MUMBAI, INDIA – Getting inside the brothel is the first challenge: A manager sits outside a locked gate and screens customers. When the creaky gate collapses open, a thick curtain blocks anyone from seeing inside
When a team of Mumbai police and IJM staff entered the brothel on Saturday afternoon, the place was eerily quiet. This was not the first time they had been here. IJM has helped police rescue girls from brothels in this same building five times over four years.
Some of the brothel managers are currently charged and on trial in other sex trafficking cases; yet they have had the audacity to return to the same building and continue with their lucrative business.
“We knew that there were girls confined here, used as sex slaves,” says Sanjay Macwan, IJM Mumbai Field Office Director. He adds, “We knew from earlier experience that there are hiding spots.”
The Hiding Spot
The team quickly but meticulously circled the small space, searching the walls and ceiling for a trap door might reveal a hidden cavity. They climbed stairs to the dingy loft where soiled mattresses were crammed into half a dozen makeshift rooms. The brothel managers refused to answer questions and said they didn’t know where any of the young women were.
Finally, after 45 minutes of searching, an IJM team member knocked on a wall that made a hollow sound. The police didn’t hesitate; an officer pried open the plaster square, bits of the wall crumbling away to reveal a hidden crawlspace.
From the darkness, one girl peered out, terrified and hugging her knees to her chest. The officer motioned for her to come out, and an IJM social worker stepped forward to speak to the frightened young woman.
But she wasn’t the only one trapped in the tiny space, about 5 feet wide and 2.5 feet high. One by one, more young women emerged from the stuffy darkness. They gasped for air, at first silent, then some crying. IJM staff rushed to bring them water, explaining that they girls were no longer in danger, they were safe. They were being rescued.
Though Sanjay has helped lead many operations where girls are hidden away in horrific spaces like this, every time he says the emotion rises up within him: “It is a shock. It is sadness. It is seeing hopelessness right in front of you.”
Rescued from a Nightmare
Police arrested four suspects, including one woman who identified herself as the brothel owner. The officers made sure to keep the young women away from the managers as they all left the building. Sex trafficking victims are typically very slow to open up about the truth, afraid of the repercussions or coerced into thinking they are the ones wh o will go to jail if ever police find them.
IJM staff accompanied the young women back to the police station, reassuring the girls that they were safe. The social workers made sure the survivors had blankets and meals as they waited, taking turns telling parts of their stories to the police officers as they night wore on.
Their words came out in fragments, but the picture of violence was disturbingly clear. There was a secret room at the end of the narrow crawlspace where the girls had been hidden; this was the place where they were kept and raped repeatedly when they first arrived. It was a kind of conditioning, a brutal initiation. The younger the victim, the more customers she was forced to see, typically 6 or 7 a day. If she tried to refuse a customer, she was beaten.
At one point one of the survivors encouraged the quieter girls to speak up and tell the truth about how they had suffered. “Now tell older sister [the social worker] the truth, they have saved us,” she said.
“I was dead,” another survivor stated with mixed emotions. She added, “The last three months I was in the brothel without seeing the sun or being outside, but somehow I was surviving.”
A New Journey Begins
As the evening turned to night, IJM social workers made calls to find a shelter for the six trafficking survivors. Despite the fact that one home was at capacity, they agreed to make room for these survivors who desperately needed a safe and loving place to go. Police drove the IJM staff and survivors to the shelter, and the social workers helped them settle into the new home.
Over the coming days and weeks, IJM will assess each survivor’s individual needs to create individualized treatment plans. Learning to live in freedom once again will be a process. But that journey has begun; as the young woman who hadn’t seen sunlight in three months explained: “Now I have my life back and can live.”