Cao remembers the exact moment her dream became a nightmare.
It’s more than two years ago now, but she lives with the memory every day. It plays in her mind like a movie scene on a loop.
She thought that she was in love.
No – that’s not quite right. She WAS in love. The young man who bought her gifts and took her for tea in the market was the most handsome man she had ever met. His name was Nam.
Cao’s family sometimes struggled to get by, but they had their own home and rice farm so she didn’t consider herself to be very poor. She even had a second hand iphone.
She chatted with Nam on her phone all through the night, and spent her days hoping he would drop by to see her. So when he sent a message asking her to go on an overnight trip, Cao was elated.
She had just turned 19 and felt like such an adult. She was a child no longer. Now she could hold her head high among the friends in her village and tell them she was in love. Maybe soon she would get married.
Nam was charming, thoughtful, kind – and utterly deceitful. For him, this was a game that he loved to play. Get to know a girl, make her love and adore you, and then sell her to the highest bidder. The amounts of money were sometimes more than even he could imagine. Far more than he could earn working in a regular job.
It was easy work, too. Nam was part of a gang of seven men who took young Vietnamese women to China and sold them. Working as a group, they had a wide network of contacts on both sides of the border. All they had to do was make a call and take a woman or a girl across the border, and they would be handed an envelope of cash.
It was easier to never think about what happened to the girls after that. Had he stopped to consider the terrifying fate in store for someone like Cao – sold to an older Chinese man who would rape her until she fell pregnant – he might have had second thoughts.
Seeing the terror in Cao’s eyes on that evening when he handed her to a Chinese buyer, when she realised she had been sold by the love of her life, gave Nam pause to question himself.
But the money was just too good. And the thrill of finding another girl to trick was such an adrenaline rush.
In the end, Cao’s testimony to the police following her rescue last year played a key role in the investigation that brought the whole gang down.
By the time they were arrested, they had lost count of how many people they had trafficked. Blue Dragon represented 14 of their victims in court, but the gang has confessed to trafficking at least 40 or 50 more young women into slavery. We believe the true number is much higher, and we are continuing to search for their victims.
Nam and his group are out of action. Their leader was sentenced to life in prison, while Nam and the rest of the gang received 7 to 20 years each. Other gangs they were connected to are also out of business, but only temporarily; we fear that they will soon start trafficking again.
Cao is home now. She lives with the stigma of following her lover across the border and being sold as a bride to a stranger. She hates herself for letting it happen. Even with Nam in prison, Cao still holds onto the feeling that it was her fault.
It wasn’t. Nam and his gang were experts at building trust and deceiving people. Nobody in Cao’s position could have guessed that he was a trafficker. Everything about their relationship seemed so real.
This is the reality of human trafficking. It’s dark and complex and preys on people who believe in others.
Despite all that has passed, Cao has a chance now to start over. She will need counselling and practical support for a few years, until she can put this into her past. This experience was horrific and traumatic, but it cannot define her; she’s a brave, intelligent young woman who deserves a chance to lead the life she dreamed of as a child.
We cannot let the experience of human trafficking take that away from her.