Inside the slave trade

They are promised a better life. But every year, countless boys and girls in Bangladesh are spirited away to brothels where they have to prostitute themselves with no hope of freedom

Saturday 15 March 2008 01:00

This is the story of the 21st century’s trade in slave-children. My journey into their underworld took place where its alleys and brothels are most dense - Asia, where the United Nations calculates 1 million children are being traded every day. It took me to places I did not think existed, today, now. To a dungeon in the lawless Bangladeshi borderlands where children are padlocked and prison-barred in transit to Indian brothels; to an iron whore-house where grown women have spent their entire lives being raped; to a clinic that treat syphilitic 11-year-olds.

But this story begins like all these stories begin: with a girl, and a lie. Sufia comes to talk to me in a centre for children who have been rescued, funded by Comic Relief – which is having its major Sport Relief funding run this weekend. She has only ever talked about it to her counsellors here. But she wants the world to know what happened to her.

She comes into the room swaddled in a red sari, carrying big premature black bags under her eyes. She tells her story in a slow, halting mumble. Sufia grew up in a village near Khulna in the south-west of Bangladesh. Her parents were farmers; she was one of eight children. “My parents couldn’t afford to look after me,” she says. “We didn’t have enough money for food.”

And so came the lie. When Sufia was 14, a female neighbour came to her parents and said she could find her a good job in Calcutta as a housemaid. She would live well; she would learn English; she would have a well-fed future. “I was so excited,” Sufia says.

“But as soon as we arrived in Calcutta I knew something was wrong,” she says. “I didn’t know what a brothel was, but I could see the house she took me to was a bad house, where the women wore small clothes and lots of bad men were coming in and out.” The neighbour was handed 50,000 takka – around £500 – for Sufia, and then she told her to do what she was told and disappeared.

Here, Sufia’s halting monologue stops all together. She looks away; she rocks slightly. And then: “I wasn’t allowed to ever leave. I had to see 10 men a day.” Another long pause. “I didn’t know anything about men before. It was the most terrible thing.”

She saw what happened to the older women there. They are forced to “breed”. Their daughters are raised to be prostitute-slaves. After three months, two other girls imprisoned in the brothel approached her with an escape plan. They would save up the sleeping pills they were given at night - to stop them sobbing and howling and putting off the “clients” - and slip them into the drink of the “Mashi” who was imprisoning them. Then they would run as far and as a fast as they could.

It worked. “I had no idea how to get around the city but they were very clever girls,” Sufia says. When she finally saw her parents’ house once more, she made a resolution to herself: “I could never, never tell my family what happened. I told them I had been working as a maid and I missed them too much. I can never, never tell anyone apart from the people here. Never. If I do, nobody will marry me. I would bring disgrace on my family and my life would be destroyed.”

She knows she should have an HIV test. She has booked to have one twice. But she can’t go through with it. She can’t bear to know.

Sufia was sold into an organised trade that crosses continents and deals daily in pounds of human flesh. It continues every day – and unlike Sufia, most women do not escape.

I Into the brothels

On the side of a dirt-track in Jamalpur, a small Bangladeshi city, there is an iron gate. It leads to a dense warren of flimsy huts with iron roofs, and in each one, there is a woman, waiting.

I speak first to Liza, a 19-year-old girl wearing elaborate geisha make-up and a broken smile. She is standing outside her hut, talking to a group of girls her own age, smoking a spliff. For a moment, and from a distance, they look like a group of stoned, giggling teenage girls anywhere on earth. But then you see the clump of fat, sweating men waiting for them. They pay 50 to 500 takka - from 5 pence to £5 - depending on what sexual acts they want, and the beauty of the girl.

When I ask Liza how she ended up here, she offers a strange, rambling, incoherent story - she loved a boy, but her parents forebade her from marrying him; she wanted to earn her own dowry; so she came here, but now she has lost touch with the boy. She keeps breaking off, awkwardly giggling at her friends. It isn’t amusement; it isn’t even being stoned; it is the lid on a scream. I ask: are you allowed to leave if you want to? She looks nervously around before answering; then says quickly – “Yes.” She shakes her head as she says it.

We are interrupted by the sound of a baby crying. This brothel is full of babies: the women have nowhere else to put them, they tell me. This makes me wonder again how free they are to leave.

