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Posters advertising international employment are major opportunities for human trafficking traps. Photo: Abdu Kiyaga

Uganda's Neo-Slave Trade

How Unemployed Ugandans are Captured and Exported as Unpaid Servants

Dispatches-International

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Prossy Kawuma was captured and sold as a slave when she was a young woman.

She is not an historical icon, or someone students now read about in textbooks.

Kawuma is a young black woman living in Uganda who was enslaved just two years ago.

Portuguese, American, and Dutch slave-traders hundreds of years ago believed that Africans were hardier and more obedient servