Land of Extremes: Valleys and high places

Due to internet speed, this post will be illustrated with *awesome* iphone pics only. Additional images of Nepal can be found here, though I’m about 3 weeks late in edits and uploads. Sigh.

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Flying into Kathmandu, I could see the tips of the Himalayan Mountains peeking through the clouds. Fascinated by top-of-the-world snowy peaks, prayer flags and Sherpa communities, I’d dreamt of visiting Nepal for years. I couldn’t imagine what the Himalayas might be like, twice as high as the Colorado Rockies I’d only seen for the first time three years ago. (I am a reformed beach vacationer.)

And Kathmandu? So exotic per all my pretend (now REAL) friends in House Hunters International- tune in Nov 15th  :)

From the sky, the city seemed sleepy and peaceful. I could never imagine the bustling, crowded, loud and fragrant streets, the pounding heat, or the black puffs of exhaust that would infiltrate the valleys below. The dreamy place of my imagination turned out to be worn and vulnerable—a parallel I would eventually make with its youngest and least educated inhabitants. The brick and stone buildings looked equally a million years strong and on the brink of toppling any second. Homes precariously perched on the sides of slopes could just slide right off tomorrow, it appeared.

On only the clearest day, beyond the ten-thousand-foot hills that surround Kathmandu valley, the Himalayas can be seen from the streets below, creating an excitement around town. An audible gasp can be heard on mornings when the fog lifts or a cloud dissipates revealing a massive, sparkly peak—like an unexpected royal breakfast guest. I could never anticipate the stirring I would feel inside, a tiny speck on one of those crowded streets, when the clouds cleared and I looked up to see the peaks in the distance. A glimpse of the high places. Real, I was sure, but from where I stood, unreachable.

Kathmandu Valley

Our royal breakfast guest
Our royal breakfast guest

Nepal is a land of extremes, and as high and bright as the mountains above soared, so deep was the darkness hidden from the high places, lurking in provincial villages and alleys. We had come to Nepal to write about sex trafficking.

I was prepared to hear the story of an individually trafficked girl. I was prepared to write about the micro-oriented work I thought Tiny Hands Nepal, our host ministry, was doing at various border stations. I thought I might conservatively marvel at the double-digits being intercepted on their way to India in the face of ten thousand. These efforts would have been commendable in themselves, for I had read that to succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. So, I would write about the work on behalf of the one, while at the same time myself succumbing to the enormity of the problem.

But Tiny Hands blew me out of the water. Everything I thought I knew about trafficking was flipped upside down and turned around.

I’d learned during my first week that Nepal, which shares open borders with India, is a source country for trafficking through India to the Arabian Gulf—to the tune of about 10,000 girls per year.  India is both a destination for trafficked Nepali girls and a transit route to the Arabian Gulf, where men from poorer communities have been recruited for cheap labor. Women are necessarily imported to meet their needs

What?!

Women are necessarily imported to meet the sexual needs of cheap laborers.

I could just imagine the business owners working out the whole arrangement:

-But where should we get them, boss?
-Oh, I don’t know. Just find a bunch of desperately poor, naïve, uneducated girls and trick them!

And a business was born. Supply and demand. However the girls are obtained—coercion, physical force, drugs, fake marriages, fake jobs—the overhead is cheap and the $32 billion dollar payoff is massive and renewable. It’s a low-risk/high-reward business.

But sex trafficking has been trending for a good few years. Awareness is growing, there are 5ks in every major American city to end slavery, and #anti-trafficking #hashtags all over twitter. I’d heard the stories of rescued girls and brothel raids; I’d looked into the tiny faces of would-be trafficked girls in Cambodia spared through preventative programming and shook my head in disbelief. I mean, I knew it was true, but it just didn’t seem real.

It got real real fast in Nepal.

I realized two things as I began to weave in and out of the programs at Tiny Hands: One, Because of all the exposure I’ve had to the concept of sex trafficking, my heart had been numbed by the language we use and scope of the problem. “Sex trafficking” is just a fancy name for rape business. When I thought of it in those terms, my heart jumped up and reached around for weapons. It’s a rape business! With kids!

Two, I had never seen the trafficking in-progress. I had never seen the collision of deception and naivety until I looked at the confused face of an intercepted 14-year old at a dusty border station. My perspective expanded to include rape business in-progress.

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As I’d read in Gary Haugen’s book Terrify No More that “The infinite distance between the dignified setting in which we talk about the gross brutalization of people and the places where it actually happens suddenly collapsed when the sights and sound of evil incarnate filled the room.”

Yep. That happened. Sex trafficking went from a concept to a person standing in front of me that day.

