Rose Nakato (not real name) is one of the few lucky Ugandans who have managed to escape from slavery in Kuwait. A good number of young Ugandans who go abroad for work do not make it back alive. The 31-year-old narrates her story to Stephen Bwire.
I was self-employed in Kampala where I used to run a small eating joint together with friends in Kamwokya. The business wasn’t doing well. I considered finding more capital to diversify into something else or quit the business all together and go find reasonable employment somewhere else.
One afternoon in late June, a close female friend came to me with an attractive offer. She told me of a new opportunity in Kuwait where I could go and work in supermarkets. The pay was obscenely attractive.
The lady linked me with an agent based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is commonly known as Brian Sinaya, but I doubt whether that is his real name because agents would prefer to operate secretly with pseudo-names.
Brian would later call me on phone around July telling me of the job in Kuwait. He instructed me to obtain a letter from Interpol, a Yellow Fever vaccination card, a passport plus Shs1m. He told me the money would help me process my travel documents and enable me cross the border. I told him crossing the border was free under the East African Community. He insisted that I get him the Shs1m, saying that he was doing me a favour charging me that little. That other girls were paying Shs3m and above. I told him that I would pay that money once I got to Kuwait and started working. He finally agreed. I had my passport ready with me.
The journey begins
A week later, I moved from Kampala to Nairobi by bus via the Busia border. When I arrived in Nairobi, there was a young man called Richard waiting for me at the bus terminal. He works for Brian, and he had come purposely to take me to Brian’s house.
Brian is the chief agent recruiting girls from Uganda and Kenya. He has a network of agents in Kuwait who receive the girls and sell them to “sponsors” [somebody you are going to work for]. He also sells girls to Canada, Dubai, Yemen and other Middle East countries.
I found eight other Ugandan girls at Brian’s house, all waiting to travel to Kuwait. I didn’t sign any contract with him as he told me that wasn’t necessary because the job was assured. He encouraged me, saying that I would be in safe hands, and that nothing bad would happen to me.
Two days later, we flew to Kuwait and safely landed at Kuwait International Airport.
When we arrived at the airport, we found difficulties going through the checkpoint because we were told by clearing officials that our visas were fake.
We got stranded at the airport for seven hours before the agent who had recruited us came to meet us. She was a Ugandan lady only identified as Sarah. The first thing she did was to take away our passports. I didn’t know why she was taking them away, but deep down, I suspected something wrong was going on.
We were driven to a hotel where Sarah and her colleagues told us of the kind of jobs we were supposed to do. I went there knowing that I would work in a supermarket, but I was shocked to learn that I would later on work as a housemaid.
The following day, the sponsor, a Kuwaiti, came and paid Sarah 420 Kuwaiti Dinar (about Shs4.2m) to have me go work for him. In effect, I had been sold to a slave master technically called sponsor.
Working in hell
When I reached the home of the sponsor, the madam of the house (the sponsor’s wife) told me I would live and work in the house till the contract ended. They had a very big house comprising three floors with 17 bedrooms and 10 large living rooms. In each of those bedrooms, there were more than 60 pairs of shoes and I had to clean all of them. In the compound was a large swimming pool, which I had to clean thrice a day.
I was to work for only $200 (about Shs500,000) a month, instead of $700 ( about Shs1.75m) which Brian had assured me initially. I didn’t even receive a penny throughout the time I worked.
Life was a nightmare here; I would wake up as early as 4am and work throughout the day and night till 2am when I could go to bed with my whole body aching. I worked without rest, not even breaking off to sip water. Moreover, I and my fellow servants would work without adequate meals – we only ate once a day- a meal of dry rice without any sauce. I was the only Ugandan there.
There were cameras installed everywhere, so if you happened to stop or go for a short call, the madam of the house would make a phone call abusing you, and she would come from her room to physically assault you.
We were constantly reminded that we were slaves without any rights. I did everything including washing pants of menstruating women. I was forced to wash them with my bare hands.
One day I fell sick, and I was afraid I was going to die. My body was in excruciating pain. The madam of the house wasn’t bothered. All she cared about was me working without rest and complaint. The Filipino girl who used to cook for us begged her to take me to hospital after seeing how bad my condition was. Still she was adamant, but by God’s grace I somehow recovered.
