The Mystery Of India’s Vanishing Children

In India, 45% of child disappearance cases remain unresolved.
In India, 45% of child disappearance cases remain unresolved.
Vanessa Dougnac

MUMBAI â€" Night has fallen on Mumbai, and a monsoon fog fills the air as an aging man looks over the vast Indian metropolis from his balcony. Rajendra Dhondu Bhosale retired earlier this year as deputy inspector at a local police precinct, but still lives in dilapidated government housing with walls dampened by the constant humidity.

Humble and discreet, Bhosale only decided to speak to Le Temps to discuss one case: number 46/13.

Mention of the case causes the expression on his face to immediately darken. This is a story he knows too well, every detail, starting with the photograph that was taken of Pooja Gaud, 7, on the day of her disappearance, Jan. 22, 2013, just before she headed off to school.

Of the 166 cases inspector Bhosale dealt with during his three years as head of the office of missing persons in Mumbai's Andheri district, Pooja’s is the only one he was never able to solve.

“I tried everything,” he says. “I contacted my local network of informants. I questioned her friends and family. I visited the centers for abandoned children. And I checked the unidentified bodies at the morgue.”

A house of horrors

Sadly, Pooja’s story is just a drop in what has become a sea of child disappearances in India. Between 50,000 and 100,000 children are taken every year, according to incomplete statistics. Even the country’s supreme court has warned the government to tackle the growing issue, stating two years ago that “no one seems to be worried.”

The situation hasn’t improved since, and 45% of cases are still unresolved. The state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, has the highest number of disappearances in the country and Mumbai has the highest in the state. Like Pooja, 679 children are still missing out of the 4,954 who disappeared between 2011 and 2013.

The authorities are slowly attempting to alleviate the crisis, and recently launched a website named “Khoya-Paya" (lost and found), where citizens can report cases of missing children and sightings. The Mumbai police established missing children teams in each of the city’s police stations, and has promised to register every single disappearance report. This was a key demand of local child protection groups who denounced the police’s lackluster response, especially for poorer citizens who don’t have the means to pressure the police to keep an investigation open.

In 2007 the government discovered a “house of horrors” in Nithari, on the outskirts of New Delhi, where a man and his domestic servant had buried the remains of 16 missing children.

“Disappearances are a very serious issue,” says Dhanaji Nalawade, chief detective at the Dadabhai Naoroji Nagar police station in Andheri, Mumbai, where Pooja’s disappearance was first reported. “We have redoubled our efforts, for example in the registration of the identities of child beggars and street children.”

"We never saw her again"

Not far from the station in the Gilbert Hill slum, where Pooja’s family lives, a poster on the wall seeking the girl's whereabouts lies tattered under the rain. Neighbors helped pay for the posters because the meager earnings Pooja's father earns as a grilled peanut vendor couldn’t cover the full cost.

The father's name is Santosh Mahadev Gaud, and he still receives visits by ex-inspector Bhosale, who often stops by to share a cup of tea. He still keeps his daughter’s belongings in a bag, and he cannot hide his tears as he retells the events of the day she vanished.

“Pooja was last seen in front of her school on Cama Road, in Andheri. On the way there she had argued with her brother Rohit, because their grandfather had given them 10 rupees ($0.16) and she wanted her part,” he recalls. “Rohit promised to give her the money later and then went to class, leaving his sister angry at the school entrance. We never saw her again.”

Smita Nair, a journalist for the Indian Express who focuses on murder cases, was intrigued by Pooja’s story and the inspector's determination to find her.

“Bhosale accepted my request to publish his account in my newspaper on the day he retired, since he thought that would be the last chance to find Pooja,” says Nair. “He explored all the leads he could, but he was limited in his research into the prostitution trade because it is a very powerful and secret world.”

Clinging to hope

The police says that kidnapped children are often forced into prostitution, begging and forced labor. Ransoms are rarely ever demanded. Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who campaigns for children’s rights, believes that child traffickers are a step ahead of the police. His analyses show that demand for kidnapped girls has grown. Indian media reports estimate that there are around 815 trafficking gangs in the country with a total of 5,000 members.

“The majority of disappearances are cases where the child ran away,” says Bhosale. NGOs that work with street children often find runaways wandering around train stations, where they fled after escaping domestic violence at the hands of their families.

Inspector Arun Karat, Bhosale’s replacement at the station, concurs. “I see many cases where family disputes push children to leave their homes,” he says. “Teenagers also often run away with their girlfriend or boyfriend."

In Andheri, Pooja’s story is a symbol of the suffering caused by the rampant disappearances. Her case is still open, and Smita Nair calls the police station every month for updates on the investigation. Bhosale still keeps a photo of the missing girl in his wallet. “There have been cases of children who disappeared in 2008 and were found in 2014,” he says.

Pooja’s father also holds hope for his daughter’s safety. “Maybe someone, somewhere, is taking care of her,” he says.

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The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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