Waiting is always the hardest part.
I’ve supported rescue operations at least a dozen times before, but that doesn’t ease the tension or calm my heart that’s racing inside my chest. Every case is different. Each time, there’s risk of a tip-off or some other serious complication that could compromise the entire operation. So while the chance to help a young trafficking victim embrace her freedom and potential keeps me motivated, I know there’s always the chance she’ll disappear. Still, I’m hopeful and prepared to do everything I can to help her.
I’m sitting in the back of an unmarked police vehicle with Officer Anuman—my assigned police liaison. He’ll give me updates as the operation unfolds. If it’s successful, he’ll let me know when I can go in and support the victim—talk to her, let her know she’s safe, assure her she’s not in any trouble, and explain that all this is happening so that she can be free.
If it’s not successful, well, he’ll let me know that, too.
As Time Stands Still
I glance at the clock on the dashboard, but the numbers don’t seem to be changing.
The silence in the car is broken by occasional police chatter over the radio. I close my eyes and attempt to catch an update, any update. But nothing significant has been reported yet.
I catch myself mindlessly adjusting the shawl around my neck, so I force my hands to be still. To avoid further fidgeting, I lean back in my seat and flip through my notes again.
They outline the findings of DELTA team: their investigations, leads, and interviews. They also contain essential facts about the victim we’re here to rescue. Her name is Nadia; she is 16 years old and being sold for sex at a small brothel. Despite our efforts, we know very little about the actual life of this young girl. But I know it would be impossible to adequately capture any life within the pages I hold nervously in my hands.
As I focus on the available details, I mentally fill in the rest based on my experience. While every story is different, certain scenarios have common themes. Growing up, I frequently saw cases of what I now know to be sex trafficking. I would be playing with a friend in the village one day, and she’d be gone the next. Eventually, it became so common that I just stopped asking questions.
If I had known back then what I know now, I would have done something. I wish I could have done something. But I can do something now.
Back to waiting.
Once the investigators have done their job and the police have made arrests, it will be my turn to step into the process. I’m hoping that tonight’s operation is moving forward as planned.
Ready As I’ll Ever Be
I sit idly for what seems like an hour, and then I hear a muffled voice come over the radio: “The payment has been made.”
Officer Anuman and I meet eyes for a moment; a silent understanding passes between us. I nod, and he turns the key in the ignition. The roar of the engine fills me with adrenaline.
We drive around the block and wait for the “all clear”—confirmation that the situation is mostly under control and we can go inside and meet Nadia. We pull up in front of the brothel. I take a deep breath and adjust my shawl one last time before stepping out of the car, leaving my notes behind.
No Turning Back
I attempt to clear my mind as I step through the brightly colored door and make my way down the long, narrow bar. I take notice of the now-stilled chaos—spilled drinks, debris, and cash littered across the floor. I pass it all by as if walking through frozen time.
A noise rises over the steady bass of the bar’s music—the sobs of women. My heart breaks for them. I wish I had the capacity to comfort each and every one, but I'm on a mission to find young Nadia.
To my right, two western men pass me by, shooting me a brief glance of acknowledgement—our investigators.
I See Her
She's sitting near the back of the brothel, in the last booth on the right. Her eyes are wide and darting about the room as if searching for an escape. An officer has a hand on her arm to keep her from running.
It’s so common for survivors to run from the very people who are trying to rescue them. Most have been told to fear the police—that they aren’t good people.
As I draw nearer, a change falls over Nadia. She seems to calm down a little; her face goes stoic. The officer takes my arrival as a cue to leave and slides out from the booth to leave us alone.
As the police finish clearing out the brothel, the noise around us fades. It's now just the two of us—Nadia and me. This girl is no longer just a name and narrow description on a piece of paper, but a meek, terrified teenager sitting in the midst of chaos.
I sit down beside her and smile. Slowly, gently, I let her know that I’m not here to hurt her. “Hello,” I say in the native language. Nadia’s eyes lock on mine.
“My name is Alma and I’m here to help you. Can you tell me your name?”
“Nadia,” she says timidly. Her eyes seem to look straight through me, desperately trying to navigate the situation and understand what’s going to happen to her next.
I try to tell to her that this is a rescue operation and that I’m here to take her away from this place forever. As I attempt to explain everything in a way she will understand, I assess her current condition. I notice bruises on her face. They’re faint, and while her makeup covers the color, the swelling under her smudged blue eyeshadow tells me it hasn’t been long since she was assaulted.
She listens intently as I speak and occasionally sips on the drink in front of her, which I imagine must be warm by now.
In an attempt to gather more of her story before we see the police, I begin to ask her some questions. This helps me confirm the information in my report. I ask her questions like, “What was your home like? How long have you been here? Where is your family? How did you get here?”
I learn that she and her twin brother were trying desperately to help their mother earn enough money to sustain life on their family farm. When her father died after getting sick, the debt collectors came more often. Nadia eagerly accepted the offer of a high-paying nanny job in the city.
She was promised free room and board in exchange for her work, as well as a monthly payment she intended to send back home. In the end, she only received a small percentage of her earnings; after her traffickers deducted the charges for her food and rent, she was left with nothing.
Her family never saw a penny.
A Familiar Story
As Nadia continues trying to speak to me in a language she barely knows, I feel a weight growing inside my chest. These are things no one should have to go through. Traffickers preyed on her desire to provide for her family—using it as bait to lure her into this nightmare.
For just short of two months, Nadia was forced to service anywhere from 8–12 customers a day, raped for a mere $30 every time.
Time To Go
We both stand up. I take her hand and tell her to stay close as I lead her toward the exit.
As we make our way to the front door, I notice Nadia is shivering, in spite of the summer heat. It causes me to take stock of her for a moment. She is clothed in a short red dress that’s plainly intended to objectify her and age her beyond her years. I notice she’s also barefoot, her shoes abandoned somewhere along the way. I remove the shawl from my shoulders and place it around hers. As I wrap it around her petite frame, her image transforms back to that of a child.
I wonder what she’s thinking, but I refrain from asking. As I reach for the door, she looks at me, as if to ask for reassurance that everything is going to be okay. “I’m right here with you,” I say warmly. I feel she believes me because she smiles in response, ever so slightly, and follows me outside.
As we walk toward the flashing police car that’s waiting for us, neither one of us is tempted to look back. I pray silently that she will never have to set eyes on this place again.
She slips into the vehicle, and I slide in beside her and take her hand. I meant what I said—I will remain by her side, and we will embark on this new journey together.
I want to be like a mom to her. I want her to feel safe. I want to give her comfort and courage.
Alma means “caring” and Anuman means “patience.”
This is the third of four parts in the series entitled, “Until She Is Free.” The narrative was inspired by interviews with TER investigators, TER social workers, and stories of human trafficking survivors The Exodus Road works to help. Creative liberties were taken.
Social workers are among the first contacts survivors meet on their paths to freedom. They provide much-needed support, guidance, comfort, and care. We are so grateful to our social workers who work day and night, caring for men, women, and children when they need them most. We are dedicated to employing and supporting national social workers in all of our countries of operation.