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Woman back in India 12 years after straying into Pakistan

Published 26/10/2015

Geeta, 23, smiles during a press conference in New Delhi, India (AP)
Geeta, 23, smiles during a press conference in New Delhi, India (AP)

A deaf and mute woman who crossed the Indian border into Pakistan 12 years ago as an 11-year-old girl has finally flown home to a warm and emotional welcome.

Wearing a red tunic, her head loosely covered with a matching scarf, the woman - who had been given the name Geeta - waved to scores of people who had gathered at the New Delhi airport to greet her.

She was carrying a big bouquet of flowers given to her by Indian officials.

More than a decade ago, Geeta was found by Pakistan border troops, alone and weeping, near the border. Accounts of how she arrived differ, with some saying she had accidentally crossed an unmarked section of the border and others saying she had been a passenger on a cross-border train.

Since she could not explain where she had come from, she was presumed to be Pakistani. The army handed the girl to a well-known Pakistani charity that ran a number of homes for orphans. The Edhi Foundation named her Geeta, but not knowing about her family, years passed without much effort to locate them.

Earlier in 2015, Indian and Pakistani officials realised that Geeta was Indian, though details about how they made that discovery have not been announced.

Her plight was highlighted by the media in India and Pakistan after the July release of a Bollywood film, Bajrangi Bhaijan. In the film, Salman Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest stars, overcomes all odds to reunite a mute girl with her family in Pakistan after she was separated from them during a trip to India.

The similarities between the film and Geeta's story helped accelerate action. In August, India declared that Geeta was an Indian citizen and efforts to trace her family were renewed.

Vikas Swarup, spokesman of the ministry of external affairs, said Indian officials narrowed the search to three families who claimed they were Geeta's kin. The ministry then sent photographs of them to Pakistan.

"About two weeks ago, Geeta identified her family after seeing some pictures provided to us by Indian diplomats," the charity's spokesman, Faisal Edhi, said. "She was very happy over it."

It was a rare friendly moment in the traditionally hostile relations between the South Asian neighbours.

In New Delhi, Geeta and the families will undergo DNA tests to ensure she is reunited with her own parents, said Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

The government has also identified two welfare homes for people with disabilities, and Geeta could be sent to one of them if the DNA tests are not conclusive, the minister added.

Janardhan Mahato, who has been identified by Geeta as her father, said he had no worries about undergoing a DNA test.

"I am not running anywhere. I will pass the DNA test," he was quoted as saying in the Times of India newspaper.

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