I had never imagined the real shock of slave trade in the modern world. The irony of it all is that girls are trafficked at their own cost.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING | SLAVERY | CORRUPTION
KAMPALA - The promise of good jobs and better wages baits many women into investing in travelling to the Middle East to work. Because some get lucky and return with money, many Ugandans pay for job placements in the Middle East, and end up being trafficked as slaves and sex workers.
Our brave reporter made the journey into the world of human trafficking and ended up spending a month in slavery. She narrates her ordeal.
I had interacted with labour exporting companies for some time and was aware of the risks Ugandans go through travelling abroad to do odd jobs. But I had never imagined the real shock that slave trade in the modern world is. The irony of it all is that girls are trafficked at their own cost.
They pay for respectable jobs and discover on arrival at their destinations that there are none. By that time, they are helpless, unable to save themselves and resort to being used as slaves or sex workers until they are able to buy themselves out or escape.
It is easy to imagine how disappointing, but not how scary it can be when you are the slave, in a home you do not know, cannot locate and unsure if you will come out alive to tell the story.
My story starts on January 7, 2020 when I stumble on a Facebook comment by a lady who goes by the identity "Monica the Proud Mukiga".
From our protracted interactions, I get the idea that I can pretend I want to work abroad so that I get trafficked and get first-hand information for our readers.
I have no idea the extremes to which the experience will stretch my nerves and almost cost me my life.
The idea is born
Monica is talking about why the Oman government has banned Ugandan housemaids.
I in-box her for details and she claims she was working as a housemaid in Oman, and had experienced no problems. She blames social media for the bad press about housemaids abroad, adding that it is overhyping the few isolated instances of bad experiences.
Through messenger texts, I learn from her that there are Ugandan agents who can smuggle me into Dubai at a cheaper cost than the officially registered companies. Monica, who claims she was trafficked through Kenya to Oman, offers to help me try my luck.
She says she has a sister who can find me a way to get to Dubai on fair charges. It is the first time I hear someone praising trafficking.
Monica shares her WhatsApp number because she says she does not trust Facebook. Through WhatsApp, she sends an audio recording from an agent who says she only has job openings for housemaids.
Her condition is that I pay sh1m before leaving Uganda - debts are not acceptable. Monica tries to convince me to pay, saying I will be earning 1,200 dirhams (about sh1.2m) and will never regret my decision. I say I don't have the money.
Later, she gets back to me saying she has another agent who does not want a single coin. The agent will cover the cost of the ticket and visa; I only have to pay what is needed to process the required documents in Uganda. It sounds like a good deal.
"Now, take a full-length picture of yourself in a long dress with a veil on the head, like a Muslim, and send it to me. You must smile and stand straight to prove you have no disability," Monica instructs. She also advises that I hurry and take advantage of the list of applications they are working on. She says if I send a picture that day, I will get my visa the following day.
Cleared to go
I discuss the story idea with my supervisors at The New Vision. My editors are shocked that I can even want to do this. I insist.
After going back and forth on the issue, it is resolved that I be given life insurance, Interpol surveillance and a rescue option be put in place in case I went off the radar.
I am also provided with the necessary financial assistance for the project. Alex Ssembatya, the executive director of Make A Child Smile, an NGO which helps repatriate girls stuck in the Middle East, is also contacted to keep an eye on me.
On January 9, Monica forwards me a recording of a lady, speaking in broken English, identifying herself as the agent in Dubai. She says she is working on my visa application and wants a photocopy of my passport and my photograph.
Monica says since we have become like sisters, she will talk to her to find me a comfortable home to work in. Monica then tells me to go for Hepatitis B screening as well as testing for HIV, syphilis, and pregnancy.
I am supposed to send the results to the Dubai agent, whose number she gives me.
The other costs are a yellow fever vaccine and sh500,000 which is supposed to facilitate my movement through the airport without problems.
According to Monica, housemaids destined for Dubai must bribe someone at Entebbe Airport to facilitate them to get through.
This is because girls who are travelling on their own for work are suspected to be victims of trafficking and are blocked.
Only those being exported by registered labour export companies are allowed through.
I try to bargain, but she explains that the sh500,000 has to be shared out between several people at different desks at the airport.
By the time the trafficked girl comes into the airport, a line of officials, who include the Police, airport staff, immigration officers and intelligence agents, have to coordinate to ensure she passes through without hindrance.
On January 14, the agent in Dubai sends a recording informing me that my visa is ready and that I must now get prepared with medical results and airport fee. She sends a picture of my valid visitor's visa, indicating that I am travelling to Dubai as a sales representative and will be there for one month.
Unlike other visas, this is on a piece of paper and not in a passport. Monica then gives me the number of someone called Nusura Zawadi, who she says will be my link to the Dubai agent.
