My experience doing covert operations with the Freedom Operations team
By Jeff Hartman
I stood on a street corner in Thamel—the touristy area of Kathmandu—at about 8pm waiting for a call from the Freedom Operations team, who I would be joining for the night. Undercover.
The streets transformed before my eyes from a tourist hub to a seedy red light district in the span of 30 minutes. Crowds became younger and much more male-oriented. The music became louder as the storefronts closed up for the day. I got butterflies. Finally, I got the call. Jeff, the VP of Freedom Operations, would meet me in 10 minutes with the rest of the team at Fire and Ice, a local pizza joint.
I walked over through endless “smoke and hashish” guys, Turkish salesmen, street girls, cab drivers, and policemen. I’m not sure if I even saw one female tourist the entire way.
The Freedom Operations team arrived and I felt a little more at ease. We talked about trafficking, their theories, dreams, and the challenges of the work. It was exciting, inspiring, depressing, and fun all at the same time.
We briefly discussed what we were to do that evening and the DOs and DONTs of the clubs. Basically be cool, follow their cues, and just watch and learn. They were also getting mic’d up with cameras and recorders, bringing DNA swabs in case they came across some used condoms, glasses, or got consent from the women to collect samples. We were posing as “researchers” in case anyone asked. I was a bit nervous, but felt I was in good hands with all the experience around the table. We said a prayer, then made a plan of attack.
We headed out with the intention of hitting three or four clubs. My adrenaline was pumping as we walked down the streets of Thamel. Jeff pointed out the prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts. He was cool, intense, smart, and played the part well.
We arrived at our first club, passed through security, and went down to the basement. Immediately it seemed shady. A girl was dancing on stage, several others hung around scantily dressed, and a few Nepali men lurked in the shadows. We were the only white men there.
Three women escorted us to the back corner of the club, where light was scarce. We sat down in a torn up booth and the women immediately started flirting. I had no clue what I should/shouldn’t do, what I could/couldn’t do, so I sat there for a minute like a deer in headlights. All I could think to do was scan the club looking for the pimps, customers, rooms, etc… trying to get a feel for the place and take cues from the other guys without giving anything away. They explained that the women are smart, and they can pinpoint within a very short period of time what kind of customer you are and why you’re there. This scared me a bit, so I really tried to blend in the best I could.
I looked over and noticed the other guys’ arms hanging loosely around a couple of women. Should I be doing that too?! I began to mimic them.
Two girls sat on either side of me. It was so loud we had to crowd together to communicate. Needless to say, the environment was designed with comfort and intimacy in mind.
The girls began asking for drinks. I was a little confused until I realized their jobs were to please the customer and generate income for the establishment. They were doing a good job.
The place was not only loud but it was very hot despite a fan blowing directly on us from above. The women were dressed in lingerie or skimpy outfits, and I was in jeans and a Packers shirt.
The women got more friendly as the night wore on, and conversation turned more intimate with comments about my “beautiful” skin, my muscles, my eyes, etc…
We talked about families, but never about marriage. All of this was done through broken English, broken Nepali, gestures, touching, and a lot of laughing and flirting. Fortunately it was initially a lot like a fraternity party, with which I was familiar. But soon the flirting became more intense, with requests for kisses and touching, and that was a frontier I was not used to.
The first two girls I was with eventually went up to dance on stage and were replaced by new girls—one with tears in her eyes. The other girl told me the teary-eyed girl was sad, but she denied it even as tears continued to pool. I tried to lift her spirits, which resulted in her holding my arm and leg. Whoops. Rewind.
She didn’t say much more, but just kept her arm around me as I thought, How did I get here?! I was undercover with experts in the field of anti-sex trafficking, sitting inside a Kathmandu nightclub with a sad girl’s arm around me. So surreal.
More tourists and Nepali men arrived and the music got louder. The energy was picking up and the girls were starting to work harder by asking for kisses on the cheek. At one point I leaned over to one of the other guys told him half-joking that it was a pleasure meeting him and how ironic it was we were meeting like this! He laughed and said how crazy that we have wives that trust us enough to let us be here. I agreed and thought about Brooke at home. We were both so lucky.
I honestly wanted to tell all these girls in the club that there is help, and that I was harmless, and that I really wanted to give them a sincere hug. I pictured some of the dirty kids in the rural villages and on the streets of Kathmandu and wondered if this was their fate. Never did I expect the emotions I was experiencing. Fear, yes. Excitement, yes. Sadness, yes. But a deep grief and anger stirred inside me that I hadn’t expected.
Jeff explained that many of the girls had either been tricked into coming and were now not free to leave, or their families were so desperate for income they were pressured into staying. Whatever the case, he made it clear that NO ONE chose to be here, and that each girl had a story that would break your heart.
The team eventually recorded the information they needed and collected DNA samples from some willing girls. I remember standing up to walk out and feeling every girl in the club escorting me out with her eyes. Perhaps it was just me, but it seemed like a mix of stares; the I don’t want to be here stare fighting the I need business to survive stare. Both were heart wrenching.
These were the girls. These were the ones I had read and watched documentaries about. These are the girls the Freedom Operations team has been working to free. These are the girls so many people are either fighting for or turning a blind eye to. I had looked them in the eye. I had laughed with them. They are real.
Thamel appeared darker when I walked outside. The crowd was rough and girls were working the streets—very different from the upbeat tourist hub I’d shopped around just hours earlier.
On the way back to our host home I reflected on how privileged I was to experience this and witness the work of an organization on the cutting edge, an organization actually doing something about the abuse of women.
Brooke was awake to hear the stories when I got home. I was still running on adrenaline as I paced back and forth in our room replaying the night for her. Eventually I slowed down, fatigue set in, and I got ready for bed. My wife’s eyes were shut and I leaned over to give her a kiss as she fell asleep. I felt so lucky to have an amazing woman like her who trusted me so much.
I rolled back over and felt the fan from above blowing on me. I flashed back to the club when a different fan was blowing on me and women were all around. As I drifted off to sleep, my heart was a swirl of emotions. I felt a growing sense of resolve. The women I met in the club may have a difficult road ahead of them, but if Freedom Operations continues its powerful work in Nepal, many more girls won’t have to walk this road in the first place.