CHENNAI, INDIA – This month, members of the IJM Chennai team met with survivors who were rescued from bonded labour 16 years ago. It was a joy and inspiration to see them—but also particularly gratifying because of the harrowing events that had led to their freedom.
Sujina, Starlin, Seemon, Thenmozhi and Manikandan were among 94 people rescued from an abusive brick kiln near Bangalore in December 2005. During that rescue operation, the owner and his accomplices grew violent and began to cause a riot—undeterred by the presence of police officers. IJM staff realized the situation was getting out of hand and jumped into their cars to leave. But the owner and his accomplices surrounded IJM’s cars, hurled abuses, broke our cameras, pelted the cars with stones, and threatened to kill everyone by setting the cars on fire.
Reliving this moment is gut-wrenching for every IJM staff member, whether they were physically present at the scene or not. But meeting the survivors 16 years later and witnessing the transformation that rescue has brought to them is soul-stirring.
IJM staff member, who was present during the rescue operation and in this follow-up visit, shared, "I was overwhelmed and delighted to visit these families recently...It took me a while to process that the young men and women I saw that day were little children at the time of rescue.”
She added, “It took me back to the day of the rescue and to the hopeless situation they were in: When in bondage, the parents of these children (then aged between 1 and 12) couldn’t envision a good future for their children, but now living in freedom they were able to provide a better life through education. In 2005, at the brick kiln, it was heart-wrenching to see those little hands handling bricks while they should’ve been in school holding pencils. I am amazed to learn, that today one of them is on the threshold of completing a degree in Technology, another is doing a degree in Commerce, and some of the children are in high school. I am so grateful and humbled that I played a small part in their lives to be what they are today."
Here is a brief peek into the transformation experienced:
When Sujina’s family was rescued in 2005, her sons, Starlin and Seemon were both under the age of five. Today, the two boys have grown into outstanding and well-educated young adults. Seemon is pursuing a degree in Bachelor of Commerce. Starlin completed his Diploma in Mechanical Engineering and is pursuing a degree in Bachelor of Technology. Currently, he works in a cotton mill for daily wages to support his family. In addition to this, the brothers are also exceptional sportsmen. Seemon plays volleyball and cricket, and has bagged many awards and trophies at the village level for his batting skills. Starlin also plays cricket along with Seemon. The brothers brought home a trophy when they played against 18 villages in Chittoor district.
Left: Sujina stands with her daughter, Nisha, in her arms alongside her husband Bhaskar and sons Seemon and Starlin. This photo was taken one month after the family was rescued in 2005. Right: Seemon and Starlin proudly hold their cricket trophies today.
When Manikandan was rescued from the brick kiln, he was a timid young man working to support his ailing parents. Today, Manikandan is a leader in Jeevana Jwala, a local chapter of the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association in the state of Andhra Pradesh. He was elected for his resilience and commitment to the cause of bonded labour. He currently works as a salesperson in a retail shop and earns a steady salary of 7,000 rupees per month. He takes care of his aging parents and is a loving husband and a father of two children.
Manikandan says: “Everyone who is stuck in bonded labour must take the first step and have the courage to come forward. It feels impossible to believe in yourself in dire situations, but it is crucial if you want to bring about the change that you are seeking.”
Left: Manikandan on the day of rescue. Right: Manikandan in freedom, now leading a survivor network called Jeevana Jwala.
When Thenmozhi was rescued from the brick kiln, she was a 13-year-old girl who was uncertain of her future. Today, Thenmozhi is a brave leader in Jeevana Jwala and is also the proud owner of a fruit shop in her village.
Thenmozhi says: "The day IJM came to rescue us, the owner and his men grew violent. My family and I ran into a nearby forest. We ran as fast as we could. We jumped into a moving train and hid inside the train's restroom. We reached our native village around 2:00 am. Back then I did not know about my rights and freedom. But today as a leader I advocate for the rights and freedom of those who are hidden in darkness and go unnoticed by the rest of the world."
Left: Thenmozhi at 13 years old on the day of rescue. Right: Thenmozhi in freedom, now leading a survivor network called Jeevana Jwala.
Every Rescue Matters
A reflection on these moments of transformation from IJM staff member:
It is incredibly heart-warming to see how this rescue has impacted the survivors. Its effect has further trickled down to the next generation.
Sixteen years ago, in December 2005 when the team led the rescue operation, Starlin, Seemon and Thenmozhi were children stuck in a desperate situation. One act of bravery changed their lives forever. They did not have to inherit their parents’ debts. The vicious cycle of exploitation and violence came to an end. Today, they stand tall and strong in their communities as leaders and sportsmen and are living their lives to the fullest—in freedom.
When we look back at how IJM’s rescue operations have progressed over the years, every rescue—particularly from the early 2000s—was nothing short of a miracle. Most of the staff from IJM have encountered dangerous and life-threating situations. Yes, the situation at GRB brick kiln was extremely daunting. However, enduring such traumatic events becomes worthwhile when we see joyful survivors flourishing—in freedom.