A brief synopsis of where we’ve left Anna:
In Part 1, We find 15 year old Anna living in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her mother is a prostitute just to keep food on the table for her and her siblings. She sees a sign in a shop window advertising nanny positions in America for $1000.00 a month, and she sees a way to save her mother and family from the poverty and wretched circumstances that they live in. She applies, but as she gets on a bus to go to the airport, she’s driven off the wrong way, and her passport is sold to a Chinese man who boards the bus as they cross the Chinese border. In Part 2, the bus continues moving. One of the other girls on the bus tries to escape but is shot three times for trying. The bus arrives in Laos, and Anna and one of the other girls are sold as household slaves to a wealthy man/family in Vientiane, the Capital city. By the end of Part 2, Anna has become numb from abuse (physical and sexual), threats, manipulation, loneliness, and desperation. She felt lost and hopeless, because no one even knew where she was. She feared that her family assumed she was having such a great time that she forgot about them, and she wanted to die.
The sun rose and shone through the cracks in the wall of my bedroom. The birds outside chirped, and if I didn’t remember that I was a slave, beaten and prostituted for sport, I think I could have liked Vientiane. I’d been there long enough that I’d figured out that the house was owned by a very rich man. From what Kalina and I could pick up, everyone appeared to be masquerading as employees who worked for this man, Palani, in a fairly small business that designed and sold athletic clothing. A team of graphic designers designed the prints that would go on the clothing and accessories, had everything printed and shipped to the house, and from there it was sold. There was a storefront at the main entrance of the massive house, as well as several small offices that we were responsible for keeping clean. Kalina and I did not run the store, as neither of us spoke Laotian, and I was usually too severely beaten to stand and face customers. I haven’t looked anyone but Kalina in the eye for months, anyway. It would likely blow the cover they have set up for the drug smuggling and human trafficking operation that they run behind the scenes. It seemed so obvious to me even from the start that this could not be a legitimate business. Such a small storefront could not possibly sustain such a large home attached to the back with so many employees living right on site. I quickly came to the conclusion that no one, not even government officials, cared about what was going on. I would see police officers standing in the shop as I walked past from time to time, but they stood talking quietly with Palani. They were there to be part of the corruption, not part of a solution. They would usually leave with drugs. Sometimes, they would come in through the back entrance and Palani would leave them alone with older, more experienced girls. They left with gifts of drugs, smiles on their faces, and substantially less money. Whatever hope I had of rescue evaporated the day that a uniformed Laotian police officer walked around the corner in the house and nearly bumped into me while I cleaned the hallway, looked me right in the eye, winked, and stroked my bruised arm before leaving the house. I meant nothing to him, and he was not there to be my rescue. One tear slipped down my cheek — more emotion than I’d let myself feel or express in months. It was a tear of utter despair.
Months passed again with the cycle endlessly repeating itself. Girls would come and go through the house. They were often sold again if they could get a higher price than what had been paid. I watched while two girls who’d only been in the house a week were stuffed into the back of a large black van, bound and gagged, and taken only God knows where. I must not have been worth much, because no one ever wanted to take me out. I suppose I was fine with that. At least here I was fed and had shelter. This endlessly repeating cycle had become my life.
Early one morning, I was cleaning in the storefront when a man walked in. I hadn’t made eye contact with anyone, not even Kalina, since the police officer had leered at me. He was tall and white. Apart from Kalina, I hadn’t seen anyone with white skin since I left Russia. He had an athletic build and I tried not to stare, but he looked so out of place that I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing in a fake athletic shop in Vientiane, Laos. He made eye contact with me and smiled. I looked away and left the room quickly. I feared he’d be asking for me later. I stayed closer than I normally do during a business deal to the store. He didn’t speak Laotian, so the girl running the store had to get Palani. Palani spoke to the man in broken English, and the man sounded so relieved. I don’t speak English, so I don’t know what was said, but something felt different about this man. He purchased a pair of shoes and he left the store. I wondered if it were possible that he really was only there to buy running shoes.
