A man’s journey to find his missing friends

Stop me if you think that you have heard this one before:

Young man decides to take some time off and travel. He chooses Southeast Asia. It’s affordable and vibrant, and has that feel to it. Maybe he’ll find himself, maybe find something more. He packs a bag and a camera and just like that, he’s there and loving it. The colors, the people, the food: it’s all such a rush. A million and one great photos.

The last leg of his journey takes place in Sapa. Not that he’d planned it that way, but money was running out and so were the destinations. Planned just to stay a short while up there in the mountains. But plans change.

www.humanearth.net

www.humanearth.net

The young man ends up spending a few months, making friends with many of the ethnic minorities who spend their days selling their goods on Sapa’s streets. Teaches some of them – those who work as hotel staff – how to speak better English. Gets to know a group of H’mong girls well enough to consider them friends. Well enough to see each one as a person and not just a curiosity or a photo opportunity.

When at last it’s time to leave, he swaps email addresses. Takes the train out of Lao Cai and the plane out of Vietnam. Sits on his sofa back home and thinks about all he has seen and wonders, “Well, now what?”

Not exactly a new story so far, yes?

Time goes by. Months. And still Ben Randall wonders. Up to this point, the young man was part of a more or less common experience – but what happens next separates Ben from the generic backpacker tale.

www.humanearth.net

www.humanearth.net

While he’s wondering, Ben gets an email from one of the H’mong girls. She tells him half of the girls in the group have disappeared. Gone – from one day to the next. Not all at once, but one one time, two another time… Five in total. All of them teenagers. She doesn’t really say much more.

So now Ben has something else to wonder about. Something larger than himself. Yet he lets it gestate inside his head for almost a year before he realizes that this question – “What happened to my friends?” – is what he is going to do next.

Back in Sapa, Ben moves carefully. Well, as carefully as he can, given that he is recognizable and has decided to make this quest to find the missing girls into a documentary film, and now there is a video camera recording his moves, his contacts.

www.humanearth.net

www.humanearth.net

Ben learns.

He learns that the region suffers from kidnapping/trafficking on account of its proximity to the border and the demand for marriageable women on the other side.

He learns that the H’mong, for a number of reasons, are frequent targets of kidnappers/traffickers. One key reason being that a traditional H’mong engagement behavior is for a young H’mong man to spot the girl he wants to marry and abduct her back to his village, where after a few days he and his representatives will go to the girl’s village and negotiate her dowry with her parents. So when a H’mong girl goes missing, the parents, the authorities, do not immediately suspect they have been trafficked across the border. It goes almost without saying that in all trafficking cases, the first 24 hours are the most critical for finding the victim, and the trail gets progressively colder with every hour. When you consider that a H’mong girl could be well into China within one day, then the chances of picking up her trail after four days are extremely remote.

He learns that, as with many trafficking cases in different parts of the vulnerable populations in the world, the trafficking have people working for them on the inside: people in the community, perhaps even relatives. Trafficking works easiest when there is implicit trust, and the best way to establish trust is through a familiar face or common identity. So then that also means that when a group of girls from a single area have disappeared, then the rescue efforts should begin with finding the insider.

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He also learns that the missing girls can be viewed as complicit in their kidnapping – even by their own families. They are blamed for getting on the motorbike of the friend of the insider, or for accepting an invitation to a meal or a drink with someone slightly out of their circle, usually a young and charming H’mong man from another village, who might drug the girl’s drink so that they wake up on the back of the bike and far away from familiar territory. In such cases, the families do not want to help participate in a rescue attempt out of shame.

Or, equally possible, the families could believe, once they accept that their daughter is not in a neighboring village, that she is in a better situation than if she had stayed, given the low living standards in some of the villages and the expectations for what her life would likely have been, and the positive imaginations that some families build around the man who has procured their daughter. In such instances, the families do not want to help participate in a rescue attempt out of wishful thinking.

