Monday, October 03, 2011

All home

Thank you to all of you who have been following this story and sending comments and messages of support over the last couple of weeks.

I'm happy to say that the 23 trafficked children are all home now - back with their families in Tuan Giao district of Dien Bien province, north west of Hanoi.

Here's how it all came to an end...

To save the 2 day journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi by bus or train, Jetstar donated the flights and we were able to fly the kids north on Thursday afternoon. Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer, Van, flew with them (as he has been working closely with the kids) along with 2 police from Dien Bien province. Their presence has been important because the ultimate goal is to have the trafficker (a woman) and the factory owners (her sons) prosecuted. Their factories have already been shut down and they've each been fined heavily (including some compensation payments to the kids), but we want to see these people in court - and eventually in prison.

Once everyone had landed, I met them at the airport and we hopped on a bus (also donated - this time by Peak Adventure Travel, formerly known as Intrepid) to head to the city of Tuan Giao in the district of Tuan Giao. "City" is an exaggeration, of course... After an 11 hour bus ride through the night, we arrived at a tranquil town where many people still wear their traditional dress, or at least head scarves, and nobody seemed to understand a word I said. (After nearly 10 years in Vietnam, I hope to do better than that!)

Although the police in Ho Chi Minh City had taken statements from the kids already, the Tuan Giao police needed to take them again. They appear to be building their own case against the trafficker, and I can see a possibility that there will be 2 separate sets of charges.

The process was very quick: police and various officials had set up a room where children about 10 children could be interviewed at a time.

By that time, family members had started to arrive from the villages, so there were sporadic reunions over the course of a few hours. During these, the true state of the families started to become clear.

On the bus ride up we had bought a box of bottled water. As soon as no adults were looking, the kids pounced on the box and within seconds all of the bottles were gone.

No problem, we wanted the kids to have them... but it was a bit odd that nobody seemed to be drinking.

Once we were in Tuan Giao and the parents started to arrive, we could see why.

One of the boys, V - among the smallest of the children - had used some of his compensation money to buy some simple gifts for his mother. His father had long since died, and V had gone to Ho Chi Minh City hoping he would somehow be helping his mother. If not for the police demanding that the factory owners pay compensation money, she wouldn't have received much at all.

Among the gifts that V handed over was a bottle of water, taken from the box on the bus. He and his mother live in such poverty that a mere bottle of water was treated as a prize possession, a sign of love from son to mother.

And most telling of all was that V's mother had no idea how to open it. One of the policemen, seeing her try, stepped over to open the bottle. How small and humble I felt at that moment.

The children and their family members wanted nothing more than to get home, so they left around midday on motorbikes arranged by the local government.

Van and I wanted to go out with them to visit each of their homes, but with the threat of a tropical storm looming we could only go as far as the first village, which was about 45 minutes by motorbike. This is the 'richest' of the villages, and it was really disappointing that we couldn't get out further and see more families.

Along the way, I shot some film from my camera to get a sense of the countryside we were in.

And once we reached the village, I was able to capture some images of the homes that the kids lived in. The film below shows a typical house in this village.

Not one of the houses that we entered had electricity or running water. The floors were bare dirt, and the finger-wide gaps in the walls made me shiver with the thought of the coming winter.

I can see why the trafficker chose to come up here to get these children. She assumed that nobody would notice, or care. She believed that even if someone did notice, and did care, that they wouldn't possibly put in the effort required to find the kids way down the other end of the country and bring them home.

It turns out she was wrong on all counts. Quite a few of us noticed, and cared. And we were more than willing to travel the length of the country several times over in order to find, protect, and bring them home.

In coming weeks my challenge is to work out what to do next.

The kids left their villages because someone came along offering them the promise of a better life. But it was a lie, a cheap trick with nothing more in mind than exploitation.

They've been working up to 18 hours a day, every day, for many months; they're exhausted, they have been through hunger and beatings and verbal abuse. Now we've taken them home to their families.

But will life be better now? Somehow, it has to be. We have to find a way, or else we'll have lied to the children, too.

1 comment:

Wes said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I am going to solicit the support of the students from ISS who will be attending the Global Issues Network Conference in Manilla in February. It is my hope that we will be able to work with students from schools around Asia to find solutions to the poverty these children face in this village. Thank you for all of the wonderful work that you do. Wes