Sitting in another hut, I find Beauty, a 34-year-old woman. When I tell her I want her to talk about her life, she offers a big, perplexed smile. “My brother-in-law sold me to the Mashi here when I was 13,” she explains. “He took me away one day and brought me here. When I arrived the Mashi whipped me and told me I could never leave this brothel. I was devastated. I hated it. I kept thinking about my family, my mother, and crying all the time. But the Mashi just whipped me all the time and told me I had to work.”

She found a fragment of happiness when she was 19. One of the men who came regularly to the brothel said he had fallen in love with her – and proposed marriage. He paid to take her away, back to her village to see her mother and sister. It had been Beauty’s dream: “I thought I was going back to the good life.”

But her family rejected her. They had heard she had become a prostitute – her brother-in-law said she chose it – so her sister “tortured me”, she says, calling her names and jeering and making the village shun her. Then, after a while, her husband tired of her too – and sold her back to the brothel once more. She says, “I stopped eating, I wanted to die.”

So here she is. She knows “I can never have a husband or a house.” She will always be shunned, by everyone.

There is one route out of the brothel for these women: to become a Mashi themselves, to set up their own brothel and “earn” their freedom. But Beauty says she can’t do it: “No, no, I would hate to be a madam. I’m a bad girl but I’m not that bad.” She runs her fingers though her hair and says: “I know it’s sad. That’s my life story. It’s not much, is it?”

II Into the borderlands

The border between India and Bangladesh is a long and rippling river. As I stand there, in front of me, there is the world’s largest democratic republic. Behind me, there is a dungeon with iron bars, where Bangladeshi women are held before being sold to India.

All the people here refer to it as “the trafficker’s place”; it is not disguised.

As they gather around in the quiet, muddy village, the locals – a hardened band of farmers – explain that there is low-level warfare going on out here. Over sweet tea on his veranda, with a crowd watching on, their local elected representative Adul Khaleq – a rugged man in his fifties – says he is paying bitterly for taking on the traffickers.

“My brother, Abdu Saleq, was our elected council member here until three years ago,” he explains. His career ended abruptly when he caught red-handed a trafficker who was trying to take a 25-year-old woman over to India: “He thought it was his duty to stop them. He thought selling women was wrong.” The freed woman called her father, who came tearfully to collect her.

Two nights later, the traffickers turned up at Abdu’s house. They dragged him from his bed by his hair, took him out into the street, and hacked his body to pieces with an axe as he howled.

“The traffickers told his wife they would kill us too,” Adul says. But the villagers refused to be cowed. They set up a neighbourhood watch scheme, to track the traffickers: “We work as a watchdog at night. Who is trafficking? How many girls are being taken? As soon as something is spotted, we are alerted.”

But the story does not end with this black-and-white morality tale: it gets grey. Adul says they cannot go to the police, because they are thoroughly bribed and bought off by the traffickers and simply let them go. Instead, they have to “beat the traffickers mercilessly”. And as a result, the police have framed them, they say – on murder charges. Adul is awaiting trial for a murder in Khulna everybody in the town claims he could not have committed, because they all saw him that day in the village.

I couldn’t slice through the dense thickets of this story – but I could find a total consensus here that the police are in the pay of the traffickers, and merrily arrest anyone who crosses them. So I decided to go to local police station – a lovely white-marble building, surrounded with lush, well-tended flower-beds – to question the police. The Sub-Inspector is a handsome 30-something officer with a brown uniform and a broad smile.

When I ask him if he or his officers take bribes, he waves his hand through the air. “I will not comment on this,” he says. What do you mean, you won’t comment? It’s surely not a difficult question. “I’m not going to talk about it,” he says, firmer now. OK then: why do you think everyone in this community thinks your people take bribes? He sucks his teeth. “They’ve got an attitude problem. They’re poor. They blame anyone for their problems.” And he laughs. It is only a small laugh.

III Into the street-world

Dhaka – the capital of Bangladesh – is a city of immediate, brain-melting sensory overload. In this megalopolis of 14 million sardine-people, every crammed street-scene glimpsed for a second is filled with more detail than you could absorb in a week. Swanky Western cars are log-jammed next to mobile heaps of rust. Ethereal waif-women are wandering between them with babies, begging. Builders are carrying huge loads balanced impossibly on their heads. Children are operating sewing machines on roofs. Painted women ask if you will pay 10 takka to see the dancing snake hidden in their wooden box. Men clinging to the tops of buses are yelling at rickshaw drivers, who are yelling at pedestrians, who are yelling into their mobiles.

All this happens against an endless soundtrack I think of as the Dhaka tinnitus: the waaaah-waaaaah of car horns and the bring-bring of rickshaws and the eeeek-eeeek of alarms constantly chorusing and the shouting, shouting, shouting.

