Trafficked by Sophie Hayes, published by HarperCollins (2012)
Even if one is familiar with stories of human trafficking, one never ceases to be shocked when hearing the details of new ones. And shocked you will be when you read ‘Trafficked’, an autobiographical account by Sophie Hayes, a young British salesgirl who was forced into prostitution after she accompanied her boyfriend, Kas, to Italy.
Although it appears that Sophie had ample opportunities to escape from her captor, who said his girlfriend must make sacrifices for him to pay off a debt, she saw no salvation in running away as Kas had threatened to kill her younger brothers in retaliation. She felt she was “brainwashed” into thinking that there is no hope in escaping the grip of her boyfriend. For this reason she never told the Italian police her true story when they took her to the station on one occasion, nor did she attempt to flee back home when Kas was away for a whole week while she was briefly working on the streets of France, on another occasion.
This fear of Kas made sure she didn’t inform her mother of her ordeal, even though they had agreed on a secret phrase to use if Sophie was ever in trouble. Only after months of unimaginable physical and sexual abuse, did she summon the courage to ask for help, as she spoke with her mother from an Italian hospital bed. But she could not have the strength to face her tormentor by testifying against him in court. She did, however, later set up the Sophie Hayes Foundation, to help victims of human trafficking. In its statement, she says:
“Since my ordeal I have been determined to turn the experience into a positive one, everyone deserves freedom and their basic human rights, and although he stole my freedom, I am determined to do everything in my power to make a difference and share a story of Hope to others.”
When reading ‘Trafficked’ I couldn’t help but draw parallels to another real life story that I encountered, involving a woman – who I shall call Suzy here – who claimed to be forced to live in her ex’s flat for around two years after she first decided to break up with him.
Unlike Sophie, French-born Suzy was not forced into prostitution or slave labour. In fact, it later emerged, all of her expenses (from rent to clothes) were being paid for the good part of three years by the man she alleged was keeping her captive. In return, she would continue to surrender her body to the person she had been willingly living with for one year, but could not break free from afterwards. Why? She claimed that her ex had been making threats against her, although she also conceded that he never actually lifted a finger against her.
However, once her ex discovered that Suzy is now seeing someone else, his threats became also directed at the new boyfriend, who was threatened with death.
“If you two ever get in touch again, my friends will track him down and kill him,” a trembling teary-eyed Suzy quoted her ex as she called on her new boyfriend to keep their relationship secret till she finds an escape. The boyfriend – who had received death-threats directly from her ex – insisted on contacting the police, a suggestion that she rejected.
“If you call the police, I will have to deny it. You don’t know what he is capable of. He is too dangerous. I’m afraid for myself and for you too,” she argued.
The boyfriend got in touch with some of Suzy’s friends to ask them to give her moral support so that she stops giving in to her ex’s threats. But she did not appear to let on to them that she was in any real danger, and thus after contacting her to check if she’s OK they were left with the impression that all is well.
The boyfriend would often urge Suzy to communicate more with her family in France and to confide in them so that they could help her. She yielded to pressure when it came to making those calls but never mentioned the terrifying ordeal with her ex, whom they only knew as a flatmate, nothing more.
As Suzy’s ex had access and control of her phone, Facebook and msn – monitoring and blocking communications with her boyfriend – the boyfriend had to establish new (secret) lines to make sure she is OK. But somehow the ex – via hacking or just prying – would manage to find out that they have been in touch and make a new round of death threats.
On one occasion, her ex’s friends called her boyfriend and asked to meet him. The boyfriend – who had now given up on hopes that she could be rescued by the police, her friends or family – agreed. Naturally he was afraid, but he thought that if something bad were to happen to him, maybe – just maybe – they would let her go out of fear of being implicated or actually get caught. And when her ex and his friends asked why he doesn’t just peacefully walk away while he could, his response was:
“Someone in deep trouble has asked for my help. I just can’t turn my back on her. You say she’s a cheap girl and I say that even a prostitute has the right to say no. Until I know that she will no longer be forced into anything, I cannot walk way, so you can do your worst.”
The encounter ended by her ex promising to allow her to leave his flat, a promise that did not instantly materialise, and – as one would expect – future threats against Suzy’s boyfriend took place. But what eventually surfaced, after a thorough investigation by the boyfriend, was that Suzy was never being forced into anything.
True, the ex – if you can still call him that – was a thug who would try to hold on to Suzy by throwing money at her, monitor her every move and try to scare off her other/potential boyfriends. But he was not the raping psychopath that she described him to be to her boyfriend. Unlike the boyfriend, he was aware that Suzy was sleeping around (given his fetish for reading private messages), but being in an undignified – some would say sick – form of a relationship is not the same as forcing yourself both physically and sexually onto an unwilling partner.
The bigger picture that could be learned from this, as I began to enquire about other people’s experiences, is that a lot of the time when a woman claims that she’s been abused, forced into something or even trafficked, some – men and women – will not find it easy to believe her straight away. The reason they give for having these doubts is almost always the fact that they have either experienced directly, or heard through trusted acquaintances, cases where woman have been PROVEN to have lied about such ordeals the instant they were caught cheating or when they wish to hang on to two lovers (or financiers, for the business minded) without fear of being found out.
These sceptics tell of stories where the outcome of such faked ordeals turned out to be pretty bloody, as the truth was discovered far too late. But what I think is a worse result is how many real cases of abuse/forced relationships/trafficking go unnoticed, not because the victims did not confide in anyone, but because the only people that they told their secrets to did not believe them. Those who have witnessed fake ordeals said they had walked away from subsequent cries for help.
In fact, even Suzy’s boyfriend was advised by few of his friends to walk away from trouble as they suspected her of lying. “This is a problem for two low-lives, get out of it before they drag you down with them”, advised one friend. “This does not happen in 21st century Europe,” argued another. But perhaps most ironic was what Suzy’s ex told her boyfriend during their last encounter; “how can you believe such a strange story? Who can force anyone to do anything these days?”
However, a stranger story did happen and a far worse ordeal did take place for Sophie. Abuse could fall upon the most unlikely of victims. Fortunately, Suzy’s boyfriend – now officially her ex – would not turn a blind eye if someone called on him again for help. His passion for human and women’s rights had made him an easy target for Suzy, who still roams the streets looking for such gullible victims. Today he would handle the situation more carefully, but the basic principle remains the same: what if there was really a wolf at the door? Can you sleep while hearing the cries of others?
Mamoon Alabbasi is a news editor and translator based in London. His op-eds, reports, and reviews appear in a number of media outlets.