A STORY OF SURVIVAL
A $32 billion global annual industry, human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. According to the UN, about 2.5 million people around the world are currently trapped in its brutal web. Gloria Bahati* has been a victim, and she tells us her story.
Born in Burundi, Gloria describes her early life as a ‘rocky road.’
“Because of the war in my country, I lived with my father and step-mother. I don’t remember knowing too much about my mom, except that she had fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo because she couldn’t care for me due to financial reasons. She left me with my dad, because she believed that I would be in better care.”
Unfortunately, Gloria suffered a great loss when she was only 10 years old.
“My dad was arrested; I’m not sure why, but we were all shocked. It was also the last time I saw him because he was beaten in prison and died.”
Shortly after her father’s death, Gloria’s step mom contacted her biological mom and gave her the news about Gloria’s father.
“I think she always knew where my real mom was, because she found her very quickly. It wasn’t long after she called that I went to live with her.”
“My mom had moved back to Burundi. It was not an easy time for me because I had lost my father and I did not know my mom properly; I was nervous. When I arrived I was told that I have three siblings, two older – a sister (12) and brother (14) – and one younger – a brother (9). I was the only child from my mom and dad. They knew about me so they were excited to meet me and they made me feel really welcome. But I had a difficult time getting along with my mom, because I was angry with her for leaving me behind.”
Gloria says that shortly after moving back in with her mom she began school and for the next few years she used school as her place of refuge.
“I was trying to find myself during that time, because having a new mom was not easy. Whenever I spoke to people about how difficult it was, people kept saying that I would get over it and that I would feel like it was my home soon. I felt frustrated, so I released my stress through sports: I played netball, volleyball and basketball.”
“When I was 12, I began playing netball and it became my favourite sport. My coach used to say I had potential so I became very passionate about it. We would practice four times a week and I would be the first one at practice and the last one to leave. I became the team captain.”
“Coach would leave the keys to the changing area with me, and said that I must count the jerseys and take them to the laundry. I had a team of three girls with me who were my best friends. We had a little ritual after every game, where after the laundry we would go to the changing room and have an energy drink.”
One day, after a game, Gloria and her friends were enjoying their energy drinks when one of the girls said she wasn’t feeling well and fainted. The other three girls passed out shortly after.
Gloria and her friends woke up in the back of a truck, feeling confused about what was happening.
“It was dark and we were feeling drowsy, we couldn’t even stand up. Imagine being awake but not able to move; it was terrible. We all screamed, but the people who were in the front of the truck got out and injected us with something that made us feel weak and put us to sleep.”
“When we woke up we were in a building. Everything was very hazy, and we were thrown onto a mattress. They were talking another language that we didn’t understand. We were terrified and all began crying.”
“It was a small, tiny room with no windows. We put each other on our shoulders to be able to look outside; from there we could see that we were higher up.”
“Whenever we shouted and tried to fight them, they would inject us, then we would fall asleep. There were no watches or anything so we never knew what the time or the day was.”
“After we stopped fighting with them, they became nice and began treating us better. They fed us nice food and made us look pretty – new dresses and makeup. We thought this was how rich people lived: a luxury. They took photos of us and put the pictures in a book and on the doors of our rooms.”
“We were moved to different rooms and even though we didn’t see each other all the time we knew that we had one another. We couldn’t move around, because there were gates blocking the passages and security was everywhere.”
“While we stayed in the rooms men would pay to sleep with us. I block their faces from my memory, however things like the way they felt against me and the way I felt smothered will never leave me. We were injected often, so the days went from being drowsily awake to having these men in our rooms, and then sleeping.”
“During this whole time all I kept thinking about was my mother and family. I kept up hope that I would see them again. I knew I would.”
“When I would see the other girls, we would talk to one of the guards that really liked one of my friends. We would beg him to help us get out. After a long time of talking to him, he agreed to leave one of the gates unlocked so that we could escape.”
“It was dark outside when we escaped; I remember running very fast but feeling like I was taking forever to reach the street. Because we were in an apartment high up, we had to run down stairs and then jump out of a window. I kept thinking, if they catch us now then we are dead, but it’s worth the risk. I knew I was so close to seeing my family and that I must keep going.”
“We ran and began feeling cold and throwing up. We realised that we were not in our country anymore because everyone was speaking another language. We felt so trapped because we didn’t know how to ask for help.”
“We had nowhere to go and stayed on the streets. We got really sick, vomitting, scratching and shaking. We were having withdrawals from the drugs we had been injected with.”