Amid this ceaseless roll, there are 300,000 street-children, living (and dying) on their own. They sleep in clusters, around the boat terminal and the bus station and in the crannies of half-built buildings across the city. They are the traffickers’ dream, a pool of prey with no defences.

Sitting on the bridge in the Dhaka boat terminal, I find Mohammed and his small gang of friends. He is a 14-year-old with a grubby denim shirt and a ragged mop-head of hair. He looks about 10, with a bony, under-developed frame. He has a Pokemon transfer on his ankle: it is Pikachu, waving. They let me hang out with them for a day.

They spend the daylight hours wandering the streets of Dhaka, collecting pieces of waste-paper and ramming them into a sack. At the end of a good day, they can sell the scraps for 10 takka – about five pence, enough to buy a few good meals and a few spliffs. As we wander searching for paper, he tells me he ran away from home four years ago. “I ran away because my stepmother was cruel to me,” he says. His mother left their home when he was a baby to go and work as a maid in Dhaka and send money back for the hungry family. He was left in the care of his father’s other wife – who, he says, hated him.

“She made me do all the washing and cleaning for her sons,” he says, “and she made me collect water for the whole family every day.” Later, he adds, “She tried to poison me. She made me some rice, and I tasted a bit but it was really horrible, it didn’t taste right at all. She told me I had to eat it, so I slipped it to the dog. That afternoon the dog died.” Is this a child’s fantasy? All the street children seem to have similar tales of extreme horror, created to cover their pain; they can’t all be true.

He has been with his posse ever since he arrived in Dhaka, hoping he would somehow spot his mother. I ask - do you miss your family? He offers a little shrug of bravado. “I miss my brothers and sisters. I wish I could still play with them. Sometimes I think about them when I’m trying to sleep. But no. I don’t miss anyone.”

They wash in the black, stinking river, which might explain the infected lumps of scabies he is scratching on his arm incessantly. Sometimes they save up to watch movies together – Hollywood action films and Bollywood musicals are his favourites, he says.

At night, they wait outside restaurants for scraps – and then try to steal some more from the all-night fruit market. They lead me there at midnight, to a vast burst of light in the dark of the city. It is a huge crammed vegetable-town, where thousands of sellers perform an elaborate super-speed dance around each other, transporting mountains of potatoes and oceans of cabbages in baskets on their heads, and haggle with grocers and restaurant-owners. As I follow my little gang, seeing them subtly swipe a few fruits as they go, my nose is burned by the chilli that fills the air, and then soothed by the lake of limes.

Then finally, at 3am, they crash in their little corner of the boat terminal, sleeping on and around a large orange bin that says “Use Me”. The sacks they use to collect rubbish paper become rudimentary sleeping bags; they bunch together for warmth. The terminal is filled with thousands of children and families doing the same, cramming themselves into every concrete crevice they can find. They sleep on the bridge, under the bridge, on top of the roof, in the awnings of the roof – everywhere. Some are burning sacks on a candle, hoping the smoke will keep the mosquitoes and cockroaches away.

The gang smoke a spliff and swallow some sleeping pills they have bought. “If we get stoned, then it doesn’t hurt if the policemen come and beat you in the night,” they explain. The police strut around with large white sticks, waving them menacingly at the kids, who they call “haralput” (pikey). It is only when they see my white face that they back off from this gang, for tonight.

I ask Mohammed what the worst thing about this life is. “I know I’ve ruined my life,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know I’m a bad person, and I’ll never get out of here. There’s no hope, no future, for me. What do you think I should do?” I suddenly realise this isn’t a rhetorical question. He is sincerely asking for advice. I have no idea what to say. But it wasn’t a request for cash: in all my time with them, they didn’t ask me for a single takka.

There are two fears that hang over this gang’s life like a cloud of black smoke. They are terrified of being captured and sent to one of the government vagrancy centres. Mohammed was sent there last year, for a month. He says, “It’s the worst place. You have to work all the time. There is a massive bowl and you are forced to carry it on your back and water the trees, and then you have to sweep the room and scrub the floors and do hard labour and if you ever stop, they beat you really hard. I don’t want to ever go there again. They just beat you so much. They beat us in the shins with sticks. They hate us.” (My request to the government to visit one of these homes was refused.)

