Fear and Failure

Waiting for the police to commence the raid © Jatin Makkar

Waiting for the police to commence the raid © Jatin Makkar

Sometimes we learn more from failure than success. Standing outside a police station in Jaipur, Rajasthan, waiting to film a carefully planned raid and rescue of children trafficked from the poorest areas of India to make bangle bracelets for the tourist industry, I am reminded of being offered these just yesterday touring Jaipur’s Amber Fort.

Using enslaved children to make toys and clothes is a very profitable and nasty business. The owners of these sweatshops pay the children nothing, drawing from an unlimited workforce of poor kids – one billion of them worldwide.

Forced labor ranges from children trafficked into the sex trades, locked away making jewelry, working in mines, weaving carpets, harvesting crops – the list goes on. Often locked inside with too little food, tens of millions of children worldwide are vulnerable to this inhuman brand of torture and predation. My hosts in India, Kailash and Sumedha Satyarthi, were the first to identify child labor of this type for the crime it is, and they have spent their lives working to end it. For this work, Kailash received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and his movement, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, has liberated 86,000 children in high risk raids like the one we are preparing to pull off today.

In the neighborhood of the illegal bangle factory employing children© Jatin Makkar

In the neighborhood of the illegal bangle factory employing children© Jatin Makkar

So I am standing here this morning, a white American who doesn't speak a word of Hindi with a camera in my hand, sticking out like a sore thumb, with a committed Indian film crew at the ready. My hosts have explained that these children we hope to free are perfectly suited to their job, their small hands deftly skilled at applying the specks of metal to bangles. Today my worry is that when we approach with cameras, the crew or children could get hurt. This crime against humanity hidden in plain view is all about the money. The planning for this raid has been underway for months, based on tips and surveillance by local contacts and Bachpan staff in Jaipur. The timing has been a closely held secret.

We expect to find about fifty children at the location, a nondescript row house in an ordinary residential district. A judge and local government officials have given approval for the raid. Doctors are at the ready, with social workers and counselors and police for protection. It's complex.

Generally, parents of these children have given them up to traffickers because they are too poor to feed them in the family. But most traffickers don't fit the description of comic book bad guys. Usually, they are known to the families, may even be related to the parents. They will offer a small sum of money to take the child with them to the city for education and a small job on the side and money will be sent home monthly to the family. For a family living in abject poverty, an offer like this is too good to be true – and in fact it is.

Bal Ashram staffer Kalpesh Dobal and Len Morris waiting at the police station © Jatin Makkar

Bal Ashram staffer Kalpesh Dobal and Len Morris waiting at the police station © Jatin Makkar

So now, with the temperature approaching 110 degrees, I am waiting at the police station with the crew as the social workers, human trafficking team, government officials and chief of police meet and argue over how and when to proceed. I have fretted over this one morning's shoot for months, worrying that my age and white skin could possibly endanger the crew or the children. Kids are working in a five-story walk-up, top floor. The children have been trained to run on command, so we are expecting they will all head for the roof and the fear is that they will jump roof to roof and could fall to their death. Further complicating matters, this illegal slave shop is located in a small Muslim neighborhood in a predominantly Hindu city.

As we wait, a steady stream of immaculate uniformed officers file in and out of the station. I stew about safety and yet it continues to collide with my own ego. I want to film this raid myself. I have years behind me of doing stuff like this without stopping to think.  Now that I'm older and perhaps more reasonable, am I imagining myself leaping from building to building with my bad knee?

As the moment approaches, I realize my first responsibility is to the safety of the children and crew and the security of the raid. I decide to hang back. I will film but I won't be at the tip of the spear.

After two and a half hours of waiting, we learn the owners were tipped off and the children have been moved. Frustration is evident in the faces of my associates at Bachpan. Where did the leak occur?  Was it a member of the police, a government official? Has a bribe been paid?

But with the devoted Bachpan staff, it’s only a matter of time until another raid succeeds where we have failed today. My cameraman insists on seeing the location and a man on a motorbike, talking into his cell phone, menaces the crew. Violence is a current that runs through moments like these.

We return to Bal Ashram, the place where any children saved in raids like this are taken to recover their lives, return to school and perhaps family, and find love in the company of others who have walked this same path.  Over eight thousand children have passed through the gates of Bal Ashram. Today may seem a failure, but as I look around and see the smiling faces of rescued boys and girls, I know there will be another day.