ChoraChori field staff Shailaja CM and Reeti Sharma have just returned from a field trip to Achham District in west Nepal to reunite Prakash with his family in time for the festival of Tihar. Here is Reeti’s moving account of their trip:
“Potti!! Potti”, echoed through the mountains as we moved upward. The tranquil rural beauty of far western Achham District appears picture perfect. Kailash River makes its way through the rocky mountainous terrain which is dotted by the mud and stone houses. Women carrying heaps of grass on their backs walk the mountain side narrow pathway towards Khalbazar. Khalbazar is a small village market centred to numerous nearby hill-top villages. Every morning, locals around the villages walk for hours carrying food, crops, grass to Khalbazar.
That morning, when we reached Khalbazar, we could see women and children coming downhill towards us. But our destination was three and half hours away from the market, towards the rural village resided by the Sauds, the Chhetri community of Nepal.
“It’s all so different now. I am nervous and excited at the same time”, says Potti as he listens to children calling his name from the top. “I used to run around these hills as a kid, now my leg hurts as I climb up”, he explains as he sits down to take rest after an hour of walk.
It was nine years ago that Potti left his village. “My father used to work in India and had come for vacation. He told me either to study or to work and bring home some money. I didn’t want to do to both. So I stole his money that he had earned in India and ran to the District headquarters.”
After going to the Distict headquarters, Mangalsen, which is half a day walk form his village, Potti started fishing and earned some money by selling the fish to the nearby market. He also worked in hotel where he washed the dishes. There he learned to make local alcohol for sale. He ate the fish and drank the local alcohol that he made to save money and go out of the village. Finally when he had enough money to take a bus to Dhangadi, a city in Far-west Nepal, he packed his bags and started his journey.
“When I reached Dhangadi, I was amused by the city life. I was excited to see many vehicles, big houses, shops and busy lifestyles; so excited that I spent all my money in two days, eating in hotels, drinking expensive alcohol and smoking cigarettes. When I finished all the money, I had to look for new work. I worked as a waiter in a hotel for two years in Dhangadi, washing dishes, serving food and sometimes I even had to cook. They gave me good food and a nice place to stay. Everything was going smooth and I started enjoying my life. I loved the freedom of staying alone.”
His happiness soon ended when the hotel he was working in got closed and he became jobless. Potti was homeless and started wandering around the bus station for almost a year expecting people to give him some money and food. He made friends in the bus station and started to work as a bus conductor with them. He liked the job as he could travel around the cities, sleep in the bus and eat good food in the layovers. He also saved money and gave up alcohol and cigarettes. “I think I was spending too much on alcohol and cigarettes and that was a waste. I would rather prefer nice meal, clothes and comfortable place to sleep rather than those things.”
“While working in the bus, there were several times when I had to commute to my village. I never wanted to visit my parents. It’s not that I never missed them but I never felt the need to meet them. I was so close yet too far from home.”
One day, he heard people talking about Delhi and how they get good jobs and earn lots of money there. He was lured by his friends for a better and a lavish lifestyle that people live in India. Moreover, he had seen his family members eke out a living in India and return home with money. Without thinking much, he packed his bags and started his journey to India with his friends with lots of hopes. “All my expectations were shattered when I was caught by the volunteers of Childline in Delhi Railway Station just after we got down from the train for not carrying a valid identity card. I didn’t know that we were not allowed to work until the age of 16. I started working when I was 9.”
Potti then started living in a shelter home in Delhi. He lived with many other lost boys from India and Nepal. Initially he didn’t like living there and felt it was no less than a prison. But slowly he started blending in and made lots of friends. He started learning carpentry and games like cricket and volleyball. While his friends he was caught with decided to run away, Potti realised the importance of education and requested the organisation to send him to school.
“It was a life changing experience for me. Everything was clear by then. I knew I wanted to study and go to school. At that time, I didn’t even know how to write my name properly but I learnt and worked hard. I also changed my name to Prakash after coming to India. Potti was a name that I left behind in my village.” he smiled as we could still hear “Potti” echoing through the mountains.
It was afternoon and after three hours of walk uphill, we almost reached Bhattakatiya Village. The children had come mid-way to welcome us. Prakash recognised some children and started introducing us to them. He met his old friends on the way and shared some stories of his childhood with them. We could clearly see nostalgic emotions on his face as he laughed and explained to us how he fell off a cliff while chasing a rabbit to kill and didn’t even get a scratch.
“That is my home there.” Prakash points as we reached the top of the hill. “It has become old now. I can’t believe I am coming home after so many years. I am sure I will get scolding from my parents but I know that they will be happy to see me.”
We took the last turn and reached the top of the hill. It was a hill top settlement overlooking the beautiful landscape of small villages on the opposite hills. Among the houses, there stood Prakash’s two storeyed careworn mud and stone house. Two cows on the ground floor stared at us aghast as the crowd guided us to the first floor where we saw a lean woman glancing towards us from the door. There were three children with her whom Prakash introduced to us as his siblings. As soon as we approached towards her, she ran inside the house out of embarrassment. She was Prakash’s mother. The children called for her and she came teary eyed filled with happiness and surprise. Prakash finally met his mother after 9 years. He touched her feet for blessings as she stood stoic figuring out what was going on.
“We tried to look for him in many places, waited for him to return and after all these years we had lost hope thinking he is no longer living. His father also brought a dog to our home after Potti disappeared on his remembrance. Now my happiness knows no bounds to see him grow up, healthy and safe,” explained his mother
Prakash described his story to his mother and concluded pointed at us, “They brought me from India and kept me safe and happy in their shelter home.”
Prakash is one of the boys residing in our Kathmandu Refuge Centre in Godawari. He was rescued by Abha and Shailaja from Delhi on 18th March 2016. He studies in 9th Grade and is one of the most hardworking boys. He wants to celebrate the Tihar festival in village and come back to complete his studies. He wants enrol in army in future.
“This was the most difficult reunification I have ever done, emotionally as well as physically,” explains Shailaja, Co –Director of Chora Chori Nepal. “His mother’s face after she saw Prakash was priceless and that is what keeps us moving despite of hurdles on our way.”