Society: It was Monday, the first day of school after the mid term break. Gembo’s daughter, who lives with his elder daughter, went to school, rejuvenated and refreshed from the two-week break.
The day before, she came to her father with friends. She asked for Nu 20. That was the last time Gembo saw his daughter. It was 10 years ago in 2005. As if the ground swallowed her, she went missing from her school.
The youngest among four siblings, Gembo said everyone loved her. She was a Class XII student then at a private school in the capital.
“She just disappeared,” he said. His daughter had gone to the toilet during the break. The bell rung and all of them came back together to the class. His daughter didn’t.
“Her friends waited for about 10 minutes but she didn’t return,” he recalled. “When they didn’t find her anywhere in the campus, they informed us.”
Gembo said that he acted immediately. He reported the case to the police and by afternoon her photograph was sent to all the police stations. “I remember that the Thimphu- Phuentsholing highway was blocked for almost a week,” he said.
The family with the help of police searched all hotels in town besides consulting astrologers and conducting rituals. A search team was deployed until the Chukha dam with the help of police, Army, relatives, and friends. This continued for 20 days. As each day passed, they became more desperate and hopeless at the same time.
The family conducted funeral rituals, which continued for 49 days. They even observed the death anniversary for the next three years.
Gembo is still bewildered. “She was a good daughter and didn’t have any issues,” he said. “Even today, I feel she would turn up one fine day.”
While the numbers have changed, the way people go missing and are traced has remained the same in the last 10 years.
Early last month, Mamta Gurung, 22, a second year student of Gaedu College of Business Studies went missing. The last time her father spoke to her was around 11 am on July 7. She was on her way to Gedu where one of her uncle resides.
“She said she was about to reach Gedu and would call once she reached there,” the father, a forester in Punakha said. “She was supposed to stop in Gedu and travel to Phuentsholing for shopping.”
It is now almost a month since the family has not heard anything from her. Her mobile phone remains switched off. The family has reported the case to the police besides posting her pictures on the social and mainstream media.
“We haven’t heard anything from her,” the father said, desperately. “We will look for her in India now.”
Like Gembo, even Mamta’s father is clueless. Mamta is the eldest among the five siblings. “We had no problems,” he said.
While police refused to share data on the number of missing cases reported from March 2014 until this year, records Kuensel obtained from police last year show that from 64 cases in 2004, it increased to 183 in 2014.
The police, in their annual crime statistics for 2012 and 2013, stated that the percentage of people who go missing increased by 108 percent in 2013. More than 15 people were reported missing from January to March last year.
Police refused to comment reasoning that missing people were linked to human trafficking and therefore became “sensitive.” Kuensel couldn’t verify the number of missing in 2015.
When a person go missing and police informed, all the other police stations and checkpoints are notified. The police website also has details and photographs of missing people including children. Some of the cases date back to 2009. There are also cases where people have gone missing after embezzling funds.
While no proper study has been conducted so far, a report on human trafficking situation in Bhutan 2011 by the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) provides a review on the cases of missing people.
The report states that a review of missing persons was conducted by NCWC in 2007-2008 looking at police records for the three years. In 2007 and 2008, a total of 71 cases were reported across 17 police stations of which the report covered 23 police stations.
Of the 71 reported missing persons, 50 persons were found alive, five were found dead and the status of 16 are still unknown. Among the people who were found, most cited inability to inform their relatives followed by elopement as the main reasons.
“A majority of the missing persons were in the age group 11-30 years,” states the report. “None of the police stations had reported any case of human trafficking as the police did not record trafficking as a separate heading in its data.”
The report further states that from 2008 to 2010, a total of 67 people were reported as missing of which 30 were males and 37 females. Of these, 51 people were found and the reason for their going missing similar to the past years – inability to inform their relatives and elopement.
“However, whereabouts of nine males and seven females were still unknown,” the report states.
The report states that probability of some of these people being victims of trafficking cannot be ruled out especially as all of them were from the border districts. “It is also well known that many people who are initially reported as missing, do return but failing to inform the police that results in data not being updated.”
The report also highlighted that it is vital that the police record more detailed information about missing persons especially regarding the circumstances under which they go missing and also under which they are found.
“Such details would assist on clearly separating trafficking from other categories of persons missing and this would enable a better understanding of the presence and magnitude of trafficking,” it states.
By Kinga Dema