Undercover: A night out with the guys… and girls.

*STOP! Before you read any further, make sure you have read the previous post about the morality of these types of operations. Below are Jeff’s observations and reflections after having gone out several times undercover with the Freedom Operations team.  The info is both sensitive and mature, so, you know, not for the kids.

The following was written by Jeff Hartman (my husband):

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THE CLUBS

I stood on a street corner in Thamel—the touristy area—at about 8p waiting for a call from the Freedom Operations team, who I would be joining for the night. Undercover.

I watched the physical change take place along the streets from a tourist hub to a seedy nightlife in a span of 30 minutes.  Crowds became younger and much more male-oriented, the music became louder as the store fronts were closing up for the day, and I got butterflies. I got the call. Jeff, the VP of Freedom Operations would meet me in 10 minutes with the rest of the team at Fire and Ice, a local pizza joint.

I walked over through endless “smoke and hashish” guys, Turkish salesmen, street girls, cab drivers, and the policemen. I’m not sure if I even saw one female tourist the entire way.

The Freedom Operations team arrived and I was immediately comfortable.  We talked about trafficking, their theories, dreams, and the challenges of the work. We also talked about the psyche with regards to trafficking and law of many countries around the world. It was exciting, inspiring, depressing, and fun all at the same time.

We briefly discussed what we were to do that evening and the DOs and DONTs of the clubs. Basically be cool, follow their cues and just watch and learn. They were also getting mic’d up with cameras and recorders, bringing DNA swabs in case they came across some used condoms, glasses, or got consent from the women to collect samples. We were posing as “researchers” in case anyone asked.  I was a bit nervous, but I felt in good hands with all the experience around the table. We said a prayer then made a plan of attack.

We headed out with the intention of hitting three or four clubs. My adrenaline was pumping as we walked down the streets of Thamel and Jeff B. pointed out the prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts. He was cool, intense, smart, and played the part well.

We arrived at our first club, passed through security, and went down to the basement. Immediately it seemed shady with a girl dancing on stage, several others hanging around scantily dressed, and a few Nepali men. We were the only white men there.

Three women escorted us to the back corner of the club, where light was scarce. We sat down in a torn up booth and the women immediately started flirting. I had no clue what I should/shouldn’t do, what I could/couldn’t do, so I sat there for a minute like a deer in headlights. I admit I was looking around the club looking for the pimps, customers, rooms, etc… trying to get a feel for the place and trying to take cues from the other guys without giving anything away.  They explained that the women are smart, and they can pinpoint within a very short period of time what kind of customer you are and why you’re there. This scared me a bit, so I really tried to blend in the best I could.

I looked over and noticed the other guys arms’ hanging loosely around a couple of women.  Should I be doing that too?! I began to mimic him with regards to how to act.

Two girls sat on either side of me, it was so loud we you had to crowd together to communicate. Needless to say the environment was set up for comfort and intimacy.

The girls began asking for drinks, and I was a little confused but then realized their jobs were to please the customer and generate income for the establishment. They were doing a good job.

The place was not only loud but it was very hot despite a fan blowing directly on us from above. The women were dressed in lingerie or skimpy outfits, and I was in jeans and a Packers shirt.

The women got more friendly as the night wore on, and conversation turned more intimate with comments about my “beautiful” skin, my muscles, my eyes, etc…

We talked about families, but never about marriage. All of this was done through broken English, broken Nepali, gestures, touching, and a lot of laughing and flirting. Fortunately it was initially a lot like a fraternity party, of which I was familiar, but the flirting became more intense, with requests for kisses and touching, and that was a frontier I was not used to.

The first two girls I was with eventually went up to dance on stage and were replaced by new girls—one with tears in her eyes. The other girl told me she was sad, but the girl denied it even as tears continued to pool. I tried to lift her spirits, which resulted in her holding my arm and leg. Whoops. Rewind.

She didn’t say much more, but just kept her arm around me as I thought, How did I get here?! I was undercover with experts in the field of anti-sex trafficking, sitting inside a Kathmandu nightclub with a sad girl’s arm around me.  So weird.

More tourists and Nepali men arrived and the music got louder. The energy was picking up and the girls were starting to work harder by asking for kisses on the cheek. At one point I leaned over to one of the other guys told him half-joking that it was a pleasure meeting him and how ironic it was we were meeting like this! He laughed and said how crazy that we have wives that trust us enough to let us be here. I agreed and thought about Brooke at home. We were both so lucky.