The sponsor used to complain to Sarah that I wasn’t working hard enough so Sarah and her colleagues would beat me.
One day, she hit me several times on the head; actually up to now my head still aches. This agent was making money from me and other girls and, in case of anything, she was supposed to refund all the money back to the sponsor, which would mean a total loss to her. I served in this home for two months. Every day I longed to go home.
We had our separate bathrooms as servants. In most cases, we would bathe and weren’t supposed to close the door to the bathroom. The reason was that the male masters enjoyed seeing us naked while bathing.
They would come and peep and force their way to the bathrooms and many of us got raped that way. I was even sodomised. Even in the bedrooms, we weren’t supposed to close the door. Those men and their sons would force us to have sex with them. And in case you screamed, the madam of the house would accuse you of seducing her husband.
Enough was enough
With these ordeals, I totally refused to work. They would force me to work, but I could just stubbornly sit and do nothing. I realised that I was not safe now. Some of these Arabs and their agents are heartless; they could have killed me for body organs like they would do with other girls.
For instance, there was a Filipino lady who was killed for her kidney while I was watching. I came to learn that the people who don’t make it back home are killed for body organs, or get killed by their agents to conceal their operations.
One day, I sneaked out of the house and managed to communicate to Interpol since I had their contacts. I told them the truth of what I was going through. The Interpol people contacted Sarah and her fellow agents. The bubble had burst.
The Ugandan agents in Kuwait were now making frantic moves to have me back home as soon as possible so that their cover was not blown. They calculated the amount of money I had made and that is what they used to procure my air ticket.
A day later, I was booked onto a plane back to Nairobi from where I boarded a bus to Kampala. I didn’t want to expose myself once I got back so I just went straight home. I was reunited with my family in Kawempe; they hadn’t heard from me ever since I went to Kuwait.
The following day, I went and reported the incident to Police. I am now trying to recover from the trauma I suffered in Kuwait. I spend most of the time indoors trying not to expose myself to the agents who had contacted me and sent me to Kuwait, otherwise they would kill me when they know that I am here.
One thing I tell young girls is to be patient, and avoid people who would come with offers of jobs out of the country.
Police advises job seekers to use licensed companies
The story of Ugandans, both teenagers as well as adults, being sold into sexual slavery, forced labour, and extraction for body organs is not new.
Moses Binoga, the coordinator of the anti-human trafficking taskforce, advises people seeking employment abroad to use licensed companies as it is easier for the authorities to trace victims and bring them back home in collaboration with the licensed recruiting agencies.
Binoga says that the common practice is for people to use unregistered agents to whom they pay a lot of money to go abroad.
“We appeal to the public to go through the licensed companies when applying for jobs abroad,” he says.
Binoga also urges the job seekers to get enough information about the nature of jobs, where they are going to work and the type of agents involved. “Get information from Police, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all of which have got desks that handle cases of immigration and labour export,” he says, adding: “People should be vigilant and stop dealing with shady recruiting agents.”
The anti-human trafficking coordinator reveals that government is signing protocols with foreign governments, mostly where Ugandans end up as slaves, so as to ease the task of tracking down the victims.
Trend on human trafficking
According to reports, during 2012, a total of 45 reports of transnational incidents of trafficking in persons (TIP) were registered while 29 similar reports have been registered from January-April 2013. Over 90 persons were registered as victims of transnational TIP incidents in 2012, while over 38 persons have been registered as victims of TIP during the January-April 2013 period.
Most of the victims are taken out of Uganda or brought to Uganda through fraud, deception or debt bondage in search of employment. The most common route is through Nairobi where the covert human trafficking rackets transport the victims in buses and process their visas and passports in Nairobi, and then make them board planes. The human trafficking rackets entice people with big job adverts in the media with a promise for better life and more money. The identities of people claiming to export labour are always hidden; they operate under fake names and fake identification documents without any known physical address or location. So for the victims, most of the communication with these unscrupulous individuals is done on phone and online. This also makes it hard to trace them.