The tenth Avalanche participants arrived in Ooty from Kolkata, Mumbai, and as far-flung as Assam. At a late lunch after they arrived, two girls from Assam separated themselves from the group of girls and hugged us. One was Reba and the other was a tiny, 15-year-old, Manju*.
We came back to the office and learned that Manju had run away. She was seen jumping on a bike heading into Ooty town. We knew it could happen and a minor running away during the camp was a possibility and the liabilities were a very real risk.
Our team scattered in several directions in search of Manju. Our fear was that she boarded one of the many buses bound for larger cities and that she was lost to us. We headed to the police station at 7 pm to officially file a missing person report. Just then the police called Jenitha, our head finance person. “We have the girl,” they said. "You had better come.”
What transpired next was told to me by Freedom Firm staff who witnessed Manju's behavior.
The biker had dropped her off on the road, and she had fallen down, lost consciousness, and had a seizure. A Muslim man picked her up and took her to a house where he called members of his Muslim Trust. Eight men quickly gathered and took her to the police station.
When Freedom Firm staff arrived they saw her praying and prophesying over the Muslim men. They were treating her with reverence and she went around hugging and kissing them. Manju began treating Freedom Firm staff like they were the enemy and asked the men to protect her. Fortunately, the appropriate documents were drawn up and she was released back to our custody.
When we finally had the chance to hear from her she said she had run away many times before. She talked about her past to our staff. She ran from her parents and ended up in a brothel. She also had a history of “fits”, and between running away and epilepsy, her family refused to take her back after rescue.
I sent the team off to the wilderness camp in fear and trembling. Unable to attend the camp due to torn ligaments in my ankle, I had to wait for nightly reports from staff calling in.
Day one: Manju is peaceful. We have taken lice out of her hair
Day two: We made sure she took a bath
Day three: She asked why we take care of her and we told her we love her.
Day four: All things quiet
The camp was over and the group headed back to Ooty for the final closing ceremony. When I asked for volunteers to share what they had learned at camp, Manju was eager to share. At camp, she had made many steps along the path to freedom. She needed mothering. She needed love. She found both of those at the camp.
*Name changed to protect identity