Nusura claims she is in Dubai, but her phone number is Uganda registered. Monica also warns me not to tell anyone about my plans.
"Don't go to the village to say farewell or tell your family members that you are going to Dubai. You can just tell them you are going to Nairobi for business.
People have a bad spirit, you know. They can cast an evil spell on your programmes!"
She also advises me not to get the yellow fever vaccine, but to go to the booking offices at the Namayiba or Gateway bus terminals in Kampala where, for sh5,000, I can get a certificate without being vaccinated.
I call Nusura, who claims it was she that applied for my visa. She says she applied for eight visas and mine was the first to come out, so, I should consider myself blessed.
However, she emphasises, she will not guarantee my passage through Entebbe without the sh500,000 fee.
She, too, advises me against telling my family and friends about my upcoming trip.
Nusura starts calling me "sister" because we speak the same language. She briefs me on what I should wear on the day I travel and instructs me to pack only three long dresses, six knickers, sanitary pads, and three veils.
She says I will find the rest of the clothes I need in my employers' home. She also warns me not to use text messages on WhatsApp because officers at the airport can read them.
She suggests we communicate using voice notes. Later, Nusura says I should not bother with the medical documents.
She says someone will arrange all of them for me at just sh100,000. She gives me a number, 0773512913, on which to pay the money. It is registered in the name of Biira Asanati.
I am supposed to pick all the documents on the day of travel, January 22.
Preparing to travel
The day before I travel, on January 21, Nusura calls and briefs me on what to say while at Entebbe Airport. She gives me answers to possible questions at the airport and I spend the night memorising them.
I am supposed to be at the airport by 6:00am on the morning of January 22, although the flight is scheduled for 10:30am.
I am skeptical that I will travel because I still have no visa in my passport.
I also have neither the air ticket nor the medical forms necessary to travel.
Nusura says I will find them at the airport. However, at about 8:30pm that night, she sends me a copy of my invitation letter, a copy of the visa placed in my application letter and a ticket, all through WhatsApp.
The invitation letter is from Nuwagaba Silvano from Dubai on telephone number +91502557013, issued on January 15, 2020. I am supposed to refer to him as my cousin.
His resident identity card is also attached. His passport number is B1338837 and he is a resident of the United Arab Emirates, having worked there for the past three years.
The ticket is from Kenya Airways. I print everything out. That night, I fail to sleep. I keep wondering whether I have made the right decision.
As early as 5:00am on January 22, I take a bodaboda from Kampala to Entebbe. I am dressed in a new dress, have a new hairstyle and look like someone who can afford to travel to Dubai on a holiday. Nusura sends me the phone number of the airport contact with whom I am supposed to deposit the sh500,000.
It is 0773152928 in the name of Tadeo Ategeka. She says he is a highly placed Police officer who deals with all the agents. She asks me to send her a picture showing how I am dressed. I do.
At exactly 6:00am, I am at the airport. Nusura tells me to wait in the tents marked Meeters and Greeters until someone calls me.
I am to keep my earphones in my ears and someone will guide me on what to do over the phone. I am to do exactly as I am told without asking any questions.
Within no time, the number, 0773152928, on which I deposited sh500,000, calls me.
The person on the other end tells me to keep my earphones in my ears and follow his instructions. He also asks me not to call him if the call breaks, but rather, to wait for him to call me.
In the tents with me are other girls, in their mid-20s, carrying backpacks. I suspect they are part of the group being trafficked out.
They are also on phone with earphones, as if they too are receiving directions.
Tadeo calls and tells me to go up the stairs to the Departure Lounge, where, he assures me, the officers at the entrance are expecting me. The other girls in the tent also get up and follow me.
The two officers at the entrance ask to see my passport. I also show them my visa on a separate sheet of paper and the ticket. They let me through.
Once inside, we are checked through metal detectors. Then we line up to go to the counters for checking in and receiving boarding passes.
But while in the queue to the counters, one of the girls I had seen seated in a tent earlier, is asked by an officer to step aside.
Tadeo, who seems to be watching from a distance, tells me through the phone not to worry. But when I reach the officer, he looks at my passport, visa and air ticket and also asks me to step aside.
He is a tall, slim, chocolate-skinned man in a white uniform shirt. I ask him if there is anything wrong and he says I should stay calm as he verifies my documents.
I stay there with the other girl, embarrassed and attracting attention for about 10 minutes.
The officer then takes our documents to another gentleman, who I later hear being referred to as William.
William peruses my visa and ticket, asks me what my destination is and who invited me. He then goes over to a portly man seated at a desk and the two talk for about three minutes while viewing my documents.
William then returns and asks why I do not have a return ticket. I tell him my cousin had promised to send it but had not by the time I came.
