It is like a miracle.

That was Bernadette Kerketa’s tearful reaction when her brother returned to their native village in Jangatoli village in Odisa’s Sundargarh district on November 13. It had been 23 years since he had departed, leaving his family wondering what had happened to him.

Birju Kullu had battled mental illness since childhood so his disappearance was a matter of concern. After some time, his family feared that he had died.

Unknown to them, Birju Kullu had spent two decades in a prison in Lahore. He had been caught by the Pakistani authorities after he mistakenly crossed the border and was sentenced as a spy. Because of his illness, he was unable to explain how he had got to the border region or what he was doing there.

On November 10, Sundargarh Superintendent of Police Sagarika Nath received a phone call from the Ministry of External Affairs telling her that Birju Kullu had been released from the Lahore jail. A video call was arranged between Kullu and his sister, who confirmed that he hailed from the district.

Kullu was one of four Indian prisoners who were released.

Birju Kullu is welcomed home.

He was released from Lahore Central Jail on October 26 and handed over to the Indian authorities at the Wagah border. He was admitted to a Covid hospital in Amritsar for treatment. Then a team of Sundargarh district administration officials went to Amritsar to bring him to his village.

When Kullu finally got home, hundreds of villagers turned out to welcome their long-lost neighbour with dances and songs in the Sadri language, accompanied by beat of traditional drums.

In the crowd were his cousin Manoj Kullu, niece Sushmita and a few elderly relatives.

Kullu is now 50 and his memories of his early life in his village have faded. So has his knowledge of Odia. However he is able to understand the tribal dialect Khadia. Because was in Pakistan for so long, he speaks Urdu fluently.

Officials take Birju Kullu's fingerprints, presumably to register him for Aadhaa

When spoke to him, everything was still a bit of a blur. “I am trying to recognise my relatives and friends,” he said.

But he emphasised that he was relieved to be home. “I am very happy that I am back to my native place and I will live here for the rest of my life,” he said. “This is a great moment for me.”

Kullu was unable to explain how he landed up in Pakistan but said that he had been kept in a cell with 20 other Indian prisoners.

In the decades that Kullu was in jail, his parents passed away. His only sister is married and lives in Kukuda village in Sundargarh district.

The block development officer of the Kutra block, Manas Ranjan Roy said that Kullu would be given all possible governmental assistance, including help under the housing scheme.

Said Kullu, “I always wanted to come back to my village and eventually my prayers were heard.”

Amjad Badshah is a journalist, editor and media educator in Odisha.