A mother's wait, a daughter's hell

The events read like the script of a shocking horror movie, but young Air, born to illegal migrants, lived to tell the tale

A short time after her seven-year-old daughter was abducted from an orange grove her Karen mother _ who was working illegally in Thailand with her husband _ went to confront the couple she believed had snatched her child.

Dang was sure that her daughter, Air, had been taken by Rattanakorn Piyaworatham, 33, and her engineer husband Natee Taeng-orn, 35, and kept at their house 30km away in the Muang district of Kamphaeng Phet province.

Officials from the Kamphaeng Phet Child and Family Emergency Home who are caring for Air, now aged 12 and recovering from serious injuries, have compiled a 10-page report based on interviews with the girl and her mother to try to get a clearer picture of events.

Dang, 35, and her family had been working in a field owned by Ms Rattanakorn's, but left because of a dispute over pay.

Air said before she was taken she was playing in a field near her parents when Ms Rattanakorn waved to her to come to a pickup truck.

Dang and her husband searched in vain to find their daughter who was abducted in mid-2008. They went to confront Ms Rattanakorn at her dog grooming shop to enquire about the girl. Ms Rattanakorn denied any knowledge of the girl _ even though Air was being kept as a slave in her home and subjected to torture _ and said she would file a police complaint against the parents if they tried to enter her property.

NIGHTMARE OVER: A 12-year-old Karen girl who was kidnapped, enslaved and tortured by a Kamphaeng Phet couple meets surgeons at Ramathibodi Hospital.

Dang and her husband were discouraged but kept on asking about their daughter's whereabouts in the Karen community.

Kamphaeng Phet Deputy Governor, Watcharin Tongsakul, said this was the first case he had heard of in the province of the abduction and enslavement of the child of illegal migrant workers.

''The case is special because it involves illegal migrant workers who are afraid of legal action and shy away from public attention and open themselves to abuses,'' he said.

But Claudia Natali of the International Organisation for Migration said that such abuses were, unfortunately, not uncommon.

''We often hear of stories of kids disappearing, being sold or sent to Bangkok as beggars,'' Ms Natali said.

Undocumented migrants are a very vulnerable portion of the population, and seeking help from the authorities, even to locate a missing child, might result in further exploitation attempts.

''Lack of trust is at the basis of the unwillingness of migrants to seek support. They know they will not win most cases.''

Ms Natali said that the current regularisation process for many undocumented migrant workers is a positive step, as they will start ''existing'' on record and in principal can begin to enjoy a series of rights and protection from abuse.

''Another major challenge is misinformation,'' she said. ''Or lack of information, as to what their rights are and what the channels for seeking support are.''

Air told social workers she was kept a virtual prisoner in Ms Rattanakorn's home. She was provided with a small room and forced to take care of the couple's many cats and dogs in the home. On rare occasions Ms Rattanakorn took Air into town with her to shop, but this became less frequent as her injuries became more apparent.

If the girl earned the ire of the couple for not doing a job properly, she was kicked, slapped and beaten with a broom. For what they considered serious offences, the couple would lock the child in a dog cage and pour boiling water over her. On another occasion they cut her ear lobe off with a pair of scissors.

Air was never taken to a hospital for treatment, but a doctor was bought to Ms Rattanakorn's home to treat the child, the social worker's report said.

''I think the girl was their emotional relief object. They beat her when they were dissatisfied with her,'' said aide Duangamorn Ramduang who is caring for the child.

''I really wonder how people who love cats and dogs would do something like this to a human.''

Air's five-year nightmare ended on Jan 31 when she climbed a concrete fence of the house while chasing a cat and realised she was free.

An elderly neighbour saw the girl and called another neighbour, a teacher, to help. By about midnight Air was under the protection of Kamphaeng Phet's Child and Family Emergency Home.

After hearing from the Karen community that a girl had been rescued, Dang went to the shelter carrying a photograph of Air.

''Air immediately remembered her mother and cried,'' said Ms Duangamorn. ''Dang was still when she saw her daughter, her eyes filled with tears. She then walked to her, hugged her and asked how hurt she was.''

Air's parents immediately filed a complaint against the couple with police. Ms Rattanakorn and her husband were arrested on Feb 7 and charged on various counts including torture, detaining a person against their will, enslavement and kidnapping a child. The highest penalty the pair face is a life sentence in jail.

However, they were granted bail and are now on the run. Police have posted a 100,000 baht reward for information leading to her arrest.

Last Wednesday, Dang and Air arose early to make the five-hour journey from Khamphaeng Phet to Bangkok's Ramathibodi Hospital.

The emotional and physical road to rehabilitation for Air will be a difficult one, and there is also the issue of her parents' status as illegal workers to deal with.

Social workers have set down two conditions for Air to be reunited permanently with her family: The family must show that it is ready and capable of taking care of the girl and she has to have recovered from her injuries.

Dr Arthi Krueawit, a senior surgeon at Ramathibodi Hospital, said the scalds on her arms had affected her muscles to the point where Air can no longer move her left arm.

The girl's arm can be operated on, but it is unlikely she will regain full mobility. ''Improvement is possible, but perfection is impossible,'' he said.

Reminder: This fugitive couple is accused of enslaving and torturing the Karen girl. Police have offered a 100,000-baht reward to anyone who can provide information on them.

Related search: Karen girl, Air, torture, slave, Kampaeng Phet, reunited, mother, parents

About the author

Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang
Position: Reporter