ADEN, Yemen, October 15 (UNHCR) – A refugee’s kindly gesture in her native Somalia was repaid years later with betrayal in Yemen when her teenage daughter was abducted. It was Khadija’s* worst moment in a lifetime of pain.
Then her luck changed dramatically. She was reunited with 16-year-old Khadra,* and, on UNHCR’s recommendation, accepted for resettlement in northern Europe. What’s more, in a landmark court case, her former friend and two accomplices were tried and jailed for 10 years for human trafficking, the world’s fastest growing criminal industry.
This first such case in Yemen could set an important precedent. But Khadija’s daughter was fortunate to escape relatively unscathed. Millions, including refugees, have been caught in trafficking rings and many have suffered exploitation, incarceration, rape, sexual enslavement, enforced prostitution, forced labour, removal of organs for transplant, physical and psychological torture and other abuse. The young are particularly vulnerable.
“My life has been marked by many hardships,” Khadija told UNHCR. For half her life, her native Somalia has been torn apart by violence, leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced. Her own marriage broke up because of inter-clan conflict, which forced her to board a smuggler’s boat and seek shelter across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen
“I endured the trauma of fleeing my country [in 1999] and leaving my mother and daughter behind,” Khadija recalled. “I put up with living in poverty in Yemen.” In 2002, she went back to Somalia to collect her child.
Three years before becoming a refugee, while running a grocery shop in the northern Somali port of Bossaso, she had her first fateful meeting with Fatima,* the Ethiopian refugee who would let her down so badly.
“I was serving some customers one afternoon when I heard a woman cry for help at the back of my shop. I ran outside,” Khadija said, adding that she found Fatima on the ground trying to fight off an attacker. “I started yelling at the rapist with all my strength. Eventually, he took flight.”
Khadija, whose daughter was two years old at the time, took Fatima into her home. “She used to call me mother and that’s how I felt. She lived under my roof until she got married in 1998 and then I lost track of her.”
But their paths crossed again in September last year in Aden. “I was surprised to see how well off she was. She had a four-room house and employed three maids,” the older woman said, adding that when Fatima offered her daughter Khadra a job, “I thought it was a kind gesture to repay my past generosity.”
But about three weeks later, Khadija was shocked to get a call from Fatima to say that she was sacking her daughter. “Though I didn’t understand the reason behind such a decision, I made no objection. In the afternoon, I went to collect my daughter and her belongings,” Khadija said. The following day Khadra went to visit some friends, but she never returned home.
After a sleepless night, Khadija went to Fatima’s house to look for Khadra. “Fatima pretended to be in the dark about my daughter’s disappearance. But I knew she was lying because I spotted a plastic bag with my daughter’s clothes,” she said.
The police said there was not enough evidence to act, but Khadija refused to give up. She discovered that her daughter was being held in Yemen’s Shabwa province by someone who trafficked young African girls across the border into Saudi Arabia, where they are forced into domestic service or sexual slavery.
“When I called him to ask for my daughter back, he asked me for US$250. In a second phone call, he demanded US$1,000,” Khadija revealed, adding: “I couldn’t afford to pay.” Khadija decided that if she was to save her daughter, she needed help – she went to the police. The authorities in Shabwa arrested two men who had been negotiating with Khadija for Khadra’s release. The police in Aden, meanwhile, picked up Fatima.
It was a risky move because Khadra was still a prisoner. Sure enough, a few days later, Khadija received a call from her frantic daughter, beseeching her to secure the release of Fatima and her accomplices. A man came on the line and told her to help if she ever wanted to see her daughter again.
But instead of spooking Khadija, the threats convinced her “that the only guarantee for my daughter’s life was having those three criminals in prison . . . I never lost hope. An inner voice kept telling me that my daughter was alive.”
Then one day in February this year, out of the blue, she received a call from Somalia. “It was my daughter. She said that she had been arrested by the Saudi authorities and then deported to Mogadishu.” For the second time, she returned to Somalia to collect her daughter. Soon afterwards, UNHCR recommended her and her daughter for resettlement.
Khadija was elated at the news, but she needed final closure. “I felt I couldn’t live my life in peace until the perpetrators of my daughter’s abduction for trafficking had been tried,” she explained. UNHCR agreed and Khadija and her daughter left for their new life in Europe a week after a court in Aden on September 25 sentenced Fatima and her co-defendants to 10 years imprisonment, and ordered them to pay US$3,000 in compensation. “Now I feel I have room in my mind to think of my child’s future and of a new home,” Khadija said.
* Names changed for protection reasons
By UNHCR Aden, Yemen
Photo by Rocco Nuri