“There was a time we wished the guard hadn’t helped us because being on the street was horrible. To survive we would split up, steal from shops and bring our food together. But after a few days we lost each other, so I was alone.”
“I found a thick box that I would sleep under and take it with me during the day. If I wanted to get something to eat I would hide it, so that no one would take it.”
Gloria says that one night while she was sitting under her box on the side of the road, she heard something familiar.
“A man walked past me, speaking my language on the phone. I remember getting so excited because this was my chance to get saved and taken home to my family.”
“I didn’t know what to say, so I followed behind him for a few blocks. I kept looking at my box hoping that nobody would steal it from me, but I took a chance. I eventually called out to him and said that I had lost my parents and asked if he could take me to the police station.”
“He said that he had work to do in the morning so he couldn’t take me immediately but that he would help me soon. He told me to come home with him and he would assist me the following morning. When I got there I had a shower and something to eat. I felt relieved that I was finally going to be saved and felt so grateful in that moment.”
After two days, the man Gloria saw as her hero turned out to be the opposite.
“Two days came and went, and on the third day I asked him when he was taking me to the police station, but he said that I must have patience because he had to work. During that night he told me that I could only stay there if I slept with him. My heart shattered. All the excitement I had to see my family was killed by his words. But I thought that if I needed to do that to survive then I would do it. I kept telling myself that I had slept with so many men so what would one more be? I believed he was going to take me to the police station; I was willing to do anything not to go back to the streets and go home. I was hoping that when I agreed to his terms, he would help me.”
Unfortunately for Gloria, the situation she thought would free her turned into another lengthy period of captivity.
“Whenever I spoke about going to the police station he got angry. He would go to work each morning, lock me inside, take the key, and bring food when he got home. I would spend the days watching television and began learning the basics of English.”
I made friends with an old lady who lived next door and would try to ask me if I was okay. We would communicate by using our hands and nodding because I could not speak English.”
“One day I saw her talking angrily to him, but he pushed her aside. That same day he said that we were moving. After that we never stayed in one place for too long. First we moved around in Durban, then moved on to Cape Town.”
For Gloria, being captured became the norm.
“I lost the notion of time, but I think I might have been 14 when I became very sick and started throwing up. He took me to the clinic where they told us that I was pregnant.”
“He was always next to me and was translating for me; I couldn’t say anything to anyone because I didn’t know how.”
“I remember giving birth and the nurse putting the baby on my chest. I didn’t want to touch her, I didn’t know what to do and I felt more trapped.”
After giving birth, Gloria developed anaemia and would get sick often.
“He said it was because of the pregnancy that I was sick, and I would need to go to the clinic all the time. It was during this time that I began thinking of another way of escaping. I know he hated missing work, so I would talk to him often and told him that if he sent me to school to learn how to speak English then I could go to the clinic myself.”
“At first, he didn’t want to. But then I began not taking my medication and needing to go to the clinic often. After a few months, he finally agreed to send me to a school where foreigners learned how to speak English.”
“My daughter came to school with me, it was only two hours of classes twice a week. I was determined to learn how to speak; to finally communicate with people felt so good. I just made up stories when they would ask about my child as I didn’t trust telling anybody the truth.”
“The course was three months, but I was only there for two months. In my third month I got sick again, I felt really weak and was throwing up all the time. I went to the clinic and they told me that I was pregnant again.”
“I felt sick to my stomach, I was so close to freedom, I could speak and understand English and was ready to go to the police station to report what was happening to me. But I was pregnant, I couldn’t just leave because I kept thinking about how I was going to provide for my two children.”
Feeling at her lowest, Gloria tried to take her own life.
“I went home, took tablets I found and hoped they would kill me, but they didn’t. All that happened was that I fell asleep. I remember my daughter calling me. I looked at her with a blur, not sure what was happening around me.”
Gloria says that in the months to follow she began to give up on her life and lived in a constant depressive fuzz.
“I would make sure that my daughter ate and that she was safe inside, but then I would go to sleep only to wake up and feed her again. I kept thinking that I was a terrible mother, but I was too tired to do anything about it.”
A routine visit to the clinic offered Gloria a ray of light.
“I was about eight months pregnant and I went to the clinic alone. I met a lady while I was waiting to see the nurse. She came to me and told me that she knew me. She told me I looked just like my mother. I thought she was talking nonsense. I asked what her name was, where she worked and lived. I started crying when she told me she was from Burundi. I asked her where my mom was and whether she had a number for her. She said that she didn’t but she could call home and find it. I had lunch money, so I bought a Telkom card and gave it to her to call. She got my mom’s number – and I thought it was the big break I had been waiting for.”