I began to understand that my previous knowledge of the trafficking industry was like seeing only the tip of a mountain peeking through the clouds, only the visible part of the trafficking enterprise: the commodity and the byproduct. But an entire mountain and valley, I learned, exists below the cloud line—a robust, unseen network.

Where did the girl come from? Why was she trafficked? By whom? How many more girls are there? Where did the traffickers come from? Which routes did they use? What border did they cross? Who funded it?

These are the questions Tiny Hands is asking.

They are not just waiting at the top of the mountain addressing all the things we can see. They’re not even off the side scooping up girls before they’re pulled in. They’re inside the mountain—the rape business in-progress—blowing the whole thing up!

How could they possibly do this, I wondered as I sat down with my pen and notebook across from Nepali staff on our first full day in country. I had come to the premature conclusion that in small niches of the world handfuls of girls were being spared this awful life by prevention, and another small portion was being methodically rescued; but I was not entirely convinced justice would ever find its way up and out to the bad guys or that any of these operations would put a dent in the industry.

Over the course of two days, hidden away in a corner Momo shop, the Tiny Hands staff pieced together for me the story of an inter-country collaboration of skills, expertise and the love of Christ working together to free those captive, dismantle the network and de-incentivise the business.

One-by-one the staff entered the restaurant hot and sweaty, during a government-sanctioned strike that shut down all transportation country-wide. I interviewed the directors, trainers, law personnel and aftercare workers who serve and train the border staff, and monitor their needs and safety.

Particularly striking about the Nepali staff was each one’s humility and willingness to put his life at risk coordinating border work. One described how he keeps logs of traffickers in jail and works hard to anticipate what harm might befall workers at various stations in retribution. All told of their lives being threatened. They weren’t stuffy white shirt guys with slick hair and gadget pens or big burly guys on motorcycles. They were ordinary Nepali men in ball caps and chinos, none over 5’8”, many with wives and young kids, equipped primarily with research and prayer.

Then we met the research guys. They comprise a covert network of Nepali “Justice Operations” expertise.

One guy, who had been part of the dark underworld of drugs and crime, is providing unparalleled information and access to the criminal network after Christ restored his life nine years ago. Saved by grace, he jumped at the chance to use his “criminal mind” for good, and is now in the business of fighting for justice. He also offered us his taxi contact, showed us a picture of his adorable little boy and offered to teach us how to make Momos.

Another would provide the necessary role of setting things up logistically, serving a liaison between teams in the field, and translating when necessary.

These two and several others work under the direction of the Vice President of Justice Operations—an international expert in the field, who was constantly presented to us by all the different staff and volunteers like this: You have to meet Jeff! He doesn’t live here, but he’s the expert training our research guys. He used to work for International Justice Mission, but he’s in Thailand right now on an operation.

Wow. An “operation.” I made jokes about spy pens, but everyone just nodded their heads sincerely.

Jeff had the vision for the Fusion Center, into which all the Justice Operations intelligence is funneled, and where an impassioned twenty-something Johns Hopkins grad makes sense of it. This grad is in charge of research and analysis, and he is self-funded, along with all the other Tiny Hands International staff.

During our sunset interview on his day off, he described how he creates maps showing points of origin for both the trafficker and the victim, the average path lengths and transit routes, funding sources, and final destinations. This, the team believes, will help them understand the methods of recruitment, and more strategically fight sex trafficking on a structural level.

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So, they are at the borders intercepting individual girls on a daily basis, but through the interception, they’re able to gather information for prosecution and de-incentivise the trade. Every successful intervention costs the traffickers money. Every successful prosecution costs them time, commodity, and resources. Every criminal sentenced to jail makes trafficking a higher risk/lower profit enterprise in that community.

A little more comprehensive than I had initially thought.

Here is the body of Christ, I marveled, with its different skills, purposes and nationalities working together toward a common goal of intercepting as many girls as possible, building tight cases for prosecution, and convicting the traffickers.

People constantly ask how God could let this happen. Couldn’t he just rescue the girls? Doesn’t he care?

Uh. Yeah. It was never God’s fault.

God has heard the cries of these girls. God is in the brothel with them. God is at the border with them. God is at the source, God is in the transit routes and God is at the destination. He has given us everything we need to pick these girls up—specks on the dirty, dusty streets looking at high places that don’t quite seem real. He has given us the ability to set them on the high places. Like the ancient-looking brick and stone buildings on the brink of toppling, so the sex trafficking industry would be in Nepal — thanks to the work of Tiny Hands.

This is an excerpt from my feature that will publish in the December issue of World Next Door magazine.  Again, muchas gracias to Beth and mom who helped with edits.

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