The 21st-Century Slave Trade

By Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times,
Originally Published: April 22, 2007

Every night, Meena was forced to have sex with 10 to 25 customers.

Anyone who thinks that the word “slavery” is hyperbole when used to describe human trafficking today should meet Meena Khatun. She not only endured the unbearable, but has also shown that a slave trader’s greed sometimes is no match for a mother’s love.

Human trafficking is the big emerging human rights issue for the 21st century, but it’s an awful term, a convoluted euphemism. As Meena’s story underscores, the real issue is slavery. Meena was kidnapped from her village in north India by a trafficker and eventually locked up in a 13-girl brothel in the town of Katihar. When she was perhaps 11 or 12 — she remembers only that it was well before she had begun to menstruate — the slaver locked her in a room with a white-haired customer who had bought her virginity. She cried and fought, so the mother and two sons who owned the brothel taught Meena a lesson.

Meena Khatum

Meena Khatum
Photographer: Unknown 1

“They beat me mercilessly, with a belt, sticks and iron rods,” Meena recalled. Still, Meena resisted customers, despite fresh beatings and threats to cut her in pieces. Finally, the brothel owners forced her to drink alcohol until she was drunk. When she passed out, they gave her to a customer.

When she woke up, Meena finally accepted her fate as a prostitute. “I thought, ‘Now I am ruined,’ ” she remembered, “so I gave in.” Meena thus joined the ranks of some 10 million children prostituted around the world — more are in India than in any other country. The brothels of India are the slave plantations of the 21st century.

Every night, Meena was forced to have sex with 10 to 25 customers. Meena’s owners also wanted to breed her, as is common in Indian brothels. One purpose is to have boys to be laborers and girls to be prostitutes, and a second is to have hostages to force the mother to cooperate.

So Meena soon became pregnant. The resulting baby girl, Naina, was taken from Meena after birth, as was a son, Vivek, who was born a year later. The two children were raised mostly apart from Meena. Meena alerted the police to her children’s captivity (the police were uninterested), so her owners decided to kill her.

At that, Meena fled to a town several hours away and eventually married a pharmacist who protected her. Every few months, Meena would go back to the brothel and beg for her children. She was never allowed inside, and the children were told that their mother had died. Still, Naina and Vivek regularly heard their mother’s shouts and pleas and occasionally caught glimpses of her. Other enslaved girls told them that she was indeed their mother.

When Naina turned about 12, the brothel owners prepared to sell her as well. At that Vivek, who was being forced to do the brothel’s laundry, protested vigorously. The owners beat Vivek, an extremely bright boy who was never allowed to go to school, but he continued to plead that his big sister not be sold. Finally, he escaped to search for his mother, in hopes that she could do something. Eventually, they found each other.

They received help from a terrific anti-trafficking organization called Apne Aap (, run by a former journalist named Ruchira Gupta. Ms. Gupta covered trafficking and was so horrified by what she found that she quit her job and devoted her life to fighting the brothel owners.

Ms. Gupta agitated for a police raid (apparently the first such raid on behalf of a trafficked mother ever in the state of Bihar) that rescued Naina last month. The girl, who is now about 13, is still recovering in a hospital from severe beatings and internal injuries.

The brothel is still operating, and the police have not arrested the main traffickers. But the brothel owners are threatening to kill Meena, her children and the Apne Aap staff, because they are potential witnesses in a criminal case against the traffickers. One Apne Aap staff member was stabbed a few days ago.

But whatever happens to Meena or Vivek, they are in the vanguard of a new global abolitionist movement. This is an issue crying out for world leaders — and community groups — to seize and run with. President Bush has pressed the issue more than his predecessors, but he could do much more. If a little boy like Vivek can stand up to modern slavers, why can’t world leaders do the same? (New York Times) 1

Uganda: Child Theft

261 cases of child theft
over a 12-month period

One baby was healthy and the other cold and lifeless, a sight that horrified Michael Mubangizi and his wife, a young Ugandan couple who soon felt one of their twin babies had been swapped at Uganda's main public hospital. They rejected the dead one, saying it wasn't theirs, and a DNA test later proved they were right.

Mubangizi said the likely prospect that he won't ever be united with his missing baby, born a year and a half ago and whose whereabouts are unknown, fills him with anguish. As a court is set to hear his civil case against Mulago Hospital, officials and some activists say parents in Uganda risk losing their children in scams orchestrated by doctors and nurses who are apparently selling the babies.

Some may be colluding with childless Ugandan couples while other babies are possibly being sold to foreigners. Last week a Czech man without proper adoption papers was arrested while trying to leave Uganda with a 3-month-old baby, according to Moses Binoga, a police detective and Uganda's top anti-human trafficking official... A police report released last year said there were 261 cases of child theft over a 12-month period, but that includes teenagers who are duped to go abroad for work but are forced into the sex trade. The police report did not break down the numbers. 2

“Heartless - Uganda to China”

“Heartless" is how Grace describes Faith Karongo Nasasira, the woman who has allegedly brought untold misery to dozens of unsuspecting Ugandan girls by trafficking them to China, Malaysia and now Turkey. The girls, who are usually below 22 years, only get to know that they have been trafficked to work as prostitutes after touching down in China, where this woman who goes by more than four identities receives them... The light-skinned, 42-year-old woman, alongside other suspects, have been on the police list of most-wanted criminals for a while, after numerous complaints were raised by Ugandan girls in Malaysia.

