In the Red
By Stephen Christian
October 21, 2009
The air felt thick, like a suffocating blanket—I know, because I not only felt it but tasted it. An eerie glow in the air seemed to reflect the street and vendor lights that gathered from every direction. I didn’t belong here. No one did. My hands were in fists, but it wasn’t someone I wanted to fight—it was just my body’s natural response to the surroundings.
As I walked down the narrow alleyway to the middle of the red-light district in Calcutta, India, I realized my heart wasn’t broken at all. Actually, for a short time, as I walked down the pensive streets, it felt as if I had no heart. It had frozen, or dissolved, or ceased to beat in fear of allowing my feelings to overwhelm me. My body wanted to simply curl up in the fetal position and sob forever. These children—and that’s what most of them are—will sell their bodies and the little that’s left of their soul for a few rupees tonight. These were not women of the night; they were mere girls who looked as though they had just gotten into mommy’s makeup and would be in trouble upon her arrival home. They had a few worn, brightly colored clothes slung on their backs and juvenile minds that clenched tightly to the few remaining dreams from their youth.
Youth. That is exactly what they had, or the little that what was left of it. Some of them couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. I choked, not only because of their circumstances, but because none of them smiled. Their eyes looked vacant, as if their whole bodies had shut down like mine wanted to do. Their evenings were set to autopilot. I wanted to grab them and run—but where? I didn’t care, not at that moment. I just wanted to transport every single one of them to someplace where we both could cry. Where they could love because of love, where their soul wasn’t bought for 20 to 200 rupees (a mere $0.50 to $4). But it doesn’t do much to stare at their present circumstances—sympathy is an enabler, and I wasn’t at a zoo; I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death with a fiscal address.
For them, this was home. These streets were where they had spent the days of their early childhood learning about life and what it contained. What is to become of them? Are they destined to live the same as their parents? Are they to be the ones I will walk past and eventually cry over 15 years down the road? I have to do something. St. Luke said, “To much is given, much is required,” and that night much was given to me.
The modern practice of human trafficking enslaves 27 million people around the world. This is more than at any other given time in history. This is not simply a problem on a foreign shore; human trafficking and slavery are not specific to poor or impoverished nations. The reality is that there are more slaves in the United States today than there have ever been in history, including the era of American slavery and the Civil War. The cost of owning such a slave has dropped immensely since the Civil War as well; in his book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, Benjamin Skinner explains that “after adjusting for inflation, a slave sold in 1850 would now roughly cost $30,000 to $40,000. Today you can go to Haiti and buy a 9-year-old girl as a slave for $50.” The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) reported that every 10 minutes, a woman or child is trafficked into the United States and into forced labor. This is in the United States! How does this happen in the “land of the free, home of the brave”—and yet so many of us are ignorant or have turned a blind eye? The CIA recently reported that an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 women and children are brought to this country every year under false pretenses and then are forced unwillingly into roles as abused laborers, servants or prostitutes.
We did not know what to expect—no one could have prepared us adequately for this. I personally had no preconceived notions except for the fact that we, the 21 of us from different bands (including Anberlin, Classic Crime and Showbread) and organizations, wanted to help in any way we could.
The team from Faceless International touched down in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal with a more-than-modest population of 15 million (the second largest in India). The Neaji Subhash Chandra Bose international airport looked more like an open-air market, complete with vendors of local foods, a hub for buses and taxis, tourist novelty stands and a gathering point for locals to talk about the daily news.
Within mere seconds of getting off the airplane, it dawned on us that everything we had been taught culturally in the West was, at this point, absolutely useless. All traffic blazed insensitively by as if everyone was rushing to the hospital for some sort of emergency, a pregnancy, a life-saving surgery maybe. Here in the United States, we take defensive driving classes, lessons on how to reduce risk by anticipating the other drivers and avoiding dangerous conditions and the mistakes of others. This is not the case in India. The taxi-cab norm is to have ominous gashes in the side of the car, and side-view mirrors mangled and dangling from the side of the car. I have been sky-diving, white-water rafting, rock climbing and feet away from being struck by lighting, but nothing has given me the panic-stricken, adrenaline-rushing near-death experience like being in the front seat of a Calcutta taxi.
Indoors, the people of this country are very polite, but once out on the streets, masses of people have a very “me first” attitude when walking to and from their destinations. You are no longer a human with feelings when walking the streets, but meat, resembling slabs of raw beef hanging exposed and vulnerable in a manufacturer’s freezers. I can safely say we were all very much naive to the culture and absolutely green on our quest to fight human trafficking, which at that point was a series of statistics we had not yet put a face to. But we soon would.