I honestly wanted to tell all these girls in the club that there is help, and that I was harmless, and that I really wanted to give them a sincere hug. I pictured some of the dirty kids in the rural villages and on the streets of Kathmandu and wondered if this was their fate. Never did I expect the emotions I was experiencing. Fear, yes. Excitement, yes. Sadness, yes. But deep sadness and anger stirred inside me that I hadn’t expected.

I wondered how many had gotten here, and Jeff explained they had either been tricked into coming and were now not free to leave, or their families were so desperate for income they were pressured into staying. Whatever the case, he made it clear that NO ONE chose to be here, and that each girl had a story that would break your heart.

The team eventually recorded the information they needed and collected DNA samples from some willing girls.  I remember standing up to walk out and feeling every girl in the club escorting me out with her eyes. Perhaps it was just me, but it seemed like a mix of stares, the I don’t want to be here stare fighting the I need business to survive stare, and both were sad.

These were the girls. These were the ones I had read and watched documentaries about. These are the girls they’ve been working to free. These are the girls so many people are either fighting for or turning a blind eye to. They are real. I had looked them in the eye. I had laughed with them. I could have done a lot more, and many would after we left. It really tugged at my heart.

Thamel appeared darker when I walked outside. The crowd was rough and girls were working the streets—very different from the tourist hub I’d shopped around just hours earlier.

On the way home I thought WOW, how privileged was I to get to experience this and witness the workings of an organization that is on the cutting edge of doing something about the abuse of women?

I have to admit, before this experience my heart was saddened by the idea of sex trafficking and prostitution, but now my heart was totally broken.

I got home and Brooke was awake to hear the stories. I was still going on adrenaline as I paced back and forth in our room sharing the night with her. As I slowed down, fatigue set in and I got ready for bed. My wife’s eyes were shut and I leaned over to give her a kiss as she fell asleep. I felt so lucky to have an amazing women like her who trusted me so much. I felt blessed to be raised the way I did and to come from affluence like so many in the States. I thought, Who knows how I would have ended up if I grew up on the streets of Kathmandu?

I rolled back over and felt the fan from above blowing on me. I flashed back to the club when the fan was blowing on me and women were all around. I was sure glad to have a different fan above and only one women next to me—one I loved and cared so much for. I was saddened to think that most of the women I met tonight longed for this but were in a very different situation with little hope of change.

It wasn’t fair, but all I could do was thank the Lord and think about what I was doing to help them through my work.

___

THE CABIN RESTAURANTS

So there I was, again, sitting up in the third floor of an old hotel in Pokhara with the Freedom Operations team planning out our day. Hidden cameras in key fobs, sunglasses, shirt buttons, watches were donned and assignments were given. I was about to go out at 3p to learn more about the sex trafficking work in Nepal. This would be another physically and emotionally draining day like the others, the difference being it would be during the middle of the day, not the during the night when most people think the trouble is happening.

One group was heading out to “purchase” a girl for a few hours. She had been identified the day before as potentially trafficked. The other group was to find a good restaurant to bring her to, one that was empty with good lighting and minimal background noises, since we were going to be using five cameras during the interview.

The team headed out on motorcycles with me on the back, and I literally felt like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie. We turned the corner to face a giant mountain peak to the north and a cloud of dust from the motorcade in front of us. I just smiled and hung on for the ride, which would be the theme for me the rest of the day.

The team split up looking for restaurants around town that met our needs. We found one at which we could sit on the third floor in solitude. It was relatively quiet, had good lighting, and we hoped to capture evidence if the girl happened to admit to being trafficked or described who the perpetrator was. We prayed she’d provide key information we could use for litigation purposes.

We got the call that Jeff was approaching with the girl, so we set up a camera in our key fob and positioned ourselves to hear the conversation from a nearby table and get a good view while not raising suspicion.

Jeff arrived, followed by the interpreter, and then the girl. My heart sunk because she looked so young, innocent and vulnerable—not like a prostitute I might have seen in the movies, although technically she wasn’t a prostitute; she was a slave. She was wearing a simple shirt and jeans with high, pointy heels. She looked awkward, like a 16 year-old might if she were eating lunch with two 40-somethings, and especially if she were just bough as a 3-hour rental for $30.

