It was meant to be a special day for Say.
She was 14 years old and knew little about the world. Say had never been to school and nobody in her family was literate.
Growing up in a tiny village in the mountains bordering China, Say had led a quiet and simple life. She spoke only H’mong, the language of her community, and spent her days tending the family’s corn crops. In this part of the world, agriculture is exceptionally difficult: the fields are on the sides of steep mountains, and the work is backbreaking.
So when Say met a young man who was passing through her village and took an interest in her, she was delighted. He seemed smart and sophisticated, and wore nice clothes – everything she dreamed about.
After a few encounters, the young man invited her to meet him at the market in the next town. Say only went to the market town for special occasions; it was a long walk to get there, and it had tall brick buildings and people speaking both H’mong and Kinh, the official Vietnamese language. For Say, the town was exciting and exotic. How could she say no?
What started as a promising day of adventure became a terrifying ordeal. The young man she so admired took her by motorbike on a ride through the hills, laughing and joking until they reached a town where all the street signs were in Chinese.
And then, like the flick of a switch, Say’s crush became her tormentor.
Say realised immediately that she had been duped. It was immediately clear that her life was in danger.
Now a group of traffickers was around her – she doesn’t recall how many. But they clung to her arms, standing over her to menace her into silence. She had never been so frightened in all her life.
Say was given a horrifying choice: go with them and agree to become the wife of a Chinese man, or be sold to a brothel. Even just aged 14, Say knew she had to choose the lesser of two evils. As fists rained down on her, she blurted out her decision. She would agree to become a wife.
The following days and weeks are all a blur to Say. She remembers being taken on a motorbike, with a rider in front of her and a strong man on the back to keep her from escaping.
She remembers riding through the hills as the sun set and the world fell black, but she doesn’t know how long they were on that bike or how far they travelled.
When they reached their destination, Say was handed to a Chinese H’mong man who took her as his wife – temporarily. He planned to keep her as his sexual object for a few months and then to re-sell her. He felt that he had paid a low price for such an attractive young girl, and he believed he could make a profit by selling her to a richer man in the city.
For three terrifying months, Say was his possession. She was locked in to his home and brutalised repeatedly. Every day, she searched for a way to escape. Every night, she cried herself to sleep.
In the end, Say was lucky to be found. Chinese police were on a routine visit to her neighborhood checking in on families in the wake of COVID outbreaks. They recognised that she was frightened and clearly did not belong in the area, and brought her to safety.
Say returned to Vietnam with assistance from Blue Dragon, and we’ve been supporting her ever since. After spending time receiving counselling and medical treatment, Say is back with her loving family.
Last week, Blue Dragon represented Say and 5 other girls and young women as their two traffickers faced court. They are part of a highly organised gang, with some members still on the run. We believe that they have trafficked many other victims as well, and we hope in time to find them all and bring them home.
For now, the traffickers are out of action. Say is safe. Her family is restored.
But the reality is that healing is a long journey. Say will need time and ongoing care – possibly for many years – to rebuild her life. And the extreme poverty that made her a target for these traffickers must be addressed.
Blue Dragon will keep working with Say and her community in the months and years to come. They need protection, and they need healing.
For Say, seeing her traffickers sentenced – 28 years and 21 years respectively – goes a long way toward her healing. She has seen justice done. And as she returns to her work in the corn field on the side of the mountain, her dream is simply that she and her family can live a life safe and free.