At that moment, lonely and hungry, I knew that if I do not run now, I will be sold into the flesh trade or be married off to someone. It was now or never.”
Alone, robbed, threatened and without recourse to an Indian Embassy in Somaliland — an unrecognised de facto sovereign state that is internationally considered as an autonomous region of Somalia — Rashmi Shukla (name changed on request) was living a nightmare she couldn’t have foreseen.
|Rashmi and Kartik Shukla (names changed on request) at their
After all, in August 2011, she and her businessman husband Kartik, both from Ahmedabad, had gone to Somaliland with a plan to set up a hospital, for which they had got on board investors from the US, India and Dubai besides inviting doctors from Mumbai to work there. Besides healthcare, they were also looking at mining ventures, auto products and agriculture technology.
However, early this year, Kartik suffered a heart attack and when they found the medical facilities there to be inadequate — Kartik says he was admitted to the maternity ward in a Somaliland hospital after the heart attack — the couple came back to India for treatment.
After two months, Rashmi decided to go back to Somaliland to check on the project on July 15, which was when everything started unravelling. “Kartik has worked in almost 43 countries including Africa.
While we were in Saudi Arabia, we met a Canadian citizen who told us of business prospects in Somaliland were very good as it was virgin territory. On July 17, some locals and our contact came to the apartment where I was staying, forcibly took away my passport and threatened me,” she recounted.
What was even more of a shock was that several Indians present there joined hands with the locals. “We were backstabbed. They took away most of our belongings and got the electricity and water supply disconnected.
They demanded $80,000 to return my passport. I was all alone. There was no escape as we lived on the second floor with iron railings around us.
They had taken away my phone and money as well. I could not even cook. I survived only on biscuits that I had taken with me from India for three to four days.”
Rashmi finally managed to convince them to let her call her husband so that he could arrange for the money. “I even had to go to the neighbour’s to ask for food. I tried contacting government officials and other people we knew there, but no one came forward to help me. Even the United Nations could not help officially as the country is not recognised by it,” she said.
Meanwhile, her husband contacted Julie Desai, advisor to the international women’s wing of the Vishwa Gujarati Samaj. Desai started contacting officials to help Rashmi get out of the country.
“One night, the new watchman of the building knocked on my door, asking for money. He was instructed to take money from me by these people. I asked him to go away, but I got really scared at that moment as my security was also under threat.
I was threatened that now that my husband was not keeping well and may not live long, they would sell me off as a prostitute or marry me off. I could not sleep all night and kept praying,” Rashmi said.
It was a now or never moment, as she realised that if she did not flee now, her husband might also be forced to come there and be stuck there forever. She managed to get away the next morning by offering two women $200 to take her with them to Ethiopia, where there is an Indian Embassy in Addis Ababa.
However, her escape was short-lived. Ethiopian border officials refused to let her enter the country as she did not have a valid passport or visa. “I told them about my ordeal but they did not permit me. I was dropped back inside Somaliland. I knew that if I went back to the house, I would be in big trouble. There was only one way to go. I had to somehow reach Ethiopia.”
Around 8.30 pm, all alone on the deserted roads of Somaliland, Rashmi spotted a young boy. “He was my only hope. I had to trust him. I offered him $50 and begged him to just help me cross the Ethiopian border. Luckily, he agreed. Walking through mud and muck for almost an hour in pitch darkness, I managed to cross over into Ethiopia.”
It was still not over for Rashmi as it was late at night and she did not know anybody there. She says, “I managed to get onto a bus. After hearing my story, the bus driver agreed to let me make one call to Kartik to let him know of my whereabouts.
The bus driver also warned me that the officials always check buses for illegal immigrants. So, he offered to take me to a hotel where I could stay. Again, I had no option but to trust him.”
At the hotel, the bus driver warned her not to open the door for anybody. “That night, there were men outside my room and the only words I could understand were ‘Hindi’ (referring to Indians) and ‘passport’. I didn’t sleep a wink, praying that no one informs the Ethiopian officials and gets me jailed. Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened.”
After travelling almost 600 km, she finally reached the capital, Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, Kartik started getting threat calls from a Delhi number asking him to deposit Rs 2.5 lakh in a bank account. “They warned me that they’d trace Rashmi’s whereabouts,” said Kartik.
“Once at the embassy, there were questions over how I had entered Ethiopia without legal documents. Only after the intervention of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Indian Embassy and the Vishwa Gujarati Samaj did I get the exit visa. During the two days it took, I would stay in the Embassy through the working day, and then stay put in my hotel room to be on the safe side,” Rashmi added.
Finally, on August 11, four days before Independence Day, her ordeal ended. “This Independence Day, I knew what it was to be free,” she said.
The couple has not yet decided on what they plan to do next. “When I look back, I wonder, how I managed to do all this? There was surely some spiritual power guiding me all through. A word of caution to all those who get lured to this country — it‘s not a recognised country and is lawless. If you are stuck there, it could be forever.”
Despite having lost everything that they had ever earned, the Shuklas are thankful for coming out of it alive. Julie Desai said, “We got immense help from the Ministry of External Affairs. There may be many such cases happening but not all talk about it.”