She recalls befriending a group of girls when she was 14, who at first proposed she join them when they went out. The trips led to dates with older men who would pick up the bill, initially without asking for anything in return.
One night she was taken to a house in Kiriri, a smart residential district in Bujumbura, Burundi‘s capital, where she was held for three months under the supervision of men in police uniform.
“When a client came, if you didn’t want to go with him they would slap you and whip the soles of your feet,” Pamela says, her voice trembling. She was freed in a police raid after her mother reported her missing.
“Such places exist in every part of town. You just have to open your eyes to see them,” says Florence Boivin-Roumestan, who leads Justice and Equity, a Canadian NGO that has exposed the vast scale of sex trafficking in the small central African nation.
“After months of investigations, we’re seeing that human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular exists in Burundi on a scale no one would have imagined.”
Victims include girls from poor rural backgrounds and those brought up in middle-class families in the capital.
In a months-long investigation, Justice and Equity found that young girls were being recruited across the country and either forced into prostitution or sold abroad. “You find girls of nine or 10, but most of them are in the 13, 14, 15 age range,” Boivin-Roumestan says.
The trafficking takes different forms. In Bujumbura, it is girls from well-off families who are targeted in the best schools. Fellow pupils of both sexes are recruited by pimps to play the role of intermediaries. They gradually gain the confidence of the victims, who eventually end up in brothels.
Keza, who comes from a poor district in the capital, says she was locked up and used as a sex slave by a senior intelligence officer for several months when she was 15. “He threatened me and he threatened my parents,” she says, adding that she no longer wishes to see her family after the ordeal.
“I filed a formal complaint against him and he received several summons, but he has never shown up. The case has gone nowhere.”
Khadija, 15, a Muslim girl from a poor rural family, remains traumatised by her year-long ordeal, during which she was lured to the Gulf. “Some people came to see my parents and said they had well-paid domestic work for me in Oman,” she says, staring at her feet.
“In fact, I worked 16 hours a day, every day. I slept on the floor and I was never paid anything … Whenever my back was turned they would come up from behind and try to lift up my dress.”
Eventually she escaped and was able to return home. “I came back with just the clothes I had on my back and the plastic slippers I had on my feet,” she says.
The three girls have been placed with families who work with Justice and Equity.
Boivin-Roumestan says it is difficult to establish exactly how many children are affected. In Rumonge, for example, a small lakeside town south of Bujumbura, the investigation found that of the 50 adult sex workers questioned, half had been forced into the trade while they were underage.
President Pierre Nkurunziza has vowed a crackdown. “Things are changing. My budget has been increased, focal points are being set up in every province. Today something is being done,” says Christine Sabiyumva, head of Burundi’s youth brigade. She says she has known how serious the problem is for years, but fought a lonely battle, mainly because she had no budget and because police chiefs were not interested.
Trafficking networks have been dismantled in several towns and some brothels have been raided and closed in the past two months. “Arrests are made every day. We have meetings with ministers, generals, churches, youth groups and lawyers who all want to end this traffic,” Boivin-Roumestan says. “But everything needs to be done. It’ll take some time to end.”
For some of the victims it is too little, too late. “I’m angry, very angry. I feel like I’ve been used and tossed away,” says Pamela, who is too scared to return to her family. “I want those who are responsible for what happened to me to be punished.”
Her pimp was arrested after she was freed, but he has since been released. Pamela plans to go back to school and later pursue a law degree so she can “help other girls who suffer what I suffered”.
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