Enslaved for Two Decades, Families Struggle to “Envision Freedom” On Day of Rescue

IJM helped rescue more than 30 men, women and children from a life of slavery.
IJM helped rescue more than 30 men, women and children from a life of slavery.

CHENNAI, INDIA – More than thirty people were set free last week from a life of slavery—for some it was the only life they had ever known.

IJM and its partner, the Association for Rural Development (ARD), had uncovered a woodcutting operation where slaves were working 19-hour days—and some had been there for 19 years. On October 30, IJM and ARD staff presented the shocking evidence of slavery to the district government. The government mobilized a team to conduct a rescue operation.

Preeti Daniel was one of the IJM staff members who went on the operation: "As we walked into a scene of trees surrounded by beautiful mountains and a stream flowing through it, it was hard to imagine that such cruelty even existed in such place."

"However, as soon as we entered the facility, we were hit with the cold, harsh realization that these people who had been enslaved for over 19 years, were trapped behind this illusion of a haven...it was a cage."

How Slavery Goes Unnoticed for 19 Years

As half a dozen police stood watch, the government officials explained to the families that they were there to learn more about the working conditions inside the woodcutting unit. IJM and ARD staff helped the families load safely into vans that would take them back to the government office. It was there that the stories started to come out—and a clear picture of how they had been trapped in slavery emerged.

"However, as soon as we entered the facility, we were hit with the cold, harsh realization that these people who had been enslaved for over 19 years, were trapped behind this illusion of a haven...it was a cage."

One boy, barely a teenager, said he had born there and started chopping trees and making lumber to repay a loan his father had taken from the owner years before. An old woman said the same—she had been working for 13 years straight to repay a loan her son-in-law had taken from the owner. It was clear from their stories that the owner was not giving out loans with a real intention of having them repaid—the loan was just the bait. This is a common tactic used by slave owners: offer a small loan and then make it impossible to repay by paying pitiful wages and inflating the "owed" amount with outrageous interest.

Despite the fact that the men, women and even some children did the physically exhausting and dangerous work of cutting trees to make lumber from sunup well into the night, those original "loans" never seemed to decrease. Nineteen-hour days turned into years. Children were born; the false debt was passed onto them. The families were trapped in a cycle of violence they simply could not break themselves.

Preeti explained that they were completely isolated in this brutal environment: "they were not even allowed to leave the facility and visit their families. They were too afraid to go to the police and speak out." Without help coming from the outside, there was no hope for freedom.

Creating Vision for a Future

At the district government office, the slaves started to open up about what life had been like inside the woodcutting unit. They shared how they were physically abused and beaten down with degrading words and slurs. Two men told how they had once tried to run away, but the owner had tracked them down and forced them back to work.

Well past sunset, the government officials were still hard at work. They called the families together to present release certificates to 28 men, women and children who had been working as slaves—these legal documents emancipate them and cancel the bogus loan they (or their parents) had taken out years ago.

As slaves in the woodcutting operation, their lives had been completely controlled by another. There were no choices to make in a day or chances to dream about a future. Even though they had been declared free, Preeti said "it was impossible for them to envision freedom."

Thirteen years a slave, one woman seemed confused by the sudden declaration of freedom. "She kept repeating that she couldn't leave until she had paid off her son-in-law's debt," Preeti recalled. She could not yet comprehend that the cycle of violence and oppression had truly been broken.

IJM will work with ARD to make sure the families receive counseling, resources and skills training they need to rebuild lives in freedom—and a new vision for their future.

Forced Labor Slavery, Rescue, South Asia