I wish Itohan could just stop snoring so loudly, thought Ese. Maybe I should stuff one of my socks in her mouth. She smiled at the thought, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. Once again Ese was finding it very difficult to fall asleep. She cringed as she remembered the smell of the sweaty body of the last man who laid on top of her. This was not how it was meant to be, she thought to herself. This is not the life I wanted, but here I am stuck in a foreign country, living in fear with no hope of freedom. A sex slave. This is my reality.
The day my life changed started like any normal day. My neighbour, who just returned from Europe came over to pay my mother a visit, bearing gifts and money. She had returned with so much money, she built a five bedroom duplex for her family. She wore expensive jewellery and clothes. She rode around town in the latest cars, spending money as if it grew on trees. We were all so envious of her. Her wealth changed the lives of her relatives.
‘Mama don’t worry, Ese will be in good hands. We need strong, hardworking girls like her in our business. I will personally handle her travelling myself. Don’t forget you have to hand over all the documents for the lands you are giving the agents as collateral.’
My neighbour made overseas sound like heaven. I thought about how much money I could make, how I could make life easy again for my mother who had been struggling to raise five kids on her own.
My mother gave them our landed properties as collateral for my travelling expenses. I was made to swear an oath, standing naked over a flaming pot of fire, that I would pay back all the monies expended for my trip and that I would never attempt to run away. Hair and blood were taken from my head, armpit, and privates. I was made to drink a concoction which included my blood and finger chippings. It was so vile it took a week for the taste to fade. However, I quickly put aside any reservations because I was eager to leave the village and see the world.
It was 1:35 am on a very cold windy night at the Libyan border, very close to the Mediterranean Sea, that I faced death. How I survived that night still remains a mystery to me. We travelled by land since it was cheaper and the borders, more porous. We went through the deserts. We faced sand storms, extremely cold nights and scorching sun during the day. Our guides bribed the border patrol officers as we crossed into each country, getting closer to our destination. We lost a number of co-travellers to harsh weather conditions, dehydration and raids. On one occasion we had to drink our own urine when we were chased off by desert raiders from the usual routes that had an oasis or drinking hole. Danger lurked on every corner and at every step of the journey. We lived in perpetual fear at being caught and repatriated or even worse, be killed and buried in the desert with our bodies left to vultures on some unknown land. The shame of returning home gave us the courage to bear every mishap that came our way.
We finally arrived at the most crucial part of our journey. Sicily was just a boat trip away from us. We had our fake travel documents ready, all fares paid to be ferried across the sea to our land of dreams.
‘Who are you? What are you doing here? Get out of the vehicle and show us your papers.’ ordered the border patrol officer, turning his flash light towards our direction. He spoke first in the local dialect and then in English with an accent so thick it made his words sound like gibberish.
The driver of the truck told us that as he approached the patrol men we were to jump out with all our baggage and run as fast as we could to the boat through an opening in the barbed wire fence.
So before the vehicle came to a stop, we jumped out and hit the ground running. The driver made a crazy U-turn, driving away amidst a rain of bullets showered on us by the patrol guards.
It was a clear bright night, no fog or haze to cover our escape. We saw the boat on the horizon bobbing gently on the sea. We ran towards it, crazily screaming and shouting for them to wait for us.
I could hear shouting from those who were injured. I couldn’t stop to save anyone when I was running to save my own life. I barely made it to the boat before it sped off to sea. The feeling of joy that I survived was soon overwhelmed by thoughts sorrow of what would happen to those who were left behind.
On getting to the Sicilian shore, we were taken by trucks to our respective destinations and handed over to our ‘agents’ who put us to work immediately.
Ese didn’t know when she finally fell asleep.
‘Wake up! It’s time for you girls to hit the streets. Don’t forget to hand over all your money. For you JJCs (newbies), ask them, (pointing to the old residents) what happened to the last fool that tried to keep my money!’
The thought of the oath would not allow Ese to double-cross him. I could die or maybe even my mother, if I try to run, she thought sadly.
We had rested during the day, but at night I was given clothes and made to dress in an outfit so small it barely covered my private parts. I was dragged out of the house in awful clothes and garish makeup.
Over time, the older girls took us to their usual hangouts. We were taught the local language, how to spot police officers, check for diseased clients, how to walk and display our bodies. Our working tool was a big handbag that contained a duvet that we rolled on the floor to sleep, packs of condoms, a roll of tissue paper or wipes and a small knife for protection.
The street was even more dangerous than the journey to get here. There were always constant turf wars, power tussles, armed psychotic clients, corrupt police officers, gang bangers, drug dealers and even fights amongst prostitutes who became violent if they thought you were encroaching on their turf or clientele.
It was nine months before I saw my old neighbour again. ‘Sister why didn’t you tell me it was prostitution that you were into? You lied to my parents, that I would be running your hair salon. Now you say that I have to pay five hundred thousand Euros for you to set me free. Don’t the lands you collected from my parents count for something?’
‘Shut up you stupid maggot! Do you think I brought you here to waste my time? You are here to make me money. You will work for me or else you will join the fishes at the bottom of the sea.’ She turned to my pimp, ‘Take her away and teach her a lesson she won’t forget. Don’t mark her skin you know she’s still working tonight.’
That was my first beating but it certainly wasn’t my last. We were threatened, beaten, starved, raped and locked outside, naked, during the winter at our slightest complains. All money I made was taken from me. I paid for virtually everything, just name it; protection, feeding, clothes, toiletries, medicals and accommodation. We were always followed everywhere by our pimps. We learnt how to hide money, to secretly service clients to enable us to have money to send back home.
It’s a cold night as usual. I’m walking my turf, having serviced five men in one hour. Tonight is a good night and some were extra generous. I can keep the extra for myself and give my pimp the usual fees. Maybe I can see three more before I call it a night. Last time I spoke to Mama, she mentioned needing some money for my brother’s exam fees.
I see my regular client and I walk towards him and get into the car. We drive to the usual motel. He seems different tonight, rough and hurried. I think to myself, I can do this. Suddenly he grabs my neck and I feel a stab of pain going through my body, I try to scream but I can’t, then everything goes black. I come to, and hear some voices, but they sound so far away.
‘I can feel her pulse. Young lady can you hear me, if you can hear me open your eyes?’
I try to open them but I can’t.
‘Can you hear me? If you can, try to move any part of your body… Sir! I just saw her finger move.’
When I finally regained consciousness I realized I had been raped and robbed of all my night’s earnings. I had several stab wounds on my arms, chest, belly and face. It was miracle I survived. I was unconscious for a week and had to have series of life saving surgeries.
The police apprehended the man several months later. Apparently, he also was a serial rapist who preyed on street girls, murdering or maiming them. I became a state witness for the State Prosecutor against my traffickers. Because of me the police were able to arrest, charge and convict them, bringing down one of the biggest trafficking rings in Europe.
My family members were attacked and harassed back home. They had to relocate to another state. I am proud of what I did. Lots of lives have been saved because I spoke up.