Undercover as a slave Part 2: Journalist in the dark of Dubai
Apr 10, 2020
We rest our bags and start crying, at ago. Everyone is openly wailing and calling upon God or Allah for help. Two girls fling themselves down and roll in tears. What a hell! What a fall from the height of expectation!
HUMAN TRAFFICKING | SLAVERY
Undercover journalist sold as slave in Dubai - Part 1
A Vision journalist got in touch with traffickers who smuggle people to work in the Middle East on promises of high paying jobs. They smuggled her through Entebbe Airport. Will Dubai become the ‘Promised Land'? Today, Sunday Vision continues with the story of flying into Dubai
THERE is nothing impossible in Uganda. The way I beat the airport system that should have stopped me from travelling to Dubai, on a flimsy reason, with a fake visa and without documents for the journey, is baffling. It cost me sh500,000.
On January 22, I checked in through immigration at Entebbe Airport into the boarding area on a fake identity, being trafficked to Dubai to work as a housemaid.
Then, as I am chest-thumping over beating the system, I realise that other airports may not be as corrupt. That scares me. I paid for, but did not get medical certificates and a yellow fever vaccination card; what if I get stopped or arrested at Dubai airport?
I telephone Tadeo, who helped me through Entebbe Airport, about the forms, but he denies having them. He says his job was to see me through the airport and now that he did his part, he asks that I never call him again. He then hangs up the phone.
When I call Nusura, she hangs up the phone without a word. I also discovered that Monica had blocked me on Facebook and WhatsApp, when I tried reaching out to her.
What does that mean?
What if the employer 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 could I risk this much without enough money to buy my own ticket?
As we wait to board the plane, I see the same officer, who stopped me earlier, come towards me. Is he going to arrest me? Then, he hands me a print out of my air ticket and leaves without saying anything. Where did he get it from? Wasn't this the man who queried my documents?
Several things are not adding up; anxiety overwhelms me. Suddenly, tears well up in my eyes and quickly run down my cheeks.
My anxiety is quickly set aside when I join several other girls, who I had seen in the Meeters and Greeters tents, on the same flight. I then conclude that they are being trafficked out to Dubai, too, because it appears it is their first time to travel. The girls' spoken English is not polished. They speak mostly Luganda and Runyankore.
They are shabbily dressed and are scared of taking a step, preferring to wait for others to take a step before they follow.
The girls narrate about their experiences of being given the wrong tickets. Some say it was William who took away their wrong tickets and gave them the genuine ones after they reached the airport.
They say they are going to Dubai to become housemaids. They claim the woman who got them the ‘deal' is Amina Nakitemba and that she was around the airport as they checked in.
They describe her as the dreadlocked woman who was standing at the departure section. They say she resides in Dubai and takes many people to the city regularly.
They are excited and describe the trip as the ‘journey of hope'. To them, the biggest huddle to their journey to wealth was the airport security system, which they had beaten. What remains is meeting their employers at the airport in Dubai before making their first-ever million Uganda shillings.
Flight to Dubai
At 10:30, we board a Kenya Airways plane from Entebbe to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya.
We exit the building to a waiting bus. We laugh when some girls bypass the bus. Some of them fail to fill the health ministry forms because they do not know what to write. The airport escalators are also a challenge. Some fall off and others refuse to risk and opt to take the stairs.
Many get lost while looking for the boarding gate to Dubai and others lose their boarding passes and have to run back to the desk for advice. While going through check-ins in Nairobi, officers who tell us to remove shoes, regret because someone's shoes were so smelly that they have to spray the whole area with air freshener.
The flight from Nairobi to Dubai took us five hours and 20 minutes. My neighbour is a fat woman dressed in a white vest and black trousers.
She greets me with a smile and introduces herself as Irene (Not her real name) from western Uganda. After a light conversation, we realise that we are going to the same destination for the same mission. She says she is a future millionaire.
She tells me she left her two-year-old baby with her brother. Her worry is that she did not know the agent, who promised her a lot of money. On checking our passports, we discover that our Visas were issued by the same company called Etihad Airways. She tells me there is another woman on the same flight with a similar visa. However, since our inviting agents are different, we do not think that we will end up in the same place.
Of course, there are goofs too. She fails to switch on the screen which is attached to each chair, to fix the headsets and to tighten the belt. She looks for the provision in vain. When food (Rice, chicken, alcohol, and wine) is served, she uses her hand, instead of the plastic fork provided. Later, when the flight attendants return to take the headsets, they find that she has already packed them.
By the time we land in Dubai, the only thing missing on our lips is a song. Our spirits are high. We are cleared and ushered through the lobby into a train to the immigration section. The queues are full of Indians, Ethiopians, Chinese, Japanese and a few Europeans. Most of them have families.
Yes, I am in Dubai. I feel Dubai. I am a Dubai girl!
From immigration, we pick our luggage and keep following people who have luggage, imagining we are exiting to where we are to be picked from.