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The reality is, of course, far different. The men who are going through these channels to buy their brides are not wealthy, nor do they have any real social standing; if they were attractive enough, or at least able to afford to marry a local woman, they would. These men are buying these women for children and for the fact that a wife is more affordable than a maid. These men may also be gullible enough to believe what they are doing is perfectly legal, that the girl is a willing participant in the arrangement, and even that the girl is legally in-country – despite her obvious inability to speak the language, her lack of a legal identity card, total lack of familiarity of customs, or even knowledge of where her new home is. They just accept that she is from a tribe in-country. Of course, the inability to communicate, the total lack of geographical knowledge or any personal contact all work against a girl with limited means and education ever finding her way back home.

At the same time Ben’s learning all these layers of complexity, he also learns that one of the girls escaped from her kidnappers and has made it back safely. So he turns his focus and energy on two of the remaining missing, knowing the odds of finding either would be extremely unlikely.

Cut to the Chase

Miracle of miracles: Ben eventually makes contact with both. As it turns out, the two girls were in contact with each other. And one was able to contact her family in Sapa. This points to both girls being victims of the same trafficking network – a network that somehow did not completely sever the means of communication with Sapa. But like two rolls of the dice, these two girls have gone on to lead two very different lives. Both have a daughter, but one is in a small village with little freedom, the other in a large city with a “not uncomfortable” life.

By the time he makes actual contact with the girls, three years has passed since their kidnappings. He arranges to meet them, and the meetings pan out like a droll spy novel: on a street corner, at a café. There they are, this ethnic minority girl and this white Australian guy – each unlike everyone around them – chatting awkwardly about life. Later Ben learns that one’s husband had trailed the girl and observed the meetings.

To hear Ben tell it, the biggest moment of his whole story is when they see him, because they are all at once reconnected to their previous life. Like a shockwave, he is proof of all their memories; the first person who knows them from before where they are now.

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It’s a moment of joy. But only a moment. Because Ben is there to help them return to that life they are now reliving in their mind’s eyes. And it comes to this: each girl has to choose to stay or go. To go means leaving their child behind. To disappear again in order to get back to a place where maybe it won’t be the same, where maybe they won’t be able to find a husband, or to put these three years behind them. And that’s if everything about the rescue effort goes smoothly. Here are other things to consider: It is not unheard of that suspicious husbands and members of the kidnapping rings will threaten the girl with trafficking her child if she ever tries to leave. There are also cases where girls have returned in agreement to work for the kidnapping rings, arranging to send girls into the same experience they have endured. So for these girls to show up at their villages again, they may also face strong suspicion that their return comes with a sinister bargain.

Also, the girl who was in contact with her family did not want her family to worry about her, and so she inflated the details of her new life. She told her parents her husband was rich, that they had a big house, that she had a better life. Why would she suddenly show up again at the family’s door without her child?

Against all these considerations were mundane factors that added pressure. Ben’s money was running out. He was spending his post-production budget on staying in China and helping the girls come to a decision. To be honest, he did not budget for actually meeting both of them, seeing as the chances were so slim. The miracle of contacting both (and at this point the Blue Dragon NGO must be acknowledged for its critical support and experience in helping to make contact possible) did have financial implications. The hard fact was that he could not afford to stay indefinitely. He was also looking at the possibility that both girls would prefer to stay in their new lives, which would be a more complicated story to sell against raising awareness about the evils of human trafficking.

In the end, just as both girls had come to have very different lives, so too did they come to very different decisions. One made it back, one chose to stay. But the story of the one who made it back is worth a documentary of its own. It could be called, The Second Miracle. And the factors that led to the one staying have not all been addressed here. It is only fair to let the documentary fill you in on this, the story that began like so many other stories you hear about a young man with a camera and a backpack and a few months time roaming around Southeast Asia looking for adventure.

You can learn more about this story and the upcoming documentary, Sisters for Sales, by going to Ben Randall’s website: www.humanearth.net. It should also be noted that the governments of Vietnam, Lao PDR and Cambodia have recently signed an agreement in January to intensify their cooperative efforts in the fight against human trafficking.

IMAGES PROVIDED BY BEN RANDALL