That was the distance separating Anh from her family for 5 long years. The teenager found herself sold into a forced ‘marriage’ on the other side of the Asian continent when she was just 14 years old. Held against her will and terrified, she feared that she would never see her home again.
Now, her nightmare has finally come to an end.
Anh grew up with her parents in a coastal region in the southernmost part of Vietnam. When a woman approached her family with a job offer for the girl, the last thing they imagined was that Anh would end up trapped in slavery in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northern China that seems worlds away from their home.
The woman who approached Anh’s family was a trusted friend, somebody from their same community. She claimed to have a good job opportunity for the 14-year-old in nearby Ho Chi Minh City.
Anh and her parents were desperately poor. And here was this friendly neighbour who surely knew of the struggles of living in poverty as much as they did, offering them a better life for their child.
But none of what the woman told them was true. She had no job for Anh in Ho Chi Minh City. The seemingly friendly neighbour was a human trafficker, who sold Anh to a larger trafficking ring.
Overnight, Anh’s hopes for a better life shattered and vanished. She had become a prisoner. The members of the trafficking ring took Anh through China for thousands of kilometres, and eventually into the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. There, Anh was sold again: at the age of 14, she was handed over to a man she had never met.
Finding the needle in the haystack
Five years passed and Anh was still trapped in the forced ‘marriage’ thousands of kilometres from home. Until, one day, she saw an opportunity to call for help.
In October 2019, Blue Dragon was contacted by Anh’s family and the Vietnamese authorities. Anh had called home and her parents were filled with joy because their daughter was alive, but they didn’t know where she was. They reached out asking for Blue Dragon’s help to locate her.
The Blue Dragon rescue team immediately started investigating, putting together a puzzle with the few pieces they had to work out where in China Anh might be. It took 3 months of hard work, but eventually, the team got a location. And in that moment, they realized this was going to be a particularly challenging rescue.
Blue Dragon had never conducted a rescue operation so far from the border. Reaching Anh could take days, if not weeks. The rescue team, however, was determined.
Trapped in slavery in the midst of a global pandemic
The team had already started tracing a route and designing an extraction plan when the unexpected happened: the new coronavirus started spiralling in China. Vietnam’s northern neighbour began imposing travel restrictions, the new disease was deemed an epidemic, and within days the border between Vietnam and China was closed. Reaching Anh had become impossible.
It was painful, but postponing the rescue was the only option. In the following weeks, as travel restrictions tightened and the disease spread to the rest of the world, the Blue Dragon rescue team kept working from home day and night, with their phones always by their side to make sure they never missed a call.
They weren’t able to reach many of the girls and young women who were calling for help, and so the team strived to comfort and reassure all of them that they would be freed as soon as restrictions were lifted. Anh was one of those voices on the other end of the line.
Freedom at last
For weeks, the rescue team kept Anh’s hope alive and, as soon as it was safe, they set out to find her. Anh was so far from Vietnam, it took the team more than a week to reach her location in Inner Mongolia… and then Anh and the team spent another 9 days travelling in secret to the Vietnamese border.
After spending two weeks in the quarantine centre at a border crossing, this week Anh has finally experienced true freedom again. Blue Dragon will now make sure she can reunite with her family as soon as possible, and provide her with all she needs to recover from her ordeal.
Anh’s healing journey won’t be quick or easy. The experience of being trafficked and sold leaves scars that are difficult to mend, even more so when that experience takes place at such a young age. “The years she spent in slavery were meant to be some of the happiest and most exciting in a person’s life. Anh’s traffickers took that away from her, and that breaks my heart,” said one of the rescue team members.
There are still more girls and women held in China awaiting rescue, and Blue Dragon’s anti-trafficking experts fear the financial hardships brought about by the coronavirus pandemic are increasing the number of people falling prey to human trafficking.
There is something you can do to help. You can ensure other girls like Anh are freed from their captors and given all the support they need to heal by donating here: www.bluedragon.org/donate