river. All four at once though? Maybe if one had started drowning and the others had tried to save him. Unlikely but possible. I went over to my classroom, told the teachers there would be no class today, told my eldest daughter what I knew so far – she had heard the news but hadn’t realized who it was. Then I got back out there.
The mood in the alleyways was uneven. The mothers were distraught, other neighbors looked worried, some only seemed curious. Several were primed for action and making stuff happen. But a few were making light of it. When I heard one man joke I got too upset, got in his face, when he responded that it would be okay and the kids would be found I said something I probably shouldn’t have. He was apologetic and began helping out, out of guilt or shame or because I had been convincing.
The crowd swept to the road.
As I followed I held a typhoon inside. Were they kidnapped!? I contemplated why boys would possibly be kidnapped, what horrible things I would do to the person responsible. On top of all the other trials this was just too much. I was angry that these things kept happening and had not been stopped by better people. I began to get despondent at the state of the world.
The disruption was more civil than I had feared. Stopping traffic is intimidating. Four or five people, mostly kids, edged out into the street. Some came back. Everyone else waited along the sides not wanting to make the first move. But then a teenage girl who knew the boys pushed out across and more followed. Cars stopped, honking began, people moved towards them with the posters and explained the situation. We officially had a disruption. All in all the drivers weren’t as upset as they could have been – looking at pictures of missing boys tempers one’s anger.
As I watched people talk to drivers, I realized it wasn’t the place for me to be. I took a poster and said I was going to do my best to get media involved. I went back to my room and sent it to every journalist I knew and any other interested person I could think of, with a plea to spread the word. Soon I got a positive response from one newsroom.
By the time I got back out to the road things were winding down. They had disrupted traffic for about an hour with the tacit permission of the police, and now it appeared the police wanted to limit it to that.
I couldn’t sit around. I was stuck on the fear they had drowned, and no one was really checking that possibility. So I went to the river, passed out a flier to the slum community there and explained what to look out for, spent an hour searching the banks, drains, tunnels, other places kids could get trapped. For the most part I was only searching for bodies.
On the way home I passed the slum where some of our other teachers were winding up and told them what had happened. They too had already heard the news but hadn’t realized who the kids were. Many people from that slum ran up to me, looked at the photos of the missing kids on my phone.
I got back to our slum and asked for more posters, but found out they had run out. An argument started over how many there were, the same teenage girl who had stopped traffic earlier insisted that both families had given her 100 rupees and she had made as many copies as she could with that. Poster distribution limited for the lack of a few rupees!
I offered to make copies myself but couldn’t find any good originals, and even the originals themselves had problems. Long story short I ended up making a new version of the poster from scratch, inserting better photos and fixing some of the details that the police had gotten wrong (the parents were illiterate and couldn’t check the details themselves). Progress was slow. I had a teammate proofread my work and then went out to make copies.
By now it was dark outside. I had missed dinner. The photocopy shops were already closed. I wandered back to the slum defeated. As I reached I saw people rushing towards the entrance to the police outpost. I went to see what was going on.
“The four! The four!”
It was the four boys, dirty but safe. I forced my way around, made sure I could see all four with my own eyes.
“They had been in Sylhet! They had taken the train!”
My heart. They were safe. It was okay.
I messaged everyone who I had contacted, letting them know the boys were safe. Then I went to bed.
Over the next day, talking to the boys themselves, I found that they had been playing at a train station when the eldest (a 12-year-old) climbed up into a train car and the others followed. The train began moving and they were too scared to jump off. Three hours and 120km later, they arrived in Sylhet. They slept the night in that train station, spent most of the day there before figuring out to board a returning train back to our city. They arrived on their own at 9pm, 30 hours after they had disappeared.
They are safe.
The boys are more subdued now than they were before they left. The next day I guilt-tripped them over how worried I was and how hard I had worked to search for them. Their families praised the new improved flier that was never used. For the four days since the boys have come to their reading classes after skipping for months. Maybe it’s a wake-up call? They still have a long long journey ahead.
But today, they are safe.
And yet there are the girls.
Four weeks ago a 20-year-old girl from Peregrine’s safehouse, a former inmate with our eldest daughter Shadia, told the safehouse director that she had met a boy who liked her. She and three other graduates of the safehouse were staying in a transitional home in the city and had met two boys while taking classes at the local job skills training center. She nervously told the director that she had told him he would have to speak to her “maa”, and so far he hadn’t pursued further. “Maa” waited to hear more, but when she didn’t, she suspected there was more that the girl hadn’t dared to say. The next morning that girl and one other snuck out, apparently not expecting to be gone long as they didn’t pack anything.
They have not been seen since.
Relationship-based trafficking is a common occurrence both here and in the West. The traffickers use charming young men to target vulnerable girls. They give the girls attention, woo them, and then trick them into running away or at least coming to a location where they are then grabbed and sold to traffickers.
We don’t know if that is what happened, but we fear the worse. These are girls that Peregrine has been counseling for over four years, girls she’s known as long as we’ve known Shadia. They had both already lived difficult lives, survived deeply traumatic experiences, and were well on their way to making a new life for themselves.
And now they are gone.
I was supposed to write about the slum today, but the disappearance of the boys and the continued missing girls weighed on my heart. Every time something like this happens I feel like we have failed them somehow. We should have prepared them better! We should have understood the possibilities.
In my mind I come up with elaborate violent scenarios of what I could do if I found the traffickers. I get so angry that this could happen, that there would even be a market for trafficking girls. I wish we had done more. But we’re so few here.
That is what I am thinking in the night.
(note – as usual all the names have been changed, and also the four boys pictured in the header are almost but not quite the exact same four who disappeared.)