But there is an ever greater fear: the traffickers. The only moment when Mohammed betrays emotion is when he remembers a little girl called Muni, who was his friend. One day in June last year, when she was nine-and-a-half, an old man approached and told her she could have a brilliant job if she came with him. She refused, remembering the rumours that spread among the children about what really happened if you went with these men. He snatched her anyway. The other kids tried to tell the police, but they were just chased away.

Her body was found, raped and strangled, three days later. Mohammed is convinced it was because she refused to be fooled by the traffickers’ tales, and refused to just be taken to a brothel: she fought back. “Yes, we are very frightened of the traffickers,” Mohammed says, yawning. He has to sleep: he needs to get up in four hours, to start collecting waste-paper. One of this little gang of urban Mowglis is supposed to stay awake, to keep watch – “but it’s difficult,” he says. I ask him what he would like to own when he’s older, thinking I will get a child’s reverie about having a big house and a car. “Own?” he says. “I’d like to own my mother.” And with that, he grins and closes his eyes.

IV The fight-back

There is a small, determined group of Bangladeshis who saw the theft of their children for commercialised rape happening all around them, and decided – like Muni, with her tiny, futile fists – to fight back. They are funded by Comic Relief, and are dependent on the contributions that will flood in from British people this weekend.

Ishtiaque Ahmed is an intellectual who – in long, statistic-packed monologues – tells me how he created Aparajeyo (Undefeated). It is one of the most compelling anti-trafficking forces in Bangladesh. They run schools on the streets and shelters for the abused children, and they pay for an army of kids who have been rescued from prostitution to fan out across the city teaching other kids about how to thwart the traffickers. They are the William Wilberforces of our time, ending slavery one child at a time.

I first glimpse their work in the roomy top floor of a tower block that has been made into a shelter, housing raped children who have escaped. It looks like any children’s playgroup, anywhere on earth, filled with scampering and skipping and squealing. For a moment, they are not scavengers or prey; they are children.

One tall girl with high cheek bones is singing. She shakes my hand and introduces herself as Shelaka, and says she is 16. Then, confidently, carefully, she explains how she ended up here. She grew up in a village three hours from Dhaka, and for as long as she could remember, she loved to sing. “It is the best feeling in the world, to sing,” she says. But when she went through puberty, her fiercely religious parents said it was no longer “appropriate” for a Muslim girl to sing, and she had to leave these “stupid dreams” behind.

“If I tried to sing, they would hit me,” she says. “I didn’t think it was fair, because if I was a boy I would be allowed to sing. It doesn’t make sense. Why should only boys be allowed to choose their own job? Men make women dependent on them, and that’s why they are treated badly.” (Next time somebody tells me feminism is a “Western” concept, I will tell them about Shelaka. She thought of feminism all by herself, in a village in rural Bangladesh.)

So she decided to run away to the Big City, to become a singer. She sold her only nose-ring, and took the bus to Dhaka with the proceeds. When she arrived at the bus station, frightened but determined, she asked where the singing school was. She wandered the streets; as it got dark, she became frightened, and a female cake-seller told her she could sleep at her house in the slums. Shelaka went with her, and the cake-seller was kind. She stayed there for a week – until the cake-seller’s landlord arrived, and said she could only keep Shelaka if he could pimp her out. The cake-seller was afraid and tearfully let the landlord do what he wanted. Shelaka was kept captive by him for three months and raped-for-cash every day, until finally the cake-seller helped her escape. On the streets, she stumbled across one of Aparajeyo’s street schools – and they took her in.

She has lived here for three years now, receiving daily counselling. She says she “loves” it: “They are like the kindest family.” She is enrolled in the Bangladesh Children’s Academy - where she is studying singing. She asks if she can sing for me, and her voice - even with the car horns and rickshaw bells and the babble of children to compete with - has a pure and beautiful calm.

In the bus station, every day at nine in the morning, the street-children are approached – for once – by adults who do not want to beat or rape them. Instead, Aparajeyo brings toys and learning materials, to teach them how to read and write – and protect themselves from traffickers.

The children gather on bright blue mats in the corner of the terminal, excited and gleeful and able to ignore the stench of stagnant water because it has filled their nostrils for so long. They chant the alphabet and practice drawing and vie for the attention of their teacher, waving their hands and laughing. Iman, an eight-year-old, is sitting cross-legged, drawing a frog. He was, he explains, born here in the bus terminal: its walls are the walls of his reality. He lives with his mother by the toilets. “I love the reading games,” he says, concentrating hard on his drawing. “Are frogs green or blue?”

