MODERN SLAVERY

“I was a victim of sex trafficking”

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

This article contains adult content and depiction of sexual violence. This interview was not secured through Craigslist. At Joanna’s request, some details have been omitted or changed.

Joanna, now in her 30s

I was born in a small town in a small country in Europe. My parents are farmers with no education, and my siblings and I were also raised to work the land. We lived a very self sufficient and isolated life; we didn’t have television, and I seldom came into contact with people whom I hadn’t known my whole life. Because I didn’t go to school, I could not read or write.

The summer I turned 18, I met someone who claimed to be from a nearby big city. My brother introduced him to me; they had worked together briefly. Almost immediately, he told me that he wanted to marry me, and that he would come to ask my parents’ permission. In the meantime, we saw each other secretly.

He made a lot of promises—he told me that he had a job lined up overseas and that he would take good care of me and my family, and eventually take me to live with him there. He told me that he’d help me go to school so that I could learn to read and write, and get a job as well. He promised that I would get to know a different life—that we would travel and go to good restaurants. I believed him. He spoke so differently from everyone around me, and it felt like he already knew so much about the world. I fell in love with him. When he forced himself on me, I didn’t know anything—so I let him do what he wanted. I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I told one of my friends what had happened.

I kept my pregnancy a secret from my family and he and I continued to see each other. A couple of months into our relationship, he told me that he had to leave the country so that he could go and get my documents ready and the three of us (with baby) could live together abroad. He disappeared for months and at that point, rumors had started spreading. People warned my parents about him; my friend told my mom that I was pregnant with his baby. People were saying that he would take me abroad and sell me. They had heard stories of this happening to other young women. I didn’t believe that he was capable of doing something like that—I don’t blame myself for how naive I was; I had no way of knowing.

When he came back, I felt vindicated. My parents put up a fight and reported him to the police but I wasn’t listening. I went with him and we were easily allowed out of the country. Abroad, we stayed with some of his relatives. He told me it was temporary, until we could get our own place. He was seldom around, and I started catching glimpses of things that unsettled me.

When our baby was born, we went to the hospital and I signed where I was told to sign. I didn’t understand the language and I couldn’t read anything, so I had no idea what I was doing—except I still completely trusted him and what he was telling me. When we left the hospital without the baby, he said that they were just keeping it for observation and we could pick it up soon. I never saw my baby again, and that’s when the nightmare began.

We were kept in an apartment in a nondescript building. I was with other women who were just like me: young, uneducated, abandoned by their families and lured abroad by someone they loved—two other girls by the same guy that took me. We were drugged and raped several times a day. We were sometimes beaten. We didn’t have access to doctors or to the outside world. We didn’t have money or possessions. We were not allowed outside without supervision. I didn’t speak the language so I couldn’t call for help.

Several months into it, I got really sick. I started running a fever and throwing up and initially I thought that I was pregnant again. Part of me was happy in spite of the circumstances—mostly because it would probably mean a break from being prostituted. But I got my period and the illness continued. One of the older women there who helped the traffickers manage us—she “checked” me and told them I was finished, literally “she’s not good for anything.” I didn’t realize it then, but she probably saved my life.

They blindfolded me and drove me around for a couple of hours. I thought they were going to kill me, take my organs, and throw me in a trashcan. I was terrified. But I was pushed out of the car and I heard them drive off. Because of what the lady had said, they probably thought my organs would be contaminated—that’s what I think now, but there’s no way to confirm. I was later picked up by the cops. It was days before they found someone who could communicate with me. I was kept in a jail cell and I started to withdraw from the drugs. When the translator finally came, he told me that they would start to process my deportation. I was not treated for my illness or for my withdrawals.

When I got back home, I found out that my family and small community had disowned me. I was considered a dirty person, a street person. I had nowhere to turn. I walked to the nearest city and started begging for money on the street. While I was homeless, someone approached me. I told her what had happened to me and she told me it was her job to help people like me. She took me to a clinic where I got treatment. I met other women who had gone through the same exact thing as I had—almost to the letter. Most of them had escaped; a few others, like me, had been abandoned. There are so many of us and probably so many more who don’t make it out alive.

Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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