x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Hope not lost four years after tsunami

Boy's grandfather still searching in hope after his disappearance in confusion after 2004 tsunami.

Muhammad Thaha Thalha
Muhammad Thaha Thalha

KOLKATA // After finishing his noon prayer one day this month, Gul Muhammad Saith did what he has been doing every day for the past four years. He picked up a bundle of pamphlets, which contained information about his missing grandson, and began handing them out in the Indian tourist resort of Ooty. "This is the picture of my grandson who got lost after the tsunami in 2004. I shall remain grateful if you contact me in case you come across anyone resembling this child," Mr Saith told a group of tourists.

Before returning home for his afternoon prayer, Mr Saith met more visitors and made additional appeals for his lost grandson, Muhammad Thaha Thalha. This almost daily routine is haunted by a memory for Mr Saith: four years ago today, Thalha, then three years old, went missing in the aftermath of the tsunami that killed 225,000 people across Asia, including his youngest son, Gul Muhammad Safiullah, his daughter-in-law and one of his three grandsons.

Another grandson, Thanveer, floated to safety on a wooden plank when the giant waves hit and was found the next day by his father's brother, Gul Muhammad Umar Farouk, who also discovered the bodies of the other family members. At the time, Mr Farouk simply thought that Thalha had disappeared in the raging sea. But local police had found the boy in the family's car and sent him to a government hospital. Because Thalha could not tell them his home address, they could not register his contact details.

When Mr Farouk showed the police chief of Cuddalore, Paneer Selvam, Thalha's picture, he was directed to the hospital. "But we could not trace the child neither in the hospital nor anywhere around," Mr Farouq said. Today, Mr Selvam says he is certain Thalha was rescued and sent to the Cuddalore hospital. "I guess someone secretly took him, and the pretty child is growing amidst love and affection in somebody's house," Mr Selvam said.

"It was a mistake on the part of police that we could not hold the child in a safe custody until his family was traced. A disaster of that unexpected magnitude created chaos, and we could not keep track of many happenings around us." Some surmise that Thalha may have been sold. "Unscrupulous agencies in south India have been caught selling local children abroad in the name of adoption. Thalha may have been trafficked to other parts of India or abroad," said Muthu Pandian, a child rights activist in Chennai. "Every year as many as 200 children are trafficked away from south India." Last month in Australia two children trafficked from Chennai were rescued. Mr Farouk strongly believes Thalha could been trafficked out of the country. "I don't have a son and so I groomed my brother's sons as mine," he said. "Every day we are praying to Allah for Thalha's safe return. We are dead sure he is alive and we cannot rest until he comes back to us." "Police have stopped searching for him, yet we are a million per cent sure that Thalha will return to us, even after 10 or 15 years, if not today or tomorrow." Mr Farouk and Mr Saith are so sure that Thalha will return that they have purchased two properties that they say will be used by the boy when he returns, gets married and raises a family. Mr Farouk has advertised on TV and in newspapers, offering a reward of 500,000 rupees (Dh38.4m) for information leading to the recovery of Thalha. Mr Farouk, who runs a popular children's school, said bogus responses took him to some remote places in India. "Sometimes when stories of beggar children or trafficking of children are broadcast on the TV, we find it painful to watch and we turn it off immediately," said Nisha Mubarak, Mr Farouk's wife. "Allah is great. For Him returning Thalha to us is a very small move, what He will do after a certain time, as per His wish. He is testing our faith in Him. We have to wait, for now." For the past four years, Mr Saith has carried around a chocolate bar to give to his grandson. Every few days, he replaces the candy bar, giving the old one to a street child. "Every day he would ask for this chocolate. He is alive and Allah may send him to me any moment now. So I am keeping it [chocolate] ready for him," Mr Saith said. "The tsunami took the lives of my son, daughter-in-law and a grandson that day. They have gone to Allah, I am sure. I don't miss them that much anymore. But Thalha has not gone to Allah. He is lying trapped somewhere between our family and Allah. It is very painful." Anyone with information about Thalha is asked to contact Mr Farouk (gmu.farouk@yahoo.com, mobile +91-98431-41917) in India. aziz@thenational.com