Northern Ireland man who set up charity in memory of late wife tells of rescuing children from slavery in Nepal
Philip Holmes was devastated when his young wife took her own life, unable to live without children. The Kilrea man tells Mark Bain about the amazing impact the charity he set up in her memory has had - not least that youngsters are now no longer trafficked to circuses
It was a single line suicide note left by his wife in 1999 that set Philip Holmes on his crusade to rescuing more than 1,000 children in Nepal from imprisonment and slavery.
Originally from Kilrea, he admits his life today bears no resemblance to what he had imagined 20 years ago.
He was working as a dental officer in the Army and his wife was enjoying a successful legal career in her native Holland. From the outside it looked like the young couple had everything they wanted.
Then, on January 4, 1999, Esther Benjamins took her own life.
"She left a one-line note in which she wrote that life without children had become 'unbearable' for her," says Philip.
"Our otherwise happiest of marriages had been lived under the shadow of childlessness.
"I felt compelled to respond to that suicide note."
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Within days Philip had decided to resign from the Army after 17 years and resolved to set up a children's charity in Esther's memory.
"I had to get away and the Army link drew me to Nepal. I had never even been to Asia before. It was a real leap of faith for me," he says.
The decision made, he set off for Nepal and arrived in the country for the first time in November 1999.
"I had little real idea as to what issue my new charity might address," he admits.
"Like many foreigners who become involved in the region, I did have a vague idea about setting up an orphanage or children's home of some description.
"I was ready to invest £38,000 of my own money and I didn't want that to be lost like a drop in the ocean.
"Towards the end of that first visit, I stumbled upon a front page Press report in the Kathmandu Post in which it stated that scores of innocent children were being held in prisons alongside parents in the absence of any social provision or relatives who were willing to look after them. The number was significant, but not so large that it was beyond my means.
"I decided to set up a children's refuge that could provide temporary care for children pending the release of their parents.
"On December 4, 1999, just 11 months to the day after Esther's death, I freed the first seven children from jail in Kathmandu.
"I will never forget the sight of those children emerging through the prison gates. I burst into tears."
Philip's work soon reached a worldwide audience and under mounting pressure in November 2001 the Nepal government ruled that dependent children could no longer be imprisoned.
"It was at this point that, looking for a new cause, I became aware of the child trafficking to Indian circuses," Philip continues.
"In 2002 we commissioned the first undercover survey of the Indian circus industry. What that revealed to us was a catalogue of abuse and exploitation, with hundreds of children the victims of traffickers across the border.
"I decided that the only way to tackle something of this scale was to move with my wife Beverley (he remarried in 2002) to live in Nepal and provide the necessary leadership from in front.
"There I was blessed to meet up with a former Catholic sister from Kerala, south India, who like me had moved to live in a foreign country.
"Shailaja had recently left her order after being appointed to a teaching post in a private school; she told her superiors that she had joined the order to help poor people rather than the middle classes and found a job in a poor government-run school.
"She was no Mother Teresa! Shailaja was a formidable, westernised woman who rode around on a large motorbike and who was scared of no one. She was just the person to work alongside me as together we took up the fight against child trafficking."
Central to success was the need to mount child rescue operations on the circuses themselves, in conjunction with the Indian police.
Philip explains: "This was potentially highly dangerous as we would not only be confronting criminal elements but potentially facing the consequences of disrupting businesses in someone else's country.
"And the authorities could easily be complicit with the circuses who might have paid off the key decision makers in local government.
"Alongside the rescue work our field teams began tracking down the traffickers and, sometimes through citizens' arrests, bringing them to justice.
"A further element was the need to care for many of the rescued children to make sure that they were not re-trafficked by families that were blighted by grinding poverty and alcohol abuse.
"The use of my refuge was therefore extended from caring for prison children to taking in circus returnees."
From 2004 to 2011 Philip and Shailaja rescued approximately 700 Nepalese children from the circuses.
He adds: "These were children who had been trafficked, sold into modern-day slavery and a life of captivity and unrelenting misery. By early 2011 there were no more children in circuses.
"We were delighted at what we had achieved and Beverley and I, with our two adopted Nepalese children, returned to the UK in July 2012.
"At that point I decided to leave that first charity after 13 years in the driving seat and to allow it to evolve in its own direction.
"But after a short break Shailaja and I were back to work again and we set up a new charity, ChoraChori (the Nepali word for children) in January 2015."
Philip says they are now concentrating on the issue of child rape in Nepal, a problem that has quadrupled in scale in the last 10 years.
"We saw it was a reflection of Nepal transforming from being a Hindu kingdom into becoming a secular, liberal, republic," he explains.
"There was a major growth of internet pornography that is so accessible through smartphones and other devices.
"ChoraChori operates a children's refuge and rehabilitation centre (CRRC) in Kathmandu that provides temporary residential care, trauma support and psychosocial counselling for little girls who have experienced the most appalling attacks.
"One of the nine-year-olds at the CRRC is already grey-haired. Our CRRC also provides protection to ensure that their rapists cannot get to them and intimidate them into silence in the court cases that ChoraChori has become involved in.
"Like the traffickers before them, the rapists have been acting with impunity and I am determined to stop that."
Philip Holmes has just published his inspirational memoir Gates Of Bronze, telling his spiritual journey to Nepal. For information visit www.gatesofbronze.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Saved from traffickers, Sunita is now a lawyer
Of the hundreds of children now living better lives thanks to the work of Philip and his charities, one in particular has stood out over the past two decades.
Back in 2004, Sunita was a 10-year-old child performer inside a brutal Indian circus, doing her best to learn the tricks, stay out of trouble and avoid the vicious beatings that accompanied mistakes.
"She was one of hundreds of Nepalese children who had been trafficked, sold into modern-day slavery and a life of captivity and unrelenting misery," says Philip.
"There was absolutely no glamour in the circus. All kinds of abuse were endemic - physical, psychological and sexual - and there was no prospect of escape unless and until the circus owner decided that the girl had passed her prime. The circus was even worse than a prison.
"Sunita will never forget the day that she slipped on the tightrope during a training session.
"She was 20ft up and, unusually, wearing a safety harness so that she avoided serious injury.
"But as she dangled mid-air I watched as her trainer started thrashing her with a bamboo pole.
"Afterwards she told me that in the midst of that assault, she remembers thinking: 'How much worse can life get?'"
Little did she realise that rescue was on its way, thanks to the brave people who work for my charity in Nepal.
"I am proud to have built a team that shares my vision and commitment," says Philip. "The latest addition to that team has been Sunita. She has completed her education, funded through Law School by ChoraChori and passing her Bar Council exams last summer.
"She is now one of the two ChoraChori staff lawyers who are supporting rape victims and their families, ensuring that they receive the justice they deserve.
"If you can turn a trafficking survivor into a legal activist then you can be assured of results and this 25-year-old woman is such a bright prospect for the future.
"I know how proud Esther would be of Sunita who has gone into the profession that she loved and who still calls me 'Philip Daddy' and I'm so proud of what she has gone on to achieve in life."