She could have been my nephew’s junior prom date. I was saddened at the thought that this girl could not go to prom, could not live a normal teenage life, and has none of the fun a kid her age should. She doesn’t get to run to the park with her friends or go on a with other boys her age. She an enslaved sex worker, and she has no choices in her life. It was hard to see the type of girl that I had been reading about walk by me and sit down at a table next to me.

Initially her body language was passive. She slumped in her chair and didn’t look anyone in the eye.

She later described to Jeff that was married at the age of 14, and her husband left her five months later. The community rejected her on the grounds she was no longer pure. On top of that, she had a medical emergency that cost around 60,000 rupees ($600) with no way of paying it back.  She borrowed the money for emergency surgery—she had to pay in advance or they would not do the surgery—from her ex-husband’s sister’s husband, who offered to help. To pay the money back, she came to work at a cabin restaurant owned by the family, which was a brothel in disguise.

The girl described how she wants out desperately, but she currently owes 45,000 rupees ($450). She is not allowed to leave the establishment unless someone purchases her. She sleeps in a room with the other girls and can be rented out at any time. She cannot refuse business and is truly enslaved to sex-work until her debt is paid.

When their meals were finished, Jeff asked the girl where she wanted to go.  He wanted to get more information, but more importantly wanted to give her a couple hours of peace and enjoyment before going back to the hell she lived in.

She asked to drive up to one of the most beautiful Himalayan observation areas in Pokhara. And she just wanted to sit, so Jeff obliged. They sat without talking for a little while before Jeff had to take her back. She asked if they were going to the hotel now to have sex. Jeff told her he wasn’t interested in sex. She gave him a huge hug.

While this was going on, the rest of us went to several other cabin restaurants to collect “data”.  Again, it felt like a scene from Indiana Jones. We zipped though town, down side streets dodging dogs, cows and people. I was holding my breath. I had no clue where I was, but I knew we weren’t in the regular tourist part of town.

When we stopped, kids were outside playing, families were hanging out, and stores were open for business. While it wasn’t a place I’d hang out it without a purpose, I didn’t feel overly scared and I sure as heck wouldn’t have guessed there were brothels in the area. One of the team members then walked around the corner and motioned us to come. As we turned the corner, the street suddenly became eerie. He told us there were probably 500 women for sale in this area and that I needed to stick close to him.  He became more serious, and I became his shadow.

My insecure side emerged and I wondered what people thought of me. It was obvious that when a couple of white men are in the area, it’s probably not for any other reason than sex. I wanted to wear a sign saying I am trying to help! I am not purchasing sex! But, of course, I had to play the part. I said a prayer and reminded myself that God was with me, and that I was there for a reason.

The cabin restaurant was dark, musty, and warm and the quarters were tight. I looked to the right and saw the community bedroom for the girls. The next door was closed. There were an additional three or four rooms for sex, and only one small cubicle for dinner. It just didn’t feel right and I was so nervous!

Three young ladies greeted us, all smiles. A couple of them remembered the team from the previous day, when they had been in to scope things out. We had returned to the restaurant because now the team knew exactly where the trashcans were, and they would attempt to collect DNA evidence through condoms and other used items.

The girls escorted us back to the cubby, and one kissed my shoulder three times. The six of us crammed into the small cubicle and ordered chips and drinks.  The girls that surrounded us were more like girls than sex workers. They dressed like teenagers, giggled, and had silly personalities, but every once in a while they’d do something atypical for a teenager like massage our hands, feed us little chips one by one, or blow on our necks to keep us cool.

As we left, it was getting dark and scary in the neighborhood. The girls started coming out of all the cabin restaurants, and it became obvious this was the red light district of Pokhara. I saw many young girls just sitting like young teens would outside their home, but the difference was they were doing it against their will and were simply being advertised.

My heart broke for them, and as we rode by on our bike, I wished I could swoop them all onto a giant truck and take them away to a place where they could be free and happy, with hopes and dreams of a future.

The team met back at the hotel and debriefed. We were exhausted and just needed a break for a while. Despite our limited success, everyone was pleased with the day and so was I.

I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. I’m not sure if it was a blessing or a burden to have experienced this and now I have faces and names to assign to this injustice. It’s no longer ten thousand. It’s one girl and another girl and another girl.

The question I’m now pondering is what I’ll do about it.

2 thoughts on “Undercover: A night out with the guys… and girls.”

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