CHENNAI, INDIA – Forty people were rescued from a life of slavery last week, thanks to a government official who responded to the evidence presented by IJM and its local partner, the Association for Rural Development (ARD).
IJM's Director of National Interventions, Anu George, said one woman came up to her and said through tears: "I thought I was going to die here, until you came and rescued us."
Anu added that she was struck by how desperate these people were for rescue—oftentimes, families are fearful of repercussions for speaking the truth or they have been trained by their owner on what to say should police ever show up. But these families were desperate to get out.
Trapped as Slaves in Deplorable Living Conditions
The slaves were forced to work 18 hours a day, cultivating saplings in the forest and cutting down trees for lumber. They slept in the same forest where they worked, and they said they were forbidden from building anything stronger than the shoddy huts made of logs and tarps.
Entire families received a little more than a dollar a day—far below India's minimum wage, and barely enough to cover the most basic food. They lived under constant fear of violence and shared how they were physically and verbally abused. One man said his mother had died in the forest; when she became ill, she was not only barred from going to the hospital, she was harassed and forced to keep working through her exhaustion. Another couple said they had run away after the owner beat them for taking a moment's rest, but they were found and dragged back to the forest.
None of the children were allowed to go to school. Instead, they roamed barefoot through the dangerous woods full of snakes and scorpions. The elderly woman who told Anu she thought she would die there described the deplorable living conditions through tears: "we had no water to drink, we had no privacy to even use the bathroom, no electricity."
Waiting for Rescue
On October 2, 2013, IJM arranged a meeting with district government officials. The next day, IJM and ARD accompanied the designated official to the forest. "They were just waiting to be rescued," Anu said, adding that "Anyone who would have seen their agony and desperation to get out of that place would have been so compelled to rescue them."
Most had been lured there about six years earlier with a small advance payment—a common tactic slave owners use to bait vulnerable people who will never be able to repay it despite endless work. IJM and ARD helped the government interview each family and document their stories.
At one point, the head government official asked the men and women if they wanted to return to the forest. They literally fell at his feet and begged to never go back. Thirty people received release certificates that day, cancelling the bogus debts the owner claimed they owed and emancipating them from his control.
IJM will continue to follow up with each family to assess their specific needs and make sure they are equipped to rebuild their lives in freedom.