Weeks went by again, and I had nearly forgotten the man’s kind face. I was outside pruning a bush in the blazing hot sun. My pale skin was burning, I could feel it. I asked to come inside but no one listened. I was shoved back outside.
I looked around, stretching my back and wiping my face free of sweat. As I looked around, I saw his face again. He was walking on the sidewalk past the house. It surprised me that the backyard area of the house wasn’t more closely watched, but this was the first time I’d been out of the building since being brought to it. My best guess is that I’d been there roughly seven months. I walked slowly closer to the sidewalk. He stopped to tie his shoes and as he looked up, he saw me watching him. He smiled and walked toward the fence. He said something in English that I didn’t understand. He looked right into my eyes, and I looked at my feet. He looked closely at the bruises and scars on my arms. I stepped backwards. He said something else in English, quickly, and he walked away.
Later that afternoon, a uniformed officer walked into the shop. I was cleaning the shop and the officer said something to me in Laotian. He handed me a piece of paper that I gave to Palani when he entered the room. He motioned for me to leave, but I stayed just behind the door. I heard an argument, but I understood only a few words. I heard them coming toward the door so I fled. A few minutes later, there were several uniformed police officers throughout the building searching rooms, talking to girls, and taking pictures. I was so confused. My experience with the police has not been positive in Laos. I tried to go find a place to hide, but the police were looking in every room. I backed into my own room… dank and dark. I hoped they wouldn’t find me. But they did.
A police officer took me by the hand and told me something in Laotian. I saw Kalina down the hall and I tried to run for her. The police officer kept talking to me in Laotian and I started to panic. Kalina said something to the man who had her in broken Laotian. She must have paid closer attention than I did in the past seven months. The officer who had me looked down and looked me in the eyes and smiled. I was terrified.
He took me around the corner and I watched in utter confusion as Palani and all of his employees were handcuffed and being taken away. I also saw the man from outside and he smiled and waved. I still didn’t understand. The officer put Kalina and me in a car and we were taken away. I didn’t know whether to feel relief or dread. Could this really be over? Were these police officers the same as what I’d already seen? Or were they different? Were they really there to help?
Kalina asked me the same questions in the car. The officers said nothing, but we assumed they didn’t speak Russian. We arrived at the police station and were met by people who spoke Russian who could talk to us. We were given clean clothes, showers, a big, hot meal, and we were allowed to sit together.
The man who came in to talk to us sat down at the table. He introduced himself as Kapono. He told us that the man who had bought the running shoes, Lucas, had seen the bruises and scars on my arms in the store that first day and he had suspected that something wasn’t right, so he had gone to the police. Kapono had explained that over the couple weeks since the first time Lucas had come in, several officers had come in in plain clothes, looking around, building a case, and ready to raid Palani’s ‘business’ efforts. He also explained that between the trafficking, the drugs, the kidnapping, and the abuse and rape charges, Palani and his men wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone again. He said we’d be moved to a center for girls who’d been rescued run by an organization specializing in rehabilitation for girls who’d gone through what we’d been through. I still wasn’t sure that I trusted any of them, but the word rescue sure sounded promising. This was a temporary measure, Kapono explained, until we could be returned to our families after some counselling, but they would inform our families if at all possible of our whereabouts.
Kalina and I were taken to the facility that night. I had a warm bed, clean clothes, clean sheets, and people who seemed to care about me very much. I hoped this would last, because it sure seemed too good to be true.
Stay tuned in March for details about Anna’s care at the rehabilitation facility. For more information about organizations that help rescue people like Anna, please check out The Exodus Road. There, you’ll find plenty of stories about people just like Anna, rescued from slavery and returned to their families. Want a way you can help? Check out Exodus Auctions. You can get in contact with Exodus Road and if your product meets their requirements, they’ll help you sell it. All proceeds would go to rescue victims of trafficking.