He told me to inform my cousin that unless he sends the return ticket, it will be difficult for me to travel. He also says the ticket has to be with Kenya Airways.
Immediately, Nusura comes online as if she is following what is going on. She tells me not to worry as she has sent me a return ticket on my WhatsApp.
In less than a minute, my WhatsApp indicates I have a new message. It is a picture of my return ticket. I show it to the slim man, who tells me he has to verify it first.
I imagine the deal has failed, but Tadeo is online assuring me everything will be okay. Soon after, the slim man returns to say he has confirmed the return ticket is genuine.
I wonder how because the Dubai agent later confides in me that the ticket is a dummy. Maybe there is an understanding between these officers.
The airport officer then stamps my passport and tells me to proceed to the Kenya Airways counter to check-in.
Then, boarding pass in hand, I head to the immigration gate for the final hurdle.
Tadeo calls to ask if I have my boarding pass and when I say yes, he tells me to make sure I only go to the bespectacled woman at the immigration table.
The woman receives my passport, asks me two questions about my year of birth and my destination, but does not seem interested in my answers.
She tells me to put my fingers on the electronic machine and then stamps in my passport and just like that, I am through. But my feeling of victory is shortlived.
As I wait in the boarding lounge, a premonition weighs me down. I have gone through Entebbe Airport by fraud.
How will I manage Dubai Airport when I have not been given my medical certificates and yellow fever card?
What if I am arrested at Dubai Airport? What if my employer who is supposed to pick me at the airport does not show up? What if I need to return immediately, what will I do with the fake return ticket? How will The New Vision rescue me if I land in trouble? How can I risk this much, travelling without enough money to buy my own ticket?
Anxiety overwhelms me; tears well up in my eyes and run down my cheeks. If this is a premonition, it is spot-on; the worst is to come.
Jacob Siminyu, Spokesperson Ministry of Internal Affairs
What? That a person can pay her way through the airport without the right documents? I call that fake news; recycled gossip.
If it happened, it wasn't by our Immigration officers. There are some people, who have swindled millions, using our name.
There are many agencies working in the Airport like the Gender desk, CAA, Immigration, Police, airline officers, and many others.
So how sure are you that the money was paid to the Immigration officer?
In fact, to reach the Immigration desk, one would have passed through the Gender desk, then the scanner, other checkpoints up to the airline desks.
So, by the time someone reaches the Immigration desk, there is a lot of document checking.
If it is true that Immigration officers are involved in corruption, then we need evidence to catch them.
Can you share the details of the person the money was sent to so that I can verify whether he is our staff?
You might find the names registered are for a man yet it was a woman using the phone.
If you have any picture or a video of the person who was directing the traveler, share with me and we shall investigate and arrest him. To fight this corruption, we need help with evidence.
Who's to blame?
Many stories have been told about Ugandan girls who, attracted by the lure of good money, end up in misery in the Middle East. And yet many, too, are the girls who nevertheless continue to search for jobs there, often breaking rules in the pursuit of their dream.
How are they beating the systems put in place to check illegal labour exports? What is the solution?
Alex Sembatya, CEO, Make A Child Smile NGO that repatriates trafficked girls
Girls decide to use individuals instead of registered companies in travelling for work because they are promised lots of things in a short time and are charged lower fees.
Registered companies are slower and more expensive because they take responsibility for the girl's safety.
Human trafficking is a booming business.
Victims are not properly documented and there is no entity with the capacity to follow up. To fight trafficking, traffickers must be prosecuted and victims highly compensated.
James Ebitu, Permanent Secretary Gender, Labour and Social Development ministry
Our staff at the airport is only concerned with the trafficking of persons and externalisation of labour.
We deployed our staff to check the documents of the labour export companies, which takes migrant workers through the airport.
At our desk at the airport, we check for clearances by the companies transporting girls because by the time they are ready to travel, the ministry is aware of how many people are going per company.
Our focus is on migrant workers going for employment in the Arab countries.
Once our role is over, the rest is for immigration to check passports and visas.
Although we have some challenges, where some people present fake lists of travellers, if it is detected by our staff, they communicate with the ministry for verification.
If the company is not cleared by the ministry, they will not be allowed to travel.
That said, I have not heard of any corruption allegation against my staff.
However, if anyone has a complaint against the gender desk at the airport, they should provide the information so that I can investigate and take disciplinary measures.
I cannot say there is no transitional trafficking taking place at the airport but that is meant to be handled by the Immigration Anti-human trafficking Office attached to the Ministry of internal affairs.
I caution girls rushing for domestic work in the UAE to always use registered companies.
The ministry is not mandated to repatriate you in case of trouble but, at least, the company which took you will lose its license if they don't ensure your safety.