After nearly 30 hours of flights, the city of Kathmandu was awash with blood and there were headless carcases of horse-sized beasts on every corner. In my shock, I sent a sarcastic email to family saying that the entrails lining the streets to herald my arrival was an absolutely lovely gesture.
One thing I had organised before my ill-equipped trip was to spend a few days at a rehab for victims of child trafficking. This place was on the outskirts of the city in an area called Guasala.
My brief was that the girls were bored and needed activities to fill their long days. I was to show them my camera, teach them how to take pictures, and then write an article upon my return.
In my hotel room, I used my phrase book to write a basic instructional lesson in Nepali with pictures to try to illustrate the movement of the aperture and shutter, and so on.
The girls I met the next day I guessed at being aged from about ten to seventeen years. We communicated mostly with body language and some basic translation from my liaison – an Australian Youth Ambassador.
They were mostly from villages. Some had been sold to traffickers by their families, who were very poor. Some had been duped by handsome young men pretending to want to be their boyfriends and promising a wonderful life in India if they left with them.
Typically, the dreams and romance would unravel when the ‘boyfriend’ couldn’t travel with them and didn’t meet them at the end of the escorted journey as promised. Instead, they were sent to the red light districts of Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi where they became sex slaves. Those that wanted to leave were told that they had an enormous debt to repay first. Even after months and years.
The place I visited committed guerilla acts of ‘reverse abduction’, posing as clients and then enforcing an escape plan for the girl. They would be rehabilitated and their families contacted if they could be found.
Unfortunately, however, the families often did not want them back. The experiences they had endured were thought to bring shame on the family. As such, they were usually abandoned to the rehab.
At rehab, they were enclosed in concrete rooms, left with very little to do and no counseling. In many cases I saw, I would have to say that Stockholm Syndrome had taken place, because so many of the girls didn’t want to be at the rehab facility. Even though life as a sex slaves would have been horrendous, life in rehab was pretty bad too.
One of the girls was mute. She had withdrawn from the others and seemed despairing. I wasn’t sure if she was autistic by the rocking and isolation.
On the second day I visited, she emerged from the dark corner she had slumped in and communicated to me very insistently that I take her photograph. She smoothed her wrinkled jumper with her hands and even smiled for the camera. Then she returned back to the shadows.
The rehab facility itself was a fortress with no-one being allowed in or out. I was the first ‘journalist’ who had been admitted in two years. I believe this was because I was sent by the aid agency and described my visit as ‘wanting to share the story and gain more media attention’ for the cause. I abandoned that mission about Day 3.
In the rehab facility, I saw many I believe had post-traumatic stress, and a few girls I strongly felt to be suicidal. Almost half had been physically maimed, such as blinded, to make escape from the brothel virtually impossible. A number were HIV positive.
One young woman who would have been my age had a baby boy who died of AIDS two weeks after I returned to Australia.
Soon after my visits, the youth ambassador who was sent as a psychologist to help these girls (also from the aid agency) was forbidden from going near them. It seemed the lid was to close once more.