Nithari, a village on the outskirts of the Indian capital of New Delhi, is yet to recover from the shock of the child killings of last year.
Fear still stalks the young in the nearby village of Nithari. Some of them see themselves being chopped into pieces in their dreams, a recent study has found. It was on Dec.29 last year the remains of several children were recovered from a drain near the village.
A nearly two-year-long mystery over 38 missing children, mostly girls, was finally resolved on Friday when police recovered skeletal remains of at least four children from a working class neighbourhood on the edges of this booming suburban town, newspapers had reported at the time.
The case still drags on in the courts.
A team of psychologists meantime studied 38 children aged between nine and 12, and found that all of them feared that they too would become victims of serial killings: 97% felt "very frightened" in the presence of strangers, especially men, and 91% felt "extremely scared" suddenly for no reason, the study by Swanchetan, an NGO, found.
"Every night, I see a man chopping me up. But I can't tell anyone about this — because my parents will scold me and my friends will laugh at me," said a 10-year-old boy. Most of those interviewed for the study are children of Nithari's migrant workers.
All the children said they couldn't discuss the questions they had about the killings with adults. "They are growing up in extreme fear, with their sense of safety and trust totally gone," said Swanchetan director Rajat Mitra.
A Class VI girl said she had nightmares in which she saw her sister, one of the victims, calling out to her. "This world doesn't feel right anymore," she said. Like 76% of the children, she too, often breaks down; 68% of them said they found it hard to walk or breathe while crossing the dreaded house of Mondinder Singh Pandher, the alleged serial killer, on their way to school. And finally, the children, most of whom live in shanties, said they feel angry when they see people "living in bungalows".
It's difficult to get the children of Nithari to talk to you — since all strangers are to be distrusted. But once you win their trust, you realise that as far as they are concerned, investigations into the serial killings aren't necessary. Every other child here is a sleuth in his or her own right, fed by inaccurate information peddled by misinformed peers. The adults don't explain things to the children, so they have formed their own half-baked theories to make sense of what actually happened in D-5. "Those men used to spy on the children through a car with double mirrors. They could see the children — but the children couldn't see them. They also had a sound-proof house — so nobody heard the children scream," says Kamla, 9.
And since the adults are too shy to talk about child sex abuse, the children's favourite conspiracy theory is that the killings were a result of a huge organ-selling racket. "That man made so much money by selling children's livers that he could raise a palace in Noida," says Nandini, a class VI student.
But why — you ask them — were the children picked up? "Because children are god's form," says Rahul, 14. His brother Jatin, 12, counters him, "Children don't know what is right and what is wrong, so they are easy to attract with sweets and toys."
Jatin reasons that the children will be safe only when they become adults. "That's when they will learn to pick out the good people from the bad ones. Also, they will then be earning themselves and won't be tempted to take gifts from strangers."
The trauma of living in a place as infamous as Nithari threatens to precipitate into a serious complex for the children. "Nothing seems right here anymore," says Sonali, 9.
"When we go out of Nithari, no rickshawallah wants to bring us back," says Rohit, a class V student. "I went for a wedding in Rajasthan and everyone there said, 'You have come from the Khooni Kothi.' So now, if anyone asks where I live, I will simply say — I live in Noida. Not Nithari," says Sangeeta, 10. That, to her, does not amount to telling a lie — something she stopped doing a year ago. "I lied a lot earlier. Now I am scared that if I lie, someone will come and kill me and sell my body parts."
"It's not just our parents who stop us. We don't want to go far off ourselves anymore," says Vinod, 11. Till a year ago, he used to go to Sector 31 to pick some fruits from the parks. That's a strict no-no now. "I don't want to end up as a skeleton in a drain, with my kidneys sold off," he says gravely. Thirteen-year-old Karan has stopped going to his favourite chole ki dukaan, a stone's throw from D-5. "I hear children screaming when I cross the Khooni Kothi and feel breathless and giddy," he says.
Nithari's parents — many of them migrants eking out a living as cooks, dhobis, maids, gardeners and construction workers in the affluent Sector 31 — still won't talk to their children about the evils of child sex abuse, says the Hindustan Times in its special report on the tragedy that shook the nation.
Too unlettered to know that they live in a country where children are sexually abused more than anywhere else in the world, with one child under 16 being raped every 155th minute, they just know what they have learnt the brutal way: strangers cannot be trusted with their children. And that danger often lurks close to home.
They teach their children to fear an invisible predator who they are convinced is on the prowl for their child. "If the guru is in jail, ten of his chelas must still be around to pick up our children," says Kamla, a maid who goes to work only after locking up her three children.
Nithari's children aren't allowed to play anymore. If they do, it's almost always under their parents' worried eyes — close to home or school. If they manage to sneak out and go to their favourite parks, it is never with the same abandon as before. If they are a few minutes late from school, irate parents turn up in droves and accuse teachers of kidnapping them.
Such is the paranoia that even the traditional regional bonds have broken down. The Bengalis don't trust fellow Bengalis with their children anymore, the Biharis the Biharis, the Oriyas the Oriyas, the Nepalis the Nepalis, the Rajasthanis the Rajasthanis. "You don't know who the enemy is anymore. It's the people close to you who can hurt you the most," says Roshni, an Oriya mother, who works as a construction worker.
She doesn't need to read the Ministry of Women and Child Development report on child sex abuse to know that many child offenders are known to children and trusted by them. She has stopped her children from eating at the neighbour's place. "What if they drug the children?" she asks.
And in a country obsessed with fair girls, Nithari is perhaps the only village that doesn't want its girls to be fair. "It was only the fair ones who were picked up. Like my daughter Jyoti — who was as fair and beautiful as the children in the kothis. Now the other parents don't let their fair children out of sight," says Jhabbu Lal, a dhobi who ironed Moninder's clothes — before his daughter ended up in the latter's drain.
"We want to assure you that the Noida Police shall not leave any stone unturned in order to ensure justice, maintain law & order and control crime," reads the Noida Police's home page. "We are proud of the trust and confidence which people repose in us," it adds.
The claim rings hollow as you speak to Nithari's residents. "My hair stands on its end when I cross the house on my way to school. I feel even more scared because of the police there," says 11-year-old Sandip. The child is sure about what he doesn't want to become when he grows up. "I don't want to be a police officer. Otherwise, I will become like them — greedy," he says.
Sandip's mistrust is endorsed by a Ministry of Women and Child Development's committee that investigated the sexual abuse, rape and murder of Nithari's children. The committee observed that "police apathy and indifference to the reports of missing children made by parents/guardians was evident". As per the statistics provided by the then Noida SSP, 29 persons/children went missing in 2005 and 2006.
"He stated that about 70 per cent of the missing persons returned on their own, which is, however, not reflected as per the data provided by him," the report added.
About the police presence at Nithari, an official says requesting anonymity, "People of Nithari have become suspicious of affluent families. The rich-poor divide is strong." The police, he adds, are keeping their ear to the ground.
The committee's report also said, "As many of the victims' families came from poorer sections of society, there was a general perception among these families that the police did not care to listen to their problems." That perception hasn't changed. Living in fear still, Maya Devi, says, "I feel that if my daughter goes missing now, the police will still dismiss it by saying that she is my responsibility and she ran away," That's what the police had done a year ago, while the killer was at work.