MAIN BRK_0407 2High Places

How one organization is toppling the sex trafficking industry
by Brooke Hartman

With the Himalayan Mountains lingering just beyond the foothills, the country of Nepal evokes feelings of mystery and magic.

With the Himalayan Mountains lingering just beyond the foothills, the country of Nepal evokes feelings of mystery and magic.

But in remote villages and dark alleys near and far, young girls are being harvested by a sinister and lucrative business of for-profit rape, otherwise known as sex trafficking.

But in remote villages and dark alleys near and far, young girls are being harvested by a sinister and lucrative business of for-profit rape, otherwise known as sex trafficking.

Fortunately, one organization is bringing together the skills and knowledge of local Nepali and international experts to intercept trafficked girls at the border. By dismantling the illegal network and de-incentivizing the business, Tiny Hands Nepal is stopping injustice at the source.

Fortunately, one organization is bringing together the skills and knowledge of local Nepali and international experts to intercept trafficked girls at the border. By dismantling the illegal network and de-incentivizing the business, Tiny Hands Nepal is stopping injustice at the source.

Flying into Kathmandu, I could see the tips of the Himalayan Mountains peeking through the clouds. Fascinated by top-of-the-world snowy peaks, prayer flags and Sherpa communities, I’d dreamt of visiting Nepal for years. I couldn’t imagine what the Himalayas would be like, twice as high as the Colorado Rockies I’d seen for the first time three years ago.

On clear days, mountain peaks around Kathmandu shine in the sun.

On clear days, mountain peaks around Kathmandu shine in the sun.

And Kathmandu? From the sky, the city seemed sleepy and peaceful. I could never imagine the bustling, crowded, loud and fragrant streets, the pounding heat, or the black puffs of exhaust that would infiltrate the valleys below. The dreamy place of my imagination turned out to be worn and vulnerable—a parallel I would eventually make with its youngest and least educated inhabitants. The brick and stone buildings looked equally a million years strong and on the brink of toppling any second. Homes precariously perched on the sides of slopes could just slide right off tomorrow, it appeared.

On only the clearest day, beyond the ten-thousand-foot hills that surround Kathmandu valley, the Himalayas preside over the streets below, creating an excitement around town. An audible gasp can be heard on mornings when the fog lifts or a cloud dissipates revealing a massive, sparkly peak—like an unexpected royal breakfast guest. I could never anticipate the stirring I would feel inside, a tiny speck on one of those crowded streets, when the clouds cleared and I looked up to see the peaks in the distance. A glimpse of the high places. Real, I was sure, but from where I stood, unreachable.

Nepal is a land of extremes, and as high and bright as the mountains above soared, so deep was the darkness hidden from the high places, lurking in provincial villages and alleys. This darkness was the reason we had come to Nepal. We were there to write about sex trafficking.

Of course, I thought I already knew all about this issue. I was prepared to hear the story of an individually trafficked girl. I was prepared to write about the small-scale work I thought Tiny Hands Nepal, our host ministry, was doing at various border stations. These efforts would have been commendable in and of themselves, and worth writing about even though the issue was thousands of times bigger. But Tiny Hands blew me out of the water. Everything I thought I knew about trafficking was flipped upside down and turned around.

The border crossing point between Nepal and India in Birgunj

The border crossing point between Nepal and India in Birgunj

Both True and Real

During my first week I’d learned that Nepal, which shares open borders with India, is a source country for trafficking through India to the Arabian Gulf—to the tune of about 10,000 girls per year. India is both a destination for trafficked Nepali girls and a transit route to the Arabian Gulf, where men from poorer communities have been recruited for cheap labor. Women are necessarily imported to meet their needs.

What?!

Women are necessarily imported to meet the sexual needs of cheap laborers.

I could just imagine the business owners working out the whole arrangement:

-But where should we get them, boss?
-Oh, I don’t know. Just find a bunch of desperately poor, naïve, uneducated girls and trick them!

A map displaying all the border and traffic points of interest throughout Nepal in the Tiny Hands office

A map displaying all the border and traffic points of interest throughout Nepal in the Tiny Hands office

And a business was born. Supply and demand. However the girls are obtained—coercion, physical force, drugs, fake marriages, fake jobs—the overhead is cheap and the $32 billion dollar payoff is massive and renewable. It’s a low-risk/high-reward business.

But sex trafficking has been trending for a good few years. Awareness is growing, there are 5ks in every major American city to end slavery, and #anti-trafficking #hashtags all over Twitter. I’d heard the stories of rescued girls and brothel raids. I’d looked into the tiny faces of would-be trafficked girls in Cambodia spared through preventative programming and shook my head in disbelief. I mean, I knew it was true, but it just didn’t seem real.

