Stolen Away: As criminal gangs run amuck in Iraq, hundreds of girls have gone missing. Are they being sold for sex?
Originally published in:
The man on the phone with the 14-year-old Iraqi girl called himself Sa'ad. He was calling long distance from Dubai and telling her wonderful things about the place. He was also about to buy her. Safah, the teenager, was well aware of the impending transaction. In the weeks after she was kidnapped and imprisoned in a dark house in Baghdad's middle-class Karada district, Safah heard her captors haggling with Sa'ad over her price. It was finally settled at $10,000. Staring at a floor strewn with empty whiskey bottles, the orphan listened as Sa'ad described the life awaiting her: a beautiful home, expensive clothes, parties with pop stars. Why, she'd be joining two other very happy teenage Iraqi girls living with Sa'ad in his harem. Safah knew that she was running out of time. A fake passport with her photo and assumed name had already been forged for her. But even if she escaped, she had no family who would take her in. She was even likely to end up in prison. What was she to do?
Safah is part of a seldom-discussed aspect of the epidemic of kidnappings in Iraq: sex trafficking. No one knows how many young women have been kidnapped and sold since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq, based in Baghdad, estimates from anecdotal evidence that more than 2,000 Iraqi women have gone missing in that period. A Western official in Baghdad who monitors the status of women in Iraq thinks that figure may be inflated but admits that sex trafficking, virtually nonexistent under Saddam, has become a serious issue. The collapse of law and order and the absence of a stable government have allowed criminal gangs, alongside terrorists, to run amuck. Meanwhile, some aid workers say, bureaucrats in the ministries have either paralyzed with red tape or frozen the assets of charities that might have provided refuge for these girls. As a result, sex trafficking has been allowed to fester unchecked.
"It is a problem, definitely," says the official, who has heard specific reports from Iraqi aid workers about girls being kidnapped and sold to brothels. "Unfortunately, the security situation doesn't allow us to follow up on this." The U.S. State Department's June 2005 trafficking report says the extent of the problem in Iraq is "difficult to appropriately gauge" but cites an unknown number of Iraqi women and girls being sent to Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Persian Gulf countries for sexual exploitation. Statistics are further made murky by tribal tradition. Families are usually so shamed by the disappearance of a daughter that they do not report kidnappings. And the resulting stigma of compromised chastity is such that even if the girl should resurface, she may never be taken back by her relations.
A visit to the Khadamiyah Women's Prison in the northern part of Baghdad immediately produces several tales of abduction and abandonment. A stunning 18-year-old nicknamed Amna, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, says she was taken from an orphanage by an armed gang just after the U.S. invasion and sent to brothels in Samarra, al-Qaim on the border with Syria, and Mosul in the north before she was taken back to Baghdad, drugged with pills, dressed in a suicide belt and sent to bomb a cleric's office in Khadamiyah, where she turned herself in to the police. A judge gave her a seven-year jail sentence "for her sake" to protect her from the gang, according to the prison director.
Two other girls, Asmah, 14, and Shadah, 15, were taken all the way to the United Arab Emirates before they could escape their kidnappers and report them to a Dubai police station. The sisters were then sent back to Iraq but, like many other girls who have escaped their kidnappers and buyers, were sent to prison because they carried fake passports. There, they wait for the bureaucracy to sort out their innocence. What happened to the gang that took them? The sisters hear rumors that the men paid their way out of jail and are back on the streets. "I don't know what to do if the prison administration decides to release me," says Asmah, pushing back her gray head scarf to adjust her black hair. "We have no one to protect us."
Women's advocates are trying to set up halfway houses for kidnap survivors. The locations are secret to keep the women safe from both trafficking gangs trying to cover their tracks and outraged relatives who may try to kill the women to restore their clans' reputation. But the new Iraqi government has set up several bureaucratic roadblocks. Even organizations that do not receive government money have to secure permission from four ministries and the Baghdad city council for every shelter they hope to operate. Wringing her hands in exasperation, activist Yanar Mohammed says, "They want to close our women's shelter and deny our ability to open more."
That means that for girls like Safah, there are few havens left in Baghdad. In 2003, after Safah's father died, her grandmother took her to House of Children No. 2 orphanage in Adhamiya without the knowledge of most of her family. At the orphanage, she was befriended by an affable nurse who spent hours chatting up Safah, a fresh-faced girl whose fingers are still pudgy with baby fat. The nurse's modest hijab framed a sweet face that made Safah feel that the nurse was a good, spiritual woman, one she could trust. The nurse convinced Safah that she could be killed over the shame her disappearance had brought to her family. The nurse offered to adopt her. But official channels would have taken too long, so the nurse told Safah to hold her lower-right abdomen, scream and writhe on the carpet of the orphanage director's office, pretending to have appendicitis and requiring emergency medical assistance. Once at the hospital, the nurse whisked Safah into a waiting car.
The next three weeks were the worst in Safah's life. "I was tortured and beaten and insulted a lot in that house," Safah says. She wouldn't provide many details about what happened in the whiskey-soaked den in Karada. But she says that when it became apparent to her that she was about to be sold to Sa'ad, the man on the phone from Dubai, she became desperate. She passed word of her confinement to a neighborhood boy, who reported it to the local police station. Officers raided the place and arrested the nurse. Bureaucratic red tape somehow kept Safah and the nurse in the same prison for six months before Safah was finally released back into the custody of the orphanage a month ago.
At the orphanage, nestled behind a 10-ft. wall on the breezy banks of the Tigris, Safah can take computer classes, practice sewing and paint portraits of the family she wishes she had. But she doesn't feel as safe as she used to there. A social worker tells her that the nurse wasn't at the Khadamiyah Women's Prison during her last visit. Suddenly Safah rushes out of the room, crying and beating her head with her hands in the hallway. "If she is released," says Safah, her eyes darting back and forth in a panic, "I'm not staying here." But deep down she knows she has nowhere else to go.
With reporting by Yousif Basil/ Baghdad, Assad Majeed/ Baghdad