Grace's story

Sometime last year, as Grace hunted for a job in Kampala, she ran into an acquaintance, who said she would end [Grace’s] unemployment in an instant. “She floated the idea of working abroad [and] it sounded very good. She then made a call and, soon after, a man arrived. He looked me over before making a call. I overheard him say, ‘kano kajja kukola’’ (Luganda for ‘this little one will do’).”

Although this struck her as odd, Grace did not pay much attention to it. She would later regret. The man asked Grace for her passport in order to get her a Chinese visa. In the meantime, an agreement was reached that Grace would pay $7,500 for getting the job. She was to be a waitress at Karongo’s ‘African restaurant’ in China. With the travel issues sorted out, Grace was taken to a shrine in Kibuli for ‘cleansing and blessings’. It was here that she signed an agreement to repay the money in two months. The visit to a witchdoctor is mandatory lest, the girls are told, they run mad. Last July, Grace finally travelled to China, hopeful that this was the trip that would turn her fortunes around.

“I was given $1,000 as ‘show money’ and two numbers to call for directions to where I would stay,” she says. On arrival in Guangzhou, China, Grace called one of the numbers, which Karongo answered and told her to take a cab to Tong Tong hotel in the city. This is where her misery began. Grace was in the bathroom when Karongo walked in and demanded: “Kano akaakajja kaliwa? (‘Where is this little one that has just arrived?’)”

'You've come to be a prostitute'

It was then that she realised that something was not right. On coming out of the bathroom, Grace was presented with a set of skimpy outfits and high heels. “They all fit perfectly. Someone must have given her my true description. There was one outstanding dress — a purple one — that I can’t forget . . . Faith [Karongo] ordered me to dress up [in the new attire] and get to work. I asked her whether I was to work at night. She said I had come to be a prostitute. I collapsed.”

Grace regained consciousness moments later with the help of a Nigerian man. Raging with anger and disappointment, she hurled insults at Karongo who, she says, appeared unbothered — all she [Karongo] wanted was her cut of $100 per night as the pimp. In fact, Grace recalls, Karongo phoned one Haruna, complaining that he had sent her a rather stubborn character.

Something about her passport, which Karongo had already confiscated, was apparently unsettling: Grace had previously travelled. “I told you I don’t want girls that have previously travelled; they are stubborn!” Karongo complained to Haruna. Grace says she spent 10 miserable days in China, refusing to sell her body. All this time, the Nigerian man, who had apparently taken pity on Grace, gave her the money to pay Karongo.

'Exported to Malysia'

With her stubbornness proving a problem, Grace was bundled off to Malaysia, into the arms of Yahaya Lubowa Wamala and Juma Ssembatya, a notorious duo, together with their accomplice, Aisha Nantale, who are all wanted by the police for operating brothels and trafficking in humans.

“Those men are bad news,” says Grace. “They physically assaulted me for refusing to become a prostitute. Yahaya, in particular, was brutal. He nearly killed a girl one night because she had failed to get a customer. He has about 38 girls, all staying in one hotel.” With such wanton assault, Grace made a proposal: that she buys her freedom. “They were not interested. All they wanted was for me to sell my body and pay them $100 per day.”

A fortuitous moment presented itself when Grace was allowed to roam the streets. She immediately went to an internet café and searched for the address of Uganda’s consulate in Malaysia. When she found it, she took a cab there and registered her complaint. The consulate is another story, Grace says. She could not stay there because it was overcrowded by Ugandan girls running away from the likes of Karongo and her syndicate. She was advised to return to the hotel as the consulate arranged her travel back to Uganda. Fortunately, she recalls, she ran into a Ugandan pastor who boarded her for the next couple of days. With space easing up at the consulate, she was called back. She remained here for months until she finally regained her freedom in January this year.

Teenage victim

For a girl who has experienced so much suffering, Grace appears to harbour no bitterness. In fact, her anger has very little to do with her own plight, but more with that of some two girls, one of them aged just 16 years.

“That woman [Karongo] shattered the girl’s future, completely,” she says. The girl, who was 15 at the time, was impregnated by a Nigerian while in China. She was then transferred to Malaysia where authorities held her at airport for months. As a result of stress and depression, she suffered a miscarriage that nearly cost her life.

“That girl spent not less than two months at the airport in Malaysia, receiving the most basic treatment and feeding that was way below [what she required for] her state of health,” Grace says. Like her, the young girl, whose identity cannot be revealed, returned to Uganda with shattered dreams, a battered self-esteem and great worry about her health. The two, together with their colleagues, yesterday underlined their determination to see Karongo and her “I am glad Faith [Karongo] has been arrested. I remember telling her one time that she would not get away with this,” Grace said. “How can you let someone’s daughter go through that? Why doesn’t she take her own children? She is heartless; all those people are heartless.” 3



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