Sitting next to him there is Ammo, another tiny 8 year old, who arrived in the bus station alone a week ago. He thought he would find his runaway brother here, but so far he hasn’t. Are you frightened? “No,” he says, looking anxiously into the distance.

One of the worst problems for street children is that they live from day-to-day in a permanent pressurised present-tense: they can never keep more than a day’s money on them because it would be stolen – so at the start of every day they are back at a desperate square one. Planning for the future – any future – is impossible.

Until Aparajeyo had a stark idea: why not open a bank for street children? Now, every afternoon, at 4pm, the Children’s Development Bank opens in the Aparajeyo shelter, staffed and run by street-children, where any street-child can deposit money. It costs five takka – two pence – to open an account. When I turn up, Moyna, who is 11, is the first customer. She sells chocolate on the street and often sleeps in the shelter here. She tells me proudly she has come to deposit 20 takka, and has 700 saved up. “I am saving up to start a small business,” she says, with a very serious face. “I want to buy a tea stall. I am also saving so eventually I can have a deposit to rent a room of my own… No trafficker will get me there.” Reams of children come in with ambitions like this, a bubbling-up of dreams. Suddenly, the bank has given them a future tense - and a future.

In the brothels, Aparajeyo has decided to face down all the nuclear-strength cultural taboos of ultra-conservative Bangladesh, and turn around the lives of the brothel-babies. Until the organisation arrived in 2002, the children of the Jamalpur brothel were forbidden from setting foot in a school. They were spat at in the street if they stepped out of their mothers’ iron-prisons. Illiterate, uneducated and prey to traffickers, most ended up becoming prostitutes themselves, with rape cascading down the generations.

Standing outside the brothel, scrubbed and smiling, the children tell me how Aparajeyo fought – using the full force of the law – to get them enrolled into the city’s schools. They provided extra support and tuition – ensuring the top three academic places in the city went to brothel kids, busting the notion among the schools that these kids were “backward”. The children now live in safe shelters near the brothel, and visit their delighted mothers as often as they like.

Parveen, a rosy little 10-year-old wearing a shiny dress and her hair scrunched into a little bun, tells me: “The brothel was a bad and frightening place,” she says. “Men would be nasty to me, and people smoked drugs and I was scared all the time… People would call me names, and say my mother was a bitch.” But now? “Now I live in the shelter. I can play games and run around and everything!” As she unties her little bun and lets her hair flop down, she says with a serious look, “now I am going to become a lawyer, so I can help people like my mother.”

V Into his mother’s arms

In the vast Khalijpur slums, there lies one of Aparajeyo’s proudest achievements. In a tiny, damp barn-room made of mud and metal sheeting, I find Rehana, a 33-year-old woman with worry-lines running like rivulets down her forehead. She tells me about how her brother sold her son for 3,000 takka – £21.

Rehana knew for years her brother was a trafficker in children. “I was ashamed,” she says. “He trafficked children because he was so poor, but it’s no excuse.” There was no point going to the police, she says: they were bribed. But then, over Eid in 2005, her husband had a huge row with him. Two days later, her brother picked up her six-year old son, Shamsul, from mosque – and sold him. He taunted his brother-in-law, saying his son was now in a brothel in India.

“I went mad, I just went mad,” she says. “I went looking for him everywhere, I spent all day on the streets calling his name. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

After two years of despair, she spotted an advert in a newspaper. It had been placed by Aparajeyo, and it asked: do you know this child? “It was Shamsul,” she says. The police found him wandering the streets and handed him over to the charity. He didn’t know his name, or address. “When we got him back, he was lean and thin, and he cried all the time,” his mother says. “If he couldn’t see me he would scream. He did some very strange things: he would stare at the sun until he passed out. But to have him back was amazing.”

Shamsul wanders into the house, as the sun sets on the slum behind him. The uncle who sold him has disappeared; Rehana believes he is running a trafficking ring somewhere else. “The traffickers won’t just give up,” she says. “I just thank God every day that there are people like Aparajeyo working to stop them.” Her son clambers into her lap. Here, at least, is one child, saved from a life of rape. He runs one hand through his mother’s hair, and with the other, he hands me a small purple ball, and smiles.

Some names have been changed for child protection reasons.

To save children like Sufia, Mohammed, Shelaka and Shamsul, donate to Sport Relief at or call 08457 910910 (calls cost no more than 4p per minute from BT landlines. Other operator and mobile rates may vary). Watch the Sport Relief Mile Show, Sunday 16 March on BBC1 3pm-5.30pm

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