“I dialled the number she gave me, and I felt overwhelmed with happiness and excitement.”
“Hello: it’s me Gloria. Were the first words I said to her. We both cried and she said to me that she knew that I was still alive. People told her to make peace with my death, but she said she never gave up, prayed for my safety and return. She put my disappearance on the radio, in the newspapers but after some time they all stopped looking for me, except her.”
“I told her about what had happened, but she told me it was now over and that I must come home. I gave her my number and we promised to talk the next day. When I got home I couldn’t keep my excitement inside; I wanted to tell someone so I told him. He was the only one I could talk to. I told him but he looked at me and said that I wasn’t going anywhere, then he kicked me and told me to shut up. But I kept thinking this was my chance to get back home and that I would not give up.”
Unfortunately, Gloria’s happiness was short-lived.
“Next morning I got a call from my mom’s number and they told me that my mom passed away after she heard my phone call. They said that she had been sick and weak when I called. I remember feeling angry, I was shouting at God because all I wanted was to see my mom. I kept thinking: How much pain do I need to endure to be enough?”
“I gave up on going home because I thought ‘What is the point? My mom is not there anymore.’ I felt content that I had had a chance to talk to her before she died, but my heart was in pieces.”
“The same week I went into labour and gave birth to my son. I couldn’t feel anything, I had no emotion, no tears. We went back home and I kept living a life of survival. I fed my children and tried my best to show them love.”
Going to the clinic became a sanctuary for Gloria, who hated being at home.
“I would take my son to the clinic early in the morning for his check-up then I would just stay there until it closed. One day I was sitting with my kids and just thinking about my life when a social worker spoke to me and asked me if I was okay. I didn’t really trust her at first, but she kept saying that she wanted to help me. I don’t know what happened to me in that moment, but I just began talking and told her everything that had happened to me. She asked if she could make a call on my behalf, but I freaked out, shouted to her that I made a mistake and ran away.”
That evening, Gloria witnessed a moment at home that opened her eyes to what her children’s lives would be if she didn’t make an attempt to leave.
“I saw my daughter, who was just over two years old, hitting her brother who was a baby. She had so much anger, and in that moment I saw her father within her. She was copying what she saw him doing to me. I knew I had to do something about it.”
The next day Gloria returned to the clinic and asked to speak to the social worker.
“I spoke to her and she called a shelter for me. I told her that I had to wait until he was at work, to go home and get clothes for me and my kids. We left that same night. I was so scared and anxious about what was going to happen.”
“In the following weeks he began sending me threatening text messages, then when I didn’t reply he began calling, swearing, shouting and screaming on the phone. I spoke to the social workers who suggested I get a restraining order.”
Gloria says that after she took action against him, he left her alone.
“I decided not to tell all the truth to the authorities; I did not want the father of my children in prison. I took a restraining order against him. I remember feeling like I had some power in my life.”
“At first, coming out of that situation and living in the shelter was challenging because, for most of my life I was held captive. I did not know how to communicate with people, I never had any friends and was unsure how to build relationships. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I was fitting in. I was referred to therapy which helped me to realise that it was not my fault. I had been blaming myself for not leaving earlier.”
Gloria and her children lived in the shelter for the next three years. During that time, Gloria got a job as a nanny to support her family.
“In my first job I was a nanny. I enjoyed it because it gave me some independence, but not enough, I was still relying heavily on the people at the shelter. My happiness did not last long; I felt devastated with the freedom I finally had. Too many choices, too many responsibilities, too many self-inflicted expectations had me spiralling out of control until I broke down and lost my job.”
Due to Gloria’s history, the shelter let her stay longer than the normal and after a few years they told her to find a place to stay.
“I was healing and trying to do what was best for my children. Unfortunately, I had not been able to find a new job, it was difficult for me to focus.”
With nowhere to take her children, but having to leave the shelter, Gloria was faced with another challenge.
“The people at the shelter told me that they could not let me take my children because I had nowhere to take them. They took them away from me and placed them into foster care until I found a place to stay and an income.”
Gloria has not given up hope to be reunited with her children. She is currently looking for formal employment and survives doing what she is familiar with. Gloria continues to visit her children much more than the allocated time that the court has given her.
Gloria concludes: “I am not sure how much more suffering life will bring my way, but I am determined to keep moving forward. I believe that I can turn my hell on earth into a piece of heaven, if I don’t give up. It does not matter how many times people violate my body; my spirit can’t be touched.”
Gloria Bahati* is not her real name