Mute Indian woman returns from Pakistan to find long-lost family

Geeta salutes the media before leaving for the airport from the EDHI Foundation in Karachi on Oct 26, 2015.
Geeta salutes the media before leaving for the airport from the EDHI Foundation in Karachi on Oct 26, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A mute and deaf Indian woman who strayed into Pakistan more than a decade ago finally returned to her home country on Monday (Oct 26) but soon said she could not recognise the family she thought was hers.

The young woman, known only as Geeta, smiled, waved and fought back tears after landing at New Delhi airport clutching bouquets of flowers and escorted by charity workers and officials.

She was hopeful of reuniting with people that she believed were her long-lost family after identifying them earlier this month in photographs delivered by Indian officials in Pakistan.

But in a tragic twist just hours after arriving in Delhi, Geeta told officials she did not know the Mahato family from India’s eastern state of Bihar.

“She recognised one family after we showed her their pictures. But after meeting the Mahato family today, she could not recognise them,” Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said at a press conference alongside Geeta.

Geeta’s story has been closely followed in both countries in recent months at a time of heightened tensions between the arch rivals.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced late Monday a donation of 10 million rupees ($215,748) to the Edhi Foundation shortly after he met Geeta, who smiled and hugged the Indian leader’s arm.  “Welcome Geeta. It is truly wonderful to have you back home. Was truly a delight to spend time with you today,” Modi posted on Twitter.

Geeta has remained upbeat despite the disappointment, with a sign language interpreter saying “She used to be sad in Pakistan but after coming here she is happy.” Swaraj said Geeta would be placed in an institution if DNA test results confirmed that the family was not hers and would keep searching for her real one.

“The family has submitted their blood samples and Geeta has also given her samples. We will have scientific proof before handing her to any family,” she said.

Geeta was 11 or 12 when she crossed one of the world’s most militarised borders from neighbouring India. She became stuck in Pakistan because she was unable to identify herself or say where she came from.

Now believed to be in her early 20s, Geeta remained under the care of Pakistan’s largest welfare organisation, the Edhi Foundation, living in a shelter in the port city of Karachi.

Even the name “Geeta” was given to her by Edhi staff.

- Lost and alone - 

In an interview with AFP this month, Geeta was confident the family from Bihar was hers and had kept their framed photograph in a steel case ever since seeing it.

“This is my father, and my younger brother,” Geeta told AFP in Karachi, using a combination of sign language and facial expressions as she pointed to the photograph.

Before meeting her on Monday, the family also voiced confidence, saying they were looking forward to reuniting with her.

“It’s been a long wait. We thank both the countries for their efforts to unite Geeta with the family,” Vinod Kumar Mahato, who says he is her brother, told AFP as he waited at Delhi airport garlands in hand, hoping to meet her.

But questions remained, with the Bihar family saying the daughter they lost was married and had a baby when she disappeared. It is believed Geeta was not yet a teenager when she was found in the eastern city of Lahore by Pakistani police.

After repeated false leads in the effort to find her family, Geeta’s story received a publicity boost in August after a Bollywood film with a similar plot became a smash hit.

“Bajrangi Bhaijaan", featuring Indian superstars Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor, told the story of a young Pakistani woman trapped in India.

The Indian government vowed to bring Geeta home, and authorities found many families who said she could be their daughter.

Geeta was found alone and disorientated with no identity papers, on a train that had crossed the border from India to Lahore.

She was believed to have strayed into Pakistani territory by mistake, but could not remember or explain exactly where she was from. Pakistani police handed her over to the Edhi Foundation.