I can’t share name or places in this article. I’ll fill in those blanks after the operation finishes. Until then, this. Read the second part of the story, here. The third part, here. Information about the documentary, here.
A few months ago, an organization asked me if I would accompany them on a mission to rescue a group of children from sex slavery. I said yes. And then immediately regretted my decision. After all, I’ve got responsibilities, a home, a husband and children. Who did I think I was? Tearing off to another country to document the rescue of children I have never seen and never will see again. Didn’t I know my place?
I realized, I know exactly where my place is. Of course, I do.
So I got on that plane.
Well, planes. Four of them to be exact. We flew through thunderstorms and meals and deadlines. Of course, aside from a few moments of unfettered people watching, it was all surprisingly dull. Leave it to mortals to make flight pedestrian.
And then we landed.
Airports all seem to maintain the same code of cold anonymity. Some dress it up and some dress it down but at the end of the day; here is an ad for liquor, there is a place to buy some combination of bread, meat and cheese, over to the left is one more fee you weren’t expecting and, of course, don’t forget the one on the right.
It is the panorama that waits outside each airport’s sliding doors that first beats humanity back into your travel weary heart. In this place, the environment is felt even before it is seen. It is warm and humid. The kind of hot that makes it hard to tell when your limbs stop and the air around them begins.
We were met at the airport by members of the team that would take part in the mission the next day. They were all smiling men with wide builds. The kind of guys that make up the foreground of military movies and doomsday saviors. I was the only girl, a thing they acknowledged in their behavior and speech without making me feel small.
On the ride from the airport, the organizations founder explained the upcoming mission and answered my questions.
While we talked my eyes wandered outside and his answers blended in with the landscape around us.
How old are most of the children you rescue?
Often around 11 or 12 but many are much younger or a little older.
The cars streamed into one another, their honking and brakes seemed to be the only thing keeping them from becoming one fluid mass.
Are the pimps part of a larger crime network?
Once in a while, yes. But for the most part what these people are doing is so abhorrent the larger crime syndicates won’t have anything to do with them. Human trafficking is mostly cellular. Which means that when we take down one group, it stays gone forever. Tomorrow we are assisting in the arrest of three separate groups.
The narrator in my head told me the sides of the road are littered with fruit stands and people and bikes piled high with hopes of commerce. But “littered” is the wrong word. That implies misplacement or waste and is the judgment of an outside source. This place is vibrant and brimming and beautiful. The red, yellow, green, pink and cracked concrete stand as ready contrast to the blue ocean. Children hold onto their mother’s hands as they cross from dirt to pavement to dirt again. The air smells like salt and sea and grilling corn and meat. I am the one that is misplaced.
What happens after the children are taken away from the pimps?
We work with an amazing U.S. based non-profit that helps return the children to their parents. When the parents were complicit or unavailable, the children are placed in an approved setting where they can be rehabilitated. Despite out best efforts, some of them do eventually return to the life. Listen, you have to understand. For some of these kids, the sex trade is all they’ve known since they were small enough to be in kindergarten. We are rescuing them, but we are also taking their only known life from them. Luckily, most children we take out of the situation do not return to it.
The streets were now as congested with buildings as they are cars. Technicolor posters stretch across rooflines filled with pictures of chicken and rice and tires.
How do you know how many children you will rescue tomorrow? How do you know they are as young as you think?
We’ve met them. We met the traffickers a few weeks ago and they showed us all the children. There are thirty of them. The youngest one is eleven.
The only thing that kept my Margaret and Viola from being one of the thirty I will meet tomorrow is circumstance of biology and undeserved blessing. I looked back outside. The ocean was gone and the streets were narrower.
What does it mean to save one child when millions have been trafficked since man’s first lust and millions will be trafficked in the years from this moment? Why would American civilians risk their lives to help in countries in which they have no stake or claim? Who are we to interfere? What about the children in the states, across the street, at home? Questions that can be addressed, for which there are good replies and better discussions.
I could dimly see the outline of the validity of those questions, but I could not feel them. I only felt a space where I could not tell where my body stopped and the place around me began.
We pulled up to the house where the sting was being staged. I unpeeled myself from the hot seats of the car and took a breath.
It was time to go in.