KOLKATA, INDIA – Earlier this month, IJM and police worked together on a complex operation to rescue three girls who were being sold for sex. The rescue team went to four different locations to find three different suspects—a remarkable demonstration of close coordination and effective collaboration.
But even more amazing was the courageous young woman named Sarika* who made the operation possible in the first place—just a few weeks earlier, Sarika was being sold for sex in a Kolkata brothel. After she was rescued, she told IJM she wanted to help rescue others.
When IJM first met Sarika in the brothel, the teenage girl was afraid. It's a common reaction for girls who have been trafficked; many have been threatened or beaten for trying to escape the brothel, or they've heard horror stories of girls who have. Sometimes the pimps and managers tell the girls that they will be the ones to get arrested if ever the police show up; they coach the girls to hide or lie and say they are older.
So on a Friday afternoon in September, a day marked by little but heavy rains and seasonal flooding, Sarika was not sure to trust the IJM staff and police officers who were inside the brothel looking for her. The IJM staff introduced themselves and told Sarika that she could trust the police—that they were there to rescue her and take her out of that place.
Over the next few hours, Sarika started to open up and share her story. One of the IJM staff members explained that Sarika's transformation on the night of the operation was exceptional: "You don't usually see a survivor open up this quickly. It takes time for them to work through the lies and fear and betrayal. But when I was talking to Sarika, it was like a light was bursting through all that darkness, making the truth known."
The Light Bulb Moment
Sarika said she left her impoverished, broken home when she was a young teen. She went to India's capital, Delhi, in search of work. Eventually, she was tricked by a job offer and instead trafficked to a brothel in one of Kolkata's massive red-light districts. She had been passed from brothel to brothel in Kolkata for about a month—she had only been in this particular brothel a few days.
After Sarika received medical care, IJM staff accompanied her to an aftercare home for sex trafficking survivors. Sarika told one IJM social worker that she felt safe there.
As IJM social workers do after each operation, they visited Sarika frequently in the following days. One IJM staff member says she remembers the moment when Sarika suddenly realized she had information that could set her friends free: "It was like a light bulb went off," the IJM staff member said, adding, "Sarika just looked at us and said, 'I have all the information we need to find [the traffickers]. Let's go!'"
From Rescued to Rescuer
The tenacity Sarika displayed in that "light bulb moment" did not flicker out. She was insistent on sharing specific information about the man who had trafficked her and brothel madams she had encountered along the way. The aftercare home allowed Sarika to meet with IJM staff and police officers so she could download her important memories.
Armed with the invaluable information Sarika remembered vividly—including phone numbers and physical addresses—the police and IJM worked together to plan a complex operation to arrest the suspects and rescue other girls like Sarika.
Less than three weeks after Sarika was rescued, she set out with the rescue team. From the safety of the car and covered with a burka, Sarika helped lead the IJM staff and police back to the red-light district. The relentless team went to four different locations. During the multi-hour operation, three suspects were arrested, and three more girls were rescued—all thanks to Sarika's information.
A Trafficking Ring Begins to Unravel
Sarika's information would lead to even more arrests: Police pursued two additional leads and took two more suspects into custody on October 3. IJM kept working with police to find the man who is believed to be the kingpin trafficker. After a failed operation at a busy train station, police and IJM found him at a tea stand on October 8. The man was arrested and is now in custody as he awaits formal charges. IJM will support the case against him and the other three suspected of trafficking crimes.
IJM social workers will provide trauma-focused counseling and develop long-term aftercare plans for Sarika—and the three girls rescued because of her—can achieve the future they're just daring to dream of.
IJM Kolkata Field Office Director Biju Mathew commended the police for the way they worked quickly and efficiently to execute operations based on Sarika's information. He said that an entire trafficking ring is starting to unravel and added: "Sarika's boldness and impressive memory is amazing. This story is an answer to prayers so many have prayed with us. The rescued becoming the rescuer—that only happens by God's grace."