It got real real fast in Nepal.

Numbed

I realized two things as I began to weave in and out of the programs at Tiny Hands: One, because of all the exposure I’ve had to the concept of sex trafficking, my heart had been numbed by the language we use. “Sex trafficking” is just a fancy name for rape business. When I thought of it in those terms, my heart jumped up and reached around for weapons. It’s a rape business! With kids!

Two, I had never seen the trafficking in-progress. I had never seen the collision of deception and naivety until I looked at the confused face of an intercepted 14-year old at a dusty border station. My perspective expanded to include rape business in-progress.

As I’d read in Gary Haugen’s book Terrify No More, “The infinite distance between the dignified setting in which we talk about the gross brutalization of people and the places where it actually happens suddenly collapsed when the sights and sound of evil incarnate filled the room.”

Yep. That happened. Sex trafficking went from a concept to a person standing in front of me that day.

I began to understand that my previous knowledge of the trafficking industry was like seeing only the tip of a mountain peeking through the clouds, only the visible part of the trafficking enterprise: the commodity and the byproduct. But an entire mountain and valley, I learned, exists below the cloud line—a robust, unseen network.

Where did the girl come from? Why was she trafficked? By whom? How many more girls are there? Where did the traffickers come from? Which routes did they use? What border did they cross? Who funded it?

These are the questions Tiny Hands is asking.

They are not just waiting at the top of the mountain addressing all the things we can see. They’re not even off to the side scooping up girls before they’re pulled in. They’re inside the mountain—the rape business in-progress—blowing the whole thing up!

My previous knowledge of the trafficking industry was like the tip of a mountain peak, with an entire robust, unseen network existing below.

My previous knowledge of the trafficking industry was like the tip of a mountain peak, with an entire robust, unseen network existing below.

Collaboration

How could they possibly do this, I wondered as I sat down with my pen and notebook across from Nepali staff on our first full day in-country. I had come to the premature conclusion that in small niches of the world handfuls of girls were being spared this awful life by prevention, and another small portion was being methodically rescued; but I was not entirely convinced justice would ever find its way up and out to the bad guys or that any of these operations would put a dent in the industry.

Over the course of two days, hidden away in a corner momo shop, the Tiny Hands staff pieced together for me the story of an inter-country collaboration of skills, expertise and the love of Christ working together to free captives, dismantle the network and de-incentivise the business.

Pastor Bhoj and his wife Gopee, who oversee the Bhairahawa border station along with the church subcommittee

Pastor Bhoj and his wife Gopee, who oversee the Bhairahawa border station along with the church subcommittee

One-by-one the staff entered the restaurant hot and sweaty, during a government-sanctioned strike that shut down all transportation countrywide. I interviewed the directors, trainers, law personnel and aftercare workers who serve and train the border staff, and monitor their needs and safety.

Particularly striking about the Nepali staff was each one’s humility and willingness to put his life at risk coordinating border work. One—the safety coordinator—described how he keeps logs of traffickers in jail and works hard to anticipate what harm might befall workers at various stations in retribution. All told of their lives being threatened. They weren’t stuffy white shirt guys with slick hair and gadget pens or big burly guys on motorcycles. They were ordinary Nepali men in ball caps and chinos, none over 5’8”, many with wives and young kids, equipped primarily with research and prayer.

The Research Guys

Then we met the research guys. They comprise a covert network of Nepali “Justice Operations” expertise and work under the direction of the Vice President of Justice Operations—an international expert in the field, who was constantly presented to us by all the different staff and volunteers like this: You have to meet Jeff! He doesn’t live here, but he’s the expert training our research guys. He used to work for International Justice Mission, but he’s in Thailand right now on an operation.

Wow. An “operation.” I made jokes about spy pens, but everyone just nodded their heads sincerely.

Jeff had the vision for the Fusion Center, into which all the Justice Operations intelligence is funneled, and where an impassioned twenty-something Johns Hopkins grad analyzes it. This grad is in charge of research and analysis, and he is self-funded, along with all the other Tiny Hands International staff.

During our sunset interview on his day off, he described how he creates maps showing points of origin for both the trafficker and the victim, the average path lengths and transit routes, funding sources, and final destinations. This, the team believes, will help them understand the methods of recruitment, and more strategically fight sex trafficking on a structural level.

So, they are at the borders intercepting individual girls on a daily basis, but through the interception, they’re able to gather information for prosecution and de-incentivize the trade. Every successful intervention costs the traffickers money. Every successful prosecution costs them time and resources. Every criminal sentenced to jail makes trafficking a higher risk/lower profit enterprise in that community.