I was told by Nusura that my employer will be at the airport with a large paper bearing my name. There are many people at the exit area. So, I start looking for the person with my name. I do not see any.
Suddenly, anxiety returns. What if there is no one to pick me? What will I do since I do not have a return ticket? I try to call New Vision but discover that my phone cannot call without Internet data. I start sweating! What if I am arrested?
I busy myself with reading signs around so that people do not think I am lost. Suddenly, a tall, muscular man, I think he is Ethiopian, wearing a hoodie, comes towards me, holding his phone. He shows me his phone and my picture was on the screen. It was a picture I had earlier sent to Nusura in the morning.
I am scared by his looks. My instincts tell me he is not a good guy. He asks me to follow him, but I hesitate. I start praying to God that he is not my employer. He starts walking away but realises that I am not following him. He gestures impatiently that I am wasting his time.
I oblige. He leads me to a group of five girls, all looking so cold, scared and speechless. He asks for my passport and visa paper.
I gather the courage and ask him if he was my employer and if he is not, then where was my employer.
"Come on woman, I am not here to answer your questions. Just hand over your passport and visa please!" he barks back.
When he realises that I am trying to take his picture, he poses and says: "Feel free. You can take my picture openly. You do not have to hide or playgirl. But just hand over your passport, I promise to return them to all of you after we have reached our destination."
I hand it over and immediately feel defenceless. I wonder how the assurances we had worked out at New Vision to guarantee my security would work out. I tried texting my agent, but I did not have internet data.
We follow him to the elevator without saying a word and then to the parking lot. He is guarding us, while speaking on the phone. We later learn that he was expecting another girl who escaped at the airport.
After talking on the phone, he declines to answer any question. He says we should reserve the question for the agent to whose home we were heading. He drives us through the city for about 40 minutes. I am too scared to enjoy the view of Dubai city. I try to cram the route but it is so confusing.
We arrive at midnight in Ajman municipality, at a Sheenah Building on Ajman Pearl Towers.
The man herds into a lift, which takes us to the fifth floor. We end up at apartments written on Rom 502 and knock.
A tall, fat brown woman, who later asks us to call her Sara, opens the door. Behind her, a cloud of shisha smoke follows and soon engulfs her.
Shrouding, she gestures that we enter the smoke-filled room. We hesitate to enter because the smoke makes it look like a den for criminals.
Sara and the man who had brought us, shove us in. It seemed we were new sex-work recruits. It was scary. I made a sign of the cross as I entered.
The man hands over our passports to Sara and left. From the smoke-filled room, we proceeded to a sitting room and some of us are finding seats, the woman gestures angrily that we continue following her.
We end up in an inner room that is supposed to be a store. I realise that Sara is also Ethiopian.
The prison room
The room is too tinny for the five of us to fit in, but she shuts the door behind her.
There is a single metal bed, two small mattresses on the floor, pillows and four small blankets.
The room has a window, which is sealed and so depends on AC for aeration.
It has no access to the outside world and the ever-on bulb makes it impossible to tell the time.
This was to be our prison for days. We rest our bags and start crying, at ago. Everyone is openly wailing and calling upon God or Allah for help. Two girls fling themselves down and roll in tears. What a hell! What a fall from the height of expectation!
Then Sara storms back and scolds us into silence. "What stupid drama," she barks. She tells us that we all belong to her because she ‘bought us' with the money she invested in our visas and air tickets. She declares that anyone who wants her freedom should pay her back her 4,000 dirhams (equivalent to sh4m).
What psychological torture! Some girls wish they had HIV, TB or were pregnant so they can be deported immediately. All that bad stuff seems better than being holed up in a room, in a place we do not know and a future we cannot guarantee.
After about five minutes, one of us advises that we stay strong because crying is not going to change anything.
They give us rice and chicken to eat, but I do not remember how it tasted. All that is going on in my mind is how I can work myself to this corner in the name of journalism!
Venis Tumuhimbise Commissioner of Police Anti-human Trafficking Task Force desk
I always advise relatives of the victims to report to this office. Several of them come. We want the names of the victim, age, the country she is suspected to be in, the nature of complaint and the company or individuals that took her.
When one was taken by an unregistered company or individual, we advise the relatives to record a statement and open a file against the trafficker with our Police at internal affairs. We then follow up the case.
If it is a company that took her, I advise them to put the complaint in writing and address it to this office, copy in the gender ministry and the company that allegedly took her.
I can follow up with the ministry, which gives licenses, but I am only a co-ordinator. I stand as a go-between to make sure the complaints are heard.
I sometimes write to the foreign affairs ministry and the Interpol when it comes to repatriation. Repatriation needs a lot of paperwork.
For the three months I have been in this office, we have not repatriated anyone other than intercepting girls being trafficked out of the country.
As anti-human trafficking desk, we are also trying to sensitise Ugandans about the risks of human trafficking either as a business or a conduit to move out of the country.
Undercover journalist sold as a slave in Dubai - Part 3