My partner and I just arrived at the target location. Nothing looks out of the ordinary. A red neon sign is glowing near the door of the bar we’re approaching. The streets are full of bright flashing lights, people dressed to the nines, and noise that adds to the visual clutter.
It smells like a combination of sewage and spicy, fried meat. The odor is intensified by the warm, humid air. Maybe I’m hypersensitive because of the knots in my stomach, but the mere thought of eating anything right now instantly makes my stomach turn.
Pressures of the Night
Saying tonight’s mission is an important one is an understatement. It’s taken a lot to get to this pivotal moment, including months of investigative work, hundreds of dollars worth of invested time and energy—both here and back at headquarters in the U.S.—and years of relationship building with local law enforcement. Not only that, but if my partner and I screw anything up, we risk our own safety and the safety of about a dozen other people working this case, everyone inside the bar, and the girl we came to rescue.
I hope to God she’s waiting on the other side of the bright orange door that we’re just about to open.
Everything that needs to happen tonight has been painstakingly planned. I know exactly what I have to do. I know a couple blocks away the police are waiting for us to send them a message to conduct the raid when it’s time. I know one of our highly skilled local guys—who knows the ins and outs of this case—is waiting with them. He’s ready to advise us on how to handle certain situations and to translate my English into the local language for the rest of the team so everyone involved in the operation is on the same page.
Breathe, man, breathe. And for goodness sake, stop trembling.
My partner reaches for the door, and I notice his hands are a bit shaky. This actually makes me feel a little better about my own nerves. My palms are covered in sweat. I wipe them on my jeans as I follow his lead and step through the door.
On the Inside
We’re hit with a blast of music playing in a language I don’t even remotely understand. The place is dimly lit, as usual, and we walk past the bar area to an empty table in the back right corner. This is good. We can see pretty much everything from here. I sit down and start to relax a little.
My partner and I chat as I scan the room for the young girl I’ve met in here a couple of times before. Nadia* is her name. Nadia—it means hope. I looked that up after the last time I was in here and have held onto it since. The small 16-year-old with wavy brown hair, olive skin, and hazel eyes is obviously not from around here. She never made clear exactly where she’s from, but I doubt she ever imagined herself in a place like this. She probably never knew places like this even existed.
I don’t see her.
My mind starts racing with all of the possible scenarios of how this could play out.
An older woman I recognize starts walking toward our table. I smile at her as she gets closer. She asks us if we want drinks and a couple of girls. I act interested and pretend to look around the room at the selection.
“We’re here to see Nadia. She here?” I ask flippantly. I hope she remembers the verbal appointment we made with her a week ago.
The mamasan seems more than happy to oblige me. Good. She nods and smiles, revealing yellow, crooked teeth with smudges of bright red lipstick. She says something like, “Nadia be here very soon.” I nod and smile back, thanking her. She pushes another girl toward us so we can order drinks while we wait.
We shoot a quick text to our team on the outside so they know exactly what’s going on.
My partner starts talking to me, but movement behind him catches my eye and his words fade into the background. Three young guys take a table about 20 feet away and call over the girl who just took our drink order. I already don’t like them and certainly don’t trust them.
As the girl gets close, the tall guy in front with a New York Yankees baseball cap grabs her arm and pulls her toward him. They all start taunting her, making crass remarks, and groping her. Her face says it all: they’re hurting me, and I’m terrified.
My partner must see the look in my eyes, because he elbows me to get my attention. I feel heat in my face and I’m shaking again, this time out of rage.
“Don’t,” I hear my partner say. “It won’t help her.”
It takes every ounce of strength for me to stay in my seat as I watch the brazen abuse unfold right in front of me.
I force myself to look away, and my eyes land on a middle-aged couple at the table right next to ours. They look totally out of place and embarrassed by the two girls with them. One girl is sitting with an arm around the woman and another is forcing herself onto the man’s lap. Both girls appear to be in their twenties and are dressed in high heels, mini skirts, and colorful makeup.
I look back at my partner and suddenly don’t want to be here anymore. Feelings of despair and total helplessness creep in, and I realize I probably feel as uncomfortable as the couple next to us looks.
We wait for roughly an hour, and then I catch a glimpse of Nadia as she walks through the door. A middle-aged man who appears to be her handler is with her. They move toward the mamasan, and she points in our direction. All three sets of eyes look our way, and I wave at Nadia to come over. My heart starts beating a little quicker as the girl we came to rescue starts making her way through the crowded bar to our table.
A newfound bit of hope starts to stir inside me, and excitement takes over for a moment as I realize things are going as planned. So often in this work, victims suddenly disappear or never show up at all. Tonight, however, this sweet girl is where she should be, and she will soon be taken away from this abominable place.
My partner sips on his beer as I take the lead. I stand and welcome her to our corner, playing my part as the loud, friendly American—acting overly excited to see her (which, part of me actually is).
I wonder if she recognizes me.
We chat for a while—small talk mostly. I order her a soda and try a couple jokes on her in an attempt to get her to laugh and relax a bit. She’s clearly uncomfortable, though it’s obvious that she’s a lot less nervous than when I saw her a month ago. The thought of her getting used to this “routine” makes me incredibly sad.
My partner shoots me a look that tells me it’s time for business. I wave the mamasan over to the table and ask her, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, how much it would cost to take Nadia to a back room for an hour. I notice Nadia’s smile fade as she straightens in her seat. I feel she’s disappointed in me. I suddenly hate myself for asking the question and wish I could take the words back.
Her mamasan quietly informs me of the price. I tell her that sounds great and then try to fill the next few moments with idle chit chat as my partner shoots another text and waits for approval to make the transaction.
Seconds later, he nods.
I stand up and pay the mamasan. This moment is key. As soon as the money is handed over, the police can storm in. I work hard to portray the oblivious, friendly alias I’ve created when I pay the woman. Little does she know, she’s about to be thrown into jail, hopefully for a very long time. The thought helps me play my part quite genuinely.
I force a big smile before I return to my seat. Our guy on the outside knows exactly what just went down, which means the police know the same thing and are preparing to bust into this bar any time now. I feel a rush of adrenaline and my senses heighten. My partner is chatting with Nadia now, giving me the chance to collect myself before all hell breaks loose.
Please Help Us
I act like I’m engaging in the conversation at my table, but I don’t hear a thing they’re saying. I scan the area—eyeing the girl, the trafficker, and then the front door on the opposite end of the long, dark room. My hands are sweating, and my heart is beating so hard I feel I can hear it—even in the midst of the deafening music and raucous crowd that fills this small space.
I mumble a quick prayer, pleading with God that this goes well.
Who am I kidding...I’ve been praying that prayer all night long.
*Nadia is a popular name throughout the Mediterranean region and means “hope.”
This is the first of four parts in the series entitled, “Until She Is Free.” The narrative was inspired by interviews with TER investigators. Some creative liberties were taken to avoid revealing tactics used by our field operatives. To protect their identities, we cannot thank our investigators by name, but we dedicate this story to them. We are so grateful for their hearts, their courage, and all they are willing to do in the name of freedom.
—Micah Hartmann & Victoria Garcia