“Brad” works with these kids each and every day, teaching them a trade so they won’t have to repeat the lifestyles of the ones who have gone before them. I asked him that night, while sitting in the Apne Ap office, what he feels when he sees the “kids” (both the girls of the street and their children). He said it still hits him from time to time, though he has grown immune over time because he sees it so frequently. But then he said, “There is nothing I can do about what is happening tonight; I cannot save anyone who has worked in this industry in the past or the present. My eyes are simply focused on what and whom I can change in the future.” That struck me as rather odd—how could anyone grow immune in this environment? But he was right—the only way to stay somewhat sane was not to focus on the immediate despondency that surrounded this place, but to focus solely on tomorrow and plan for better futures for these children. But how did they end up here? It was clear that very few of them were actually born in India.
UNICEF says that most of the children are often “sold” by a naive and unsuspecting father or mother who honestly believes the children they have just sold (in most cases for under $5) will be maids and farmhands, and are going to get educated, learn a trade and be carefully looked after by their new “caretaker” (human trafficker). The parents are lied to and told that at any time, they can buy their children back from the caretaker—but even if the impoverished farmer does eventually raise up the purchase price to do so, the caretaker usually just explains that there is interest on their child and triples the price of the child. Little does the impoverished farmer know that his child has probably been bought and sold several times; most likely is no longer even in the same country anymore; and is, at this point, for all intents and purposes, untraceable. The United Nations office on drugs and crime has estimated that the total market value of illicit human trafficking is approximately $32 billion a year. Of this, $10 billion is derived from the sale of individuals, and the rest of the money represents the profits from the goods produced or services rendered by the victims of this slavery.
The harsh, ugly, cold reality of sexual trafficking is far worse than simply statistics. What happens right after a farmer sells his daughter is that these fragile little girls, who should be selling lemonade while discussing Barbie and the neighbor’s son, are having their virginity sold to the highest bidder. Moments later the girl is raped by several different men to break down her resistance and mentally prepare her for the horrific life she is about to lead. According to the UNDOC, these victims “are subject to gross human rights violations including rape, torture, beatings, starvation, dehumanization and threats of murdering family members.”
We saw this with our very own eyes. While in India, we met two girls who had children, but who, at the age of 10, were children themselves. We saw a 9-year-old who was getting prenatal care due to her past life of child prostitution. The most heart-wrenching for me was the 7-year-old who, due to malicious rape, will never be able to walk again. The stories are horrific, but they are real; these are real children forced to live adult lives. When you look into the eyes of someone who has only lived a life of child prostitution, who at the age of 12 has more sexual experience than most people in your circle of friends combined, you will never be the same again. Something clicks, something changes, and you realize that no matter how hard you might want to try, you will never, ever be the person you were just days before.
I know I have to look to the future to save these children. I cannot be like the U.S. government and merely throw money and sympathy at the problem of human trafficking and hope it will go away. I must live by the words of Mahatma Gandhi and “become the change I wish to see in the world.”
My head aches to help now; I don’t want to grow immune to a lifestyle where pursuing comforts in life is far more the venture than doing my part to help humanity for the better. Imagine if everyone helped just one person in the advancement of his or her life. Imagine a world where the West did more than just throw money at the problems of the world and actually got involved in taking care of the innocent.
As the fog of the night cleared, as if even the night itself knew the lessons I would have to focus on that fateful evening, I remember thinking, as clichéd as it sounds, I regret that I had just one life to live for these children and children like them around the world. I now know that this savior complex that I was trying to evaluate and “treat” was not a complex at all, but rather was a mere introduction to the fate and destiny that lay before me. I have been given the knowledge and responsibility to do what I can to help these girls and their children.
Faceless International began with Sarah Freeman and myself in Haiti almost two years prior, when we decided we had to try to create change in a world that was hurting. We decided Faceless International should exist to raise awareness and education on social issues happening throughout the global community. We educate through offering firsthand, real-life experiences by providing trips around the world, as well as other opportunities to be a part of the solution through a variety of resources. Since Haiti, we have had a handful of compassionate individuals who have come alongside us to organize, lead and help plan humanitarian trips to places such as Guatemala, Ecuador and our adventure to India.
Human trafficking is a real problem, one that has been generally ignored for far too long now. But when you experience something like this, you cannot remain unchanged. Since our last India trip, Faceless International has been actively trying to help these girls back onto their feet by aiding organizations such as Apne Ap, Ten, IJM and Free the Slaves. Faceless is also working with girls in these organizations to purchase and distribute handmade goods so that they can sustain their life without the need to go back onto the streets, or wind up like their parents. But it is going to take more than just a handful of us to create the change we so desperately need in this world. We need your help, no matter how little or great your time, energy or finances. The fight against human trafficking needs your help.