KARACHI: When South Asia’s nuclear rivals celebrate 65 years of independence next week, a deaf and mute Indian woman stranded in Pakistan will be thinking of only one thing: how to get home to see her family.
Geeta, now 21, was found by police 13 years ago, sitting alone and disorientated on a train that had come across the border into Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore.
As no one claimed her, officers took Geeta to the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest and best-known charity, in whose care she has remained ever since.
Geeta, desperate to get back to India, has tried to run away several times but, defenceless and unable to explain where her family live, has failed.
However, activists are now making a renewed push in the hope that Indian and Pakistani authorities can intervene to find her parents.
“It is simple for her,” Bilqees Edhi told AFP at the tiny apartment where she cares personally for Geeta in the same building as an orphanage and a hospital.
“She thinks she’ll be in India as soon as she leaves us. She desperately wants to meet her family but she only knows she lives in India, nothing else.”
At first, Geeta lived in a shelter in Lahore as the charity tried to track down her family, but years went by without success.
After she tried to escape several times and quarrelled with staff, Bilqees, who always had an easy relationship with her, brought her to Karachi six months ago and welcomed her into her own home.
Short and thin with a pale complexion, Geeta has her own form of sign language and can write in Hindi: “India, seven brothers, three sisters”.
She adopts the Hindi custom of greeting elders by touching their feet and pressing her two palms together close to her heart in the gesture of Namaste.
Speaking through sign language, she said one day she became annoyed after being told off by her parents, left the house and kept walking for hours.
“Then,” she swings her hands back and forth in a loop, a sign for a moving train, “I boarded the train and slept.”
Geeta writes that her mother used to call her “Guddi”, which means doll in Urdu and Punjabi. Through sign language, she says her home is next to a river, set in fields with the house behind a hospital and a restaurant.
“You know, it could be any village or town. We have so many places like this,” sighs Bilqees in quiet frustration.
An official in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, when contacted by AFP, said he would inquire into the case, but was unable to comment for the moment.
Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, has offered to help by taking up the case with the High Commission, and calling on the Indian media to help find her family.
Geeta is not the first Indian child to stray into Pakistan. Other cases of children straying across the border have previously been resolved with them handed back to their home country.
One runaway teenager, who crossed over to Lahore then took the train to Karachi, was handed back in 2009 after police found him wandering around and he said he was from Kanpur city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, police official Afzal Khan said.
Three years ago, Bilqees says she managed to repatriate another Indian girl, who had also strayed across the border after a row with her parents.
“But, fortunately she could speak and tell us her whereabouts, which enabled us to arrange for her safe return.”
For now, Geeta watches Indian soap operas on a small TV, and observes the dawn to dusk fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, although she also prays at a small Hindu shrine in a corner of Bilqees’ veranda.
“She worships there and fasts as well with us,” explains Bilqees.
Geeta touches her lips and ears to indicate that her siblings can hear and speak. Then her smile tinges with sadness. She looks at the sky and moves her arm slowly upwards, mimicking a plane.
“She says she wants to go home as soon as possible,” interjects Ismat, a teenager who lives in the orphanage upstairs.