It was a sleepless night for the D’Souza family in Kolkata’s Entally colony. At 1.30 am on Thursday, Denzil D’Souza received a call from the Indian Embassy in Kabul informing him that his daughter has “in all probability been abducted”. In the morning, he was rushed to the hospital for dialysis.
With 40-year-old Judith abducted from Kabul, her family — her ageing parents and older sister Agnes — are in shock. The stairs leading to their small, first-floor apartment have been invaded by mediapersons. A cross is nailed to the dark mahogany front door, inscribed with the words: “Peace to all who enter.”
“The last time we spoke to Judith was two days ago. She told us she was coming home on Wednesday, June 15. She asked me what I wanted from Kabul. She was coming home for a month-long holiday and we were looking forward to her visit,” says Judith’s mother Gloria.
Judith had been working in Kabul with the Aga Khan Foundation for the past year. “But this wasn’t her first time in Kabul. She had worked and lived there before and this was her second stint. She told us she liked living there. She told us there was never a security threat. Then, at 1.30 last night, we got a call from the Indian ambassador. The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called us today and said that she was doing whatever she could to bring her back. All we want is our daughter back,” says Gloria.
Judith’s work took her across the world, to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius and Nepal. Before becoming a gender specialist, she worked on child rights, climate change and several other social issues.
She held positions in the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Auroville Water Harvest, Muskaan and Gram Vikas in Odisha, where she lived for a number of years. She has authored several papers on water conservation and women’s empowerment.
“She told us she moved around with a lot of security. She was never really alone. Yesterday, we knew she was going to a friend’s place for dinner. But even then she was with a driver and security. We believe they have disappeared as well. Who would want to do this? We are very tired. My husband and I are in our 70s. Our elder daughter has a disability and lives with us,” says Gloria.
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The D’Souza family belongs to the strong Anglo-Indian community still living in Kolkata. Like most other such families in Entally, they are devout Christians and attend Fatima Church, which falls just down the road, every Sunday.
A mix of Christian upbringing and school education led Judith to choose social work as a full-time career. She attended Loreto Convent Sealdah in Kolkata at a time when the legendary Sister Cyrill, a Padma Shri award winning educationist, was running the school.
Now retired, Sister Cyrill lives in the compound of Loreto Entally, where Agnes teaches. “I am going to be 80 in July. I came to India in 1956 from Ireland and never left. I became the principal of Loreto Sealdah in 1979 and taught there for 35 years. Judith always kept in touch with me except for the last three years. She had been travelling extensively for her work and we lost touch,” says Sister Cyrill.
When she took over Loreto, Sister Cyrill started an education programme called ‘Reach Out’, under which girls from her school would travel to villages near Kolkata and teach underprivileged children “who did not have the opportunity to get an education”.
Judith was in Class V, and barely 10 years old, when she enrolled in the programme. “While the programme mandated that the girls go out and teach once a month, Judith would go out every week to teach the young ones. This was, of course, on a non-school day. She was not only a good student but also extremely competent and compassionate. It is no surprise that her desire to serve, which started in school, lasted this long,” says Sister Cyrill, who mentored Judith.
Judith went on to do a BA in English and Political Science and Sociology from St Xavier’s College in Kolkata and then a postgraduate degree from the College of Social Science, Mumbai University.
Judith’s classmate Payal Mukherjee, who studied with her at Loreto Sealdah from nursery to class XII, says “News of her kidnapping came as a shock to all of us… She was extremely gregarious and would compete in sports as well. I keep thinking that here I am, sitting in the safety of my home in Kolkata, and who knows what is happening to her. Is she being tortured?”
“Let me tell you something about Judith,” says Sister Cyrill. “She was always a really brave girl. If she has indeed been imprisoned, she’s not going to be an easy prisoner, I can guarantee that. She will fight, I assure you.”