A missing girl has been reunited with her family, nine years after she was kidnapped outside her school in Mumbai.
Pooja, 16, disappeared on 22 January 2013 when she was just seven years old. According to the teenager, she was lured into a couple’s car with promises of ice cream before being snatched.
Pooja was finally found on 4 August after she was able to get her hands on her abductor’s phone while they slept.
Pooja’s escape has been described as ‘miraculous’, with the teenager’s mother Poonam Gaud telling the BBC: “I had given up hope of ever finding my daughter. But the gods have been kind to me.”
Pooja’s alleged kidnappers have been identified as Harry D’Souza and his wife, Soni D’Souza, who are thought to have snatched Pooja off the streets because they were unable to have a child of their own.
Before being taken from her family, Pooja lived with her parents and two brothers in a suburban slum.
One morning, Pooja and her brother left for school, but got into a fight along the way. Pooja’s brother left her behind and entered the school as he was running late. It was then that the D’Souzas allegedly approached Pooja.
According to Pooja, she was first taken to Goa and then on to Karnataka, and the couple would threaten to hurt her if she cried out for help.
Eventually, the couple had a child of their own, and moved back to Mumbai with Pooja, who said the abuse worsened once the baby arrived.
She shared: “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.”
Despite the D’Souzas’ Mumbai home being close to Pooja’s family’s, she had no means of escape.
Not only was Pooja watched at all times, but she had no phone or money, so was unable to reach out for help.
Eventually, Pooja gained access to the couple’s mobile phone and discovered videos and posters of herself as a missing child on YouTube.
“That’s when I decided to seek help and escape,” explained Pooja.
Pooja spent the next seven months trying to pluck up the courage to take action, and eventually discussed her situation with 35-year-old Pramila Devendra, a domestic helper who worked at a house where Pooja babysat.
Devendra agreed to help Pooja, first setting up a video chat between her and her mum and eventually reuniting them.