FAISALABAD: At first, in her desperate calls home to her mother in Pakistan, Natasha Masih couldn’t bring herself to say what they were doing to her.
All the 19-year-old would say was that her new husband a Chinese man her family sold her off to in marriage was torturing her. Eventually she broke down and told her mother the full story, pleading with her to bring her home. The husband had hidden her away in a hotel in a remote corner of China and for the past weeks had been forcing her to have sex with other men.
Her mother turned to the only people she knew who could help, her small evangelical church in a run-down slum of Faisalabad. There, a group of parishioners began putting together an elaborate plan to rescue the girl from the hotel more than 1,770km away.
Natasha was one of hundreds of Pakistani girls who have been married off to Chinese men in return for cash payments to their families, most of them poor Christians.
Government is seeking to keep the matter quiet
It has been reported how Christian pastors and Pakistani and Chinese brokers work together in a lucrative trade, pursuing Pakistani girls who are tricked into fraudulent marriages and find themselves trapped in China with sometimes abusive husbands.
Since then, police investigations have uncovered that many of the women are forced into prostitution in China. A picture of the extent of the trafficking networks has emerged from a series of arrests and raids in recent weeks by FIA, as well as testimony from victims.
Families are told their daughters will be wed to well-off businessmen and given good lives in China, and the marriage trade is depicted as a benefit for all sides impoverished parents receive money, while Chinese men find brides in a country where men outnumber women. But investigators are increasingly convinced that the majority of the girls are sold into prostitution, two law enforcement officials familiar with the investigations said.
“The girls who are interviewed say they were tortured” using a euphemism for rape and forced prostitution, said one of the officials. “They are afraid for their families and for the disgust they fear they will feel. ... Make no mistake, this is trafficking.”
However, even as investigators are uncovering the scope of the trade, the government has sought to keep it quiet. Senior government officials have ordered investigators to remain silent about the trafficking because they don’t want to jeopardise Pakistan’s increasingly close economic relationship with China, the two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity for that reason.
China’s ambassador to Pakistan has gone on local television channels denying girls are trafficked to China and sold into prostitution. The issue of human trafficking was not discussed during a visit to Pakistan this month by China’s vice president, Wang Qishan, who held talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s president.
“China is denying it is happening, but we are showing the proof,” said Saleem Iqbal, an activist who has helped bring girls back from China and collects evidence of trafficking networks that he provides to police.
The AP spoke by messaging app with Arooj, a Pakistani girl still trapped in China. She said her husband beat her and would come home drunk with friends and force her to have sex with them. Like many of the girls, she wasn’t sure where she was in China; often they are taken from Beijing on flights elsewhere in the country, then driven for hours to small towns, without being told the destination.
Punjab’s Human Rights and Minorities Minister Ijaz Alam Augustine estimated that more than 500 women have been trafficked to China, while Iqbal put the figure at 750 to 1,000.
The two law enforcement officials said the Lahore-based network had been operating for at least a year. The network was protected by corrupt policemen, and the son of a former senior police official served as the lynchpin between the Chinese and Pakistani operatives, the officials said.
The network also benefited from lax oversight by authorities, they said. For example, at least five of the Chinese traffickers were able to enter Pakistan on business visas based on companies that didn’t exist.
‘Now I know freedom’
Natasha lives in Wasirpura now, a mainly Christian district of Faisalabad. She didn’t want to marry, but “what could I do, my family is poor”.
In November, her husband took her to China’s remote northwestern region. She was driven to a forested area and a small house with no kitchen or bathroom that she was told would be her home. She discovered that three male and two female friends of her husband shared the house. Soon, her husband began to force her to have sex with the men.
Soon after, her husband took her to a hotel in Urumqi city. There, he confined her to a room and sold her into prostitution.
Back in Faisalabad, a member of her parent’s church, Farooq Masih, formed a group of men from the congregation to try to help. Farooq said they struggled with how to free Natasha until one among them told of his younger brother who was a student in China. The brother agreed to contact Natasha’s husband, pose as a client and pay him to sleep with her to get access to her.
The student texted Natasha and told her he was coming to rescue her, asking for details of when her husband comes and goes from the hotel. Finally, the day came. He called her and told her to slip outside the hotel to where he was waiting in a taxi. Soon she was on a plane to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Natasha who turned 20 last week helps other young women open up about their experiences and encourages them to talk to investigators.
“I am lucky,” Natasha said. “Many girls who were taken there by their husbands are still living a terrible life. ... Now I know what is freedom and what is slavery. In China, I was treated as a slave by my husband.”
Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2019