I first met Champei* (name changed to protect her identity and dignity) in February in 2018. Shield had been requested by a local organisation to conduct an investigation in to several street pimps who had been trafficking minors and selling them to foreigners. We were given the location of these street pimps and soon set out to locate them. It didn’t take long for the extremely friendly and well-spoken Akra* (name changed as he’s behind bars) to greet us along the street. “Hey, you like girls, weed, sex?”. He took us on a tuktuk ride down a dark alleyway and asked us to wait (our security cordon was in place, our counter-surveillance well aware of their spotters operating in the area).
Soon, Akra began to show us the girls he had access to, the first group was older girls, around 18. Over time we got him to bring out two 15-year old girls who we then paid him for and took out for the evening. We orchestrated a ‘chance’ meeting with a friend that meant that we didn’t end up taking these girls to a location for sex, and so avoided the situation (the nation we’re talking about doesn’t pursue sex trafficking cases for 15 year olds as they’re viewed to be too old).
Over the course of the next month we managed to get Akra to provide us with younger and younger girls. That’s when I met Champei. She was sweet and yet obviously hardened, we asked Akra if it was ok that we take Champei and her two friends out to dinner. He said he didn’t care what we did with them as long as he had them back by 5am. So we took Champei out to eat, she chose barbecue chicken and as she went along she would point to the chicken and say ‘not good enough, next’. Her english was broken but she was keen to show us what she knew. Back at the hotel room, chicken in hand, there was a point where it seemed she had a genuine smile with her friends.
Later that night, the 2 girls had fallen asleep and it was just Champei and I. She began to signal that it was time for us to have sex, since that’s what I had purchased. I explained I wasn’t in the mood and didn’t want to anymore. She said to me that if we don’t have sex she’ll be punished. We went back and forth for quite some time on this, until eventually, running out of ways to argue with her, I asked her about the circular marks on her wrist. She said to me ‘oh this? This I no have sex Akra do this’. I understood that moment that this was about survival, if she didn’t report back that she had had sex with the customer, she would be punished. I couldn’t tell her ‘oh you poor thing I’ve come to help’ as there were many other children involved in the operation, so I simply said ‘oh that’s horrible’ and attempted to brush it off. She then said ‘oh this? no no no’, as she rolled up her sleeve she showed me deep scars in her arm and shoulder, one so deep that it seemed to go to the bone. She said ‘this, this time customer not happy, Akra do this’. I was on the verge of breaking so I simply said ‘ok ok, I will give you a tip if you go to sleep, tomorrow when you wake up we can have sex’. She went to sleep, at 5am I handed her back to Akra, she was still asleep.
As we got back to our safehouse one of the other investigators asked me ‘you seem down, don’t tell me you’re emotionally attached to Champei? You know she’s not going to make it to the end of this operation right?’. I said ‘What do you mean?’. He said ‘I’ve been doing this a long time, if they’ve beat them, burnt them with cigarettes and cut them, they’ve lost their value and they’re too much trouble, she won’t be around much longer’. I couldn’t believe what he was saying and yet at the same time he had the experience, and we had the relationship that I had no choice but to believe him.
I left the country thinking that I had to come to terms with this horrific reality, that for the greater good (the rescue of the other survivors), she may in fact never see freedom. I was unable to deploy for another 4 months, in that time we had another team deploy, and halfway through their deployment I received a message through one of our encrypted systems, a picture of Champei and a single line ‘she’s still here’. I went in to my room and wept, once again between hope and despair. August of that year we returned for our final deployment and arranged for 10 survivors to be present in one room at one time. The police raided, and Champei was rescued. Akra and his accomplices are now behind bars. Champei is still in a restoration facility, 2 years on, now 11 and quite full of life. While I will never meet her again in this life. I know that she is safe and free, and through our partners on the ground, I get occasional updates on how she’s progressing. Hope may cost a lot, but I will continue hoping for every last child in the child sex slave trade to be free.