A little more comprehensive than I had initially thought.

Here is the body of Christ, I marveled, with its different skills, purposes, and nationalities, working together toward a common goal of intercepting as many girls as possible, building tight cases for prosecution, and convicting the traffickers.

Field research is funneled into the Fusion Center where it is mapped and analyzed for patterns.

Field research is funneled into the Fusion Center where it is mapped and analyzed for patterns.

Shutting Down WalMart

I could just feel the kingdom of God growing with each new person I learned about, and I couldn’t wait to get to the borders. But there was one last person to meet: Jeff B, the Fusion Center guy, the Vice President of Freedom Operations. The guy everyone kept telling us we had to meet. He was flying in that morning from Thailand.

I was a tiny bit intimidated. I couldn’t imagine what this guy would be like. Jet setter? James Bond? Leather jacket? Motorcycle?

One of those four was correct—he did drive a motorcycle. But he was completely unassuming, I suppose the way an undercover freedom operations guy should be. He sat down and described his approach in ways I could understand.

The Freedom Operations team enters the dark places and documents the darkness for the purpose of eradicating it entirely.

The Freedom Operations team enters the dark places and documents the darkness for the purpose of eradicating it entirely.

If you wanted to shut down Walmart, he explained, you wouldn’t just clear the shelves. This would be simply rescuing individual girls. If you did that, Walmart would just restock tomorrow morning. This could potentially draw more girls into the sex trade than there were today in order to restock the shelves. You would not even shut down the individual store. This would be busting a local brothel. Walmart would just open another store next door tomorrow. A new brothel pops up down the street every time one is busted. Instead, you would follow the distribution chain to the ones in charge: the management and owners. To shut down the entire operation, you would attack the supply chain and dismantle the traffickers.

It made sense, I agreed. But how in the world would they do this? Undercover cameras? Spy gadgets? Double Agents? Would he talk to the girls directly? Get them to disclose the horror on camera? Would he have to pay for the time? And wouldn’t that be scary?

In short, yes, yep, yep, yah, yep, yes, and duh—my words, not his.

He collects evidence through undercover technology and surveillance. This approach does not require a victim for intervention, though sometimes victims are intercepted, and builds evidence that supports conviction outside of victim testimony. A strong case built over time is less prone to corruption, targets higher-level criminals, and is collected within the laws and evidentiary requirements of that particular country.

In other words, they enter the dark places and document the darkness for the purpose of eradicating it entirely. Doing this, though, would require locating the distribution chain and getting into the “cabin restaurants”—brothels in disguise—talking to the owners and girls face-to-face, capturing it all on camera and collecting any additional evidence that could be used in prosecution.

Fascinating. But here was the real question: Would we put our money where our mouth was and join them in the undercover places?

We would.

(By we, I mean my husband, Jeff. His reflections are on the next page!)

Dark Places

Lots of questions burst into the tiny section of my mind that keeps track of things like what my grandma would say about the morality of entering a brothel or cabin restaurant and paying for time with one of the girls for the purpose of gathering intelligence. It would involve money and time and drinks and face time with victims and criminals. They’d have to do it, and they’d have to pretend to like it.

So while my polite, Midwestern-raised husband set out for the dark places with the undercover team, I searched for answers on my own: in Terrify No More by Gary Haugen, God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker, and the movie The Day My God Died—all staff-endorsed literature. And I searched in the Bible.

 I knew that if our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way.

I knew that if our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way.

Ultimately I concluded the following things based on what I knew to be true:

The group had prayed before beginning the operations. In doing so, they drew upon the resources of a God who was already present in that place. God was in the cabin restaurant, brothel, or dance club before this group had ever arrived. He’d been suffering with the girls inside, and He would remain there long after this group left. The people and places they’d encounter were as much a part of God’s creation as any others, and God had not surrendered them to anyone, not even to the traffickers.

I knew that He who is in us—in Jeff, the investigators—is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). If our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way. We couldn’t remain afraid, indifferent or inactive in the face of human slavery. We were to go boldly in His name to such dark places to rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow (God in a Brothel).

At this point, I was fist-pumping alone in my pajamas with a headlamp on and simultaneously checking my phone, refraining from texting Jeff things like: Where are you? What’s it like? Are you okay? Is everything cool? Did you see a girl yet? Don’t get hurt!

I knew that if one girl was to be freed due to the investigative work of these men, it was because the people with the power and influence she lacked would also be people of goodwill and courage (Terrify No More).

More fist pumping. Tiny Hands and my husband were people of goodwill and courage

So, to recap: Gary Haugen, Daniel Walker, Jesus and I were all in agreement that night and the two that followed. God is there, we are not afraid, and it is our job as Christians to go into the darkness and lead everyone out!

I understood during those times of waiting for Jeff to return that this was never God’s fault. God cares about the women, and He has equipped the human race with everything we need— time, education, resources, cash, skills, manpower and brain capacity—to end this injustice. It is we who have not responded.

But Tiny Hands is responding. During the course of three operations involving five hidden cameras, microphones and, yes, spy gadgets, Jeff and his team, with our Jeff in tow, collected intelligence from seven places in two cities.

Nepali and Indians walk freely across the physical border between Nepal and India at the Birgunj border crossing

Nepali and Indians walk freely across the physical border between Nepal and India at the Birgunj border crossing

Thankful, Inspired and Itchy at the Border

Equipped with knowledge of the undercover process and the success the organization had experienced through prayer and research, we were excited to visit the border stations ourselves. This was the frontline fruit of all the prayer and fasting, and the physical halting of the rape business in-progress. I envisioned organized lines, checkpoints, police and high-tech monitoring devices.

I don’t know what I was imagining, but it certainly wasn’t what I found.

It took over 10 hours to reach the closest border station on rickety mountain roads. I had sweat through all my clothes, was covered in dust, itching from a dust/water rash, and we literally walked across the border to India without a care by anyone. Any pretense I had about the sophistication or glamour of border work flew out the window. I had not even been there for 15 minutes and I was miserable. It was one hundred degrees and smelled like trash. Yet 100 Tiny Hands workers hang out in 26 plywood border stations on the Indian border intercepting girls 12-16 hours per day. Each border station is overseen and staffed by a local Nepali church, subcommittee and chairman, and Tiny Hands provides the training and funding.

We met with the pastor and staff early that morning and met an intercepted girl who was deaf and on day five of trying to locate family. She spoke a different language nobody could understand, but she was taken care of by the pastor’s wife at a temporary safe house tucked away from the border streets. She is one of 750 women intercepted at this station in four years. The sweetest part is what the pastor said later as we were leaving: though the anti-trafficking work is an essential part of his Christian ministry, his overall goal is to bring the people of Nepal to Christ. Each interception exposes a girl to the Gospel.

I went to bed that night thankful, inspired, and itchy.

A fearless and friendly 21-year-old at barely 5 feet tall, Rita (right) goes toe-to-toe with traffickers at the Birgjunj border.

A fearless and friendly 21-year-old at barely 5 feet tall, Rita (right) goes toe-to-toe with traffickers at the Birgjunj border.

The next morning, we drove another eight hours to the next border, collecting another eight pounds of dirt, dust, mosquito bites and hives. There, we found ourselves in the middle of an interception. Even more remarkable than seeing the actual interception process was that the particular border worker who intercepted the young girl was intercepted herself three years ago and now works at the station to help other girls like her.

Again, this is the moment it all became real for me. I had never seen the rape business in progress until I saw her confused face at a dusty border station in hundred-degree heat in traditional clothes from a faraway village trying not to cry. She read the cartoon drawing posters tacked to the plywood wall describing the lies and actual reality of trafficking. The man she had come with was off to the side, hand in his hair, visibly stressed out.

At the safe house she fought to maintain composure despite emerging tears. The pastor’s wife and staff fed, comforted and prayed for the girl as we stepped out with the pastor. Almost immediately, he received another call from the border staff about another interception, this time with two women who were on their way to the safe house.

So his days go, this station intercepting 40-50 girls per month, several per day.

I left the borders awestruck at the never-ending work of border workers and the local churches despite harsh conditions and constant threats. And I left the country understanding several things I had never even considered before.

A young girl is intercepted at the Bhairawaha border station and waits as her traveling companion is questioned

A young girl is intercepted at the Bhairawaha border station and waits as her traveling companion is questioned

Sex trafficking is a business fueled by money. The way to topple the business is to make it more risky and less profitable for the trafficker.  To do that we intercept the girls and capture the criminals. The work is dusty, itchy and unglamorous. It’s also sometimes seedy and dark. But we are God’s response to this injustice, and we can’t be afraid.

I understood that God has heard the cries of these girls. God is in the brothel with them. God is at the border with them. God is at the source, God is in the transit routes and God is at the destination. He has given us everything we need to pick the girls up—specks on the dirty, dusty streets looking at high places that don’t quite seem real—and the ability to set them on the high places.

Like the ancient-looking brick and stone buildings on the brink of toppling, so the sex trafficking industry could be in Nepal, thanks to the work of Tiny Hands.

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