Human trafficking: A terror run for her life

2017-07-23 06:04
Between 600 000 and 800 000 people are trafficked across international borders a year. Of these, 80% are female and more than 50% are children. Picture: Getty Images / iStock

Between 600 000 and 800 000 people are trafficked across international borders a year. Of these, 80% are female and more than 50% are children. Picture: Getty Images / iStock

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Nomsa* still cannot believe that the police did nothing after she told them she’d escaped from a gang of human traffickers.

After she escaped from the boot of a car – traumatised and petrified – the young South African woman immediately told the police about her ordeal and informed them about the other young girls who had also been kidnapped.

But the response from the authorities was cold. Indifferent.

Nomsa is haunted by the faces of those other drugged girls, and agonises over what has happened to them.

After she pretended to be unconscious, traffickers left her in an open boot while they carried away the two other teens who could no longer walk because they were incapacitated by the drugs they’d been injected with.

Despite the drug cocktail coursing through her veins, she jumped out of the car boot, ducked into a nearby forest and ran as fast and far from her traffickers as she could.

When Nomsa escaped, she was near the border of South Africa and another sub-Saharan country, which, to protect her identity, cannot be named.

“I ran for my life until I came to a river. I just wanted to throw myself in it, but then I saw an oncoming car,” she says.

Nomsa made a split-second decision to put her faith in the unknown motorist. She flagged the car down and the motorist took her to the nearest police station.

“I told the police about those girls, but they said that only the Hawks, Interpol and others would follow up on leads,” says Nomsa.

“They could have called security at the border gates – or Interpol – if they did not want to be the ones doing the chase ... The girls have not been found.”

In addition to the police’s disinterest, no trauma counselling or medical assistance was offered to her, she says.

She had to go to her private doctor so that he could draw her blood and test it to find out what sort of cocktail of drugs she’d been injected with.

Living in fear

Nomsa’s extraordinary ordeal began when she climbed into an ordinary taxi in one of our big cities – something that thousands of South Africans do every single day.

When she got inside, the driver pointed a gun at her and then took out a bullet to show her that it was real. He told her to act normally.

Behind her was another man.

After driving for almost 30 minutes, they stopped.

Another car arrived with four men inside it. The driver of the taxi got out to talk to them.

At that moment, she reached for her phone, which the driver had placed next to the gear lever.

The other man in the back jumped out, and dragged her off the passenger seat. During the struggle, she managed to put her phone into one of her boots.

When she was taken over to the boot of the other car, there were already two girls inside it.

They squashed her in with the others and, despite the lack of space, she managed to send text messages to her loved ones to tell them that she had been kidnapped.

Suddenly, the traffickers stopped the car and opened the boot. They grabbed her phone and then injected Nomsa and the other two girls with a drug that made them drowsy.

The kidnappers then made regular stops to inject them again.

“They were speaking in their language the entire time. When I woke up, it was soon after we were injected for the second time. One of them was speaking in English, telling the person on the other end of the phone how old we were and saying they would have to pass by the border before midnight.

“Then, after a long while, the car stopped again. There were two other cars that were in front of us and I realised that was going to be our separation point,” she says.

“It was so dark and cold. I played dead – like I was gone from the drugs. They came to take the other girls, but they could not walk. The kidnappers helped each other to move the girls from one car to the other. They must have thought that I was completely unconscious from the drugs, so no one stayed behind to watch me at the back of the car.”

Nomsa says she continues to live in fear for her life, and she gets calls from unknown numbers at different times during the day and night. The caller never says a word.

Nhlanhla Mokwena, the executive director at People Opposing Women Abuse, said this was probably because the traffickers were trying to find Nomsa.

“They are probably trying to locate her. This is a syndicate and is very dangerous. They know human trafficking is a huge offence.”

Challenges

Mokwena said it was disgraceful that the police Nomsa spoke to allowed her to leave the police station without being referred to a place of safety.

She said there were government initiatives operating in partnership with nongovernmental organisations that the police could have contacted or referred Nomsa to.

One of these is Thuthuzela Care Centre, where Nomsa’s blood could have been tested so that she didn’t have to go to her own doctor. Often, evidence collected by an attack survivor’s private doctor is inadmissable in court.

Mokwena said that a survivor’s case was often botched by police because officers regularly didn’t follow the correct procedures. Added to this, there were no repercussions if the police did not follow the correct steps when dealing with this kind of case.

“Sometimes police don’t know how to handle these cases. They end up further traumatising the victims,” Mokwena said.

Marcel van der Watt, a lecturer at the University of SA’s department of police practice and the case manager for the National Freedom Network, said that, since 2015, when the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act came into force, government had progressively responded to its international obligation to address the issue of human trafficking.

Van der Watt has worked with issues related to human trafficking for the past 15 years.

“I am encouraged to say that this year has seen a rejuvenation in South Africa’s 13-year counter-human trafficking journey since we ratified the Palermo Protocol in 2004.”

The Palermo Protocol is an agreement to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. It supplements the UN convention against transnational organised crime.

“Government should be commended for the manner in which it actively engages civil society and nongovernmental organisations in formulating South Africa’s counter-human trafficking strategy,” Van der Watt said.

However, he said that, at this stage, the successes pale in comparison to the work that still needs to be done.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is increasing the trust between the police and the communities that rely on them. Van der Watt said that every resource needed to be put to work to ensure that all South Africans felt compassion for each other so that the cause of social cohesion can be advanced.

“Accountability and responsibility is a double-edged sword, and requires communities and government to be co-creators of solutions to the change that is needed when responding to human trafficking,” he said.

South Africa, as a signatory of the Palermo Protocol, features in the Trafficking in Persons Report that was compiled by the US and published last month.

According to the report, our government did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, the report said it was making significant efforts to do so. The presidency and the department of social development had not responded to requests for comment by the time of going to print.

* Nomsa is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her identity.

- Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Line on 080 022 2777

- Follow the National Freedom Network on Twitter @NFN_SA

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