- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

UTHAGAMANDALAM, India — Every night before going to bed, 9-year-old Thanveer Muhammad takes a notebook and, with a red sketch pen, writes 100 times: “I love Thalha. God, please send my brother Thalha back to me. I cannot live without him.”

With similar regularity, all adult members of his family fast every Friday and offer special prayers for Thalha, who was rescued from Asia’s devastating tsunami two years ago today, only to go missing shortly afterward.

“I don’t have a son, and so I groomed my brother’s sons as mine. And Thalha was a very special child,” says a sobbing Farouq Muhammad, Thalha’s uncle.

“He used to sleep with me, he used to play with me and often he used to be with me on long car travels. We cannot accept that he is alive and he is not among us. We are sure he is alive, and we cannot rest until he comes back to us.”

On Dec. 26, 2004, Safiullah Muhammad took his wife and three sons to a beach in Cuddalore, 240 miles from their inland hill resort town of Uthagamandalam.

Mr. Muhammad’s wife was strolling on the beach with her two sons, Thanveer and Bilal, then age 1, while Mr. Muhammad stood by their car with three-year-old Thalha sleeping in his arms.

When Mr. Muhammad saw the giant wave, he put Thalha in the car and ran toward the sea to drag his wife and sons to safety. But before he could reach them, all four were knocked down by the sea.

The only one to survive was Thanveer, who stayed afloat by holding onto a wooden plank until he was rescued by fishermen.

Back on shore, police rescued Thalha from the car, which had been tossed about by the surging seawater, and sent him to a government hospital. But neither surviving boy was able to tell authorities where they lived or how the family could be contacted.

Mr. Muhammad’s brother Farouq came searching the next day, finding Thanveer as well as the bodies of the boy’s parents and brother. He showed a picture of Thalha to Paneer Selvam, at that time the Cuddalore police chief, and was told the boy had been taken to a hospital.

“But we could not trace the child, neither in the hospital nor anywhere around,” says Farouq Muhammad.

In two years of continuous searching since then, Farouq Muhammad has scoured almost all the coastal villages of Tamil Nadu as well as major cities and towns around the state. Private detective agencies have been hired to help, but to no avail.

Mr. Selvan, the former police chief, says there is no doubt in his mind that Thalha is the boy he rescued and sent to the Cuddalore hospital.

“I guess somehow in the melee he was taken away by someone from the hospital. I think someone secretly took him into his or her home and the pretty child is growing amidst love and affection,” he says.

“I admit that it was a mistake on the part of police that we could not hold the child in a safe custody until his family was traced. The disaster of that unexpected magnitude threw us in the middle of a chaos, and we could not keep track of many happenings around us.”

Some think the boy may have been taken by child traffickers or an adoption agency.

“There are many unscrupulous agencies who have been caught selling local children in the name of adoption and they have an international network,” says Muthu Pandian, a child activist in Madras. “There is a possibility that the child has been sold to a rich childless couple in India or even abroad.

“Every year, as many as 200 children are leaving south India in the same way. … If Thalha was trafficked out of India in that way, it is very difficult to trace him.”

Farouq Muhammad has advertised on TV and in newspapers, offering a reward of $11,000 for information leading to the recovery of Thalha. Some bogus responses have taken him to other parts of India and even to the Persian Gulf, a potential destination for trafficked children.

“We are 1 million percent sure that Thalha will return to us, even after 10 or 15 years, if not today or tomorrow. Allah will reward us for our faith in him,” Mr. Muhammad said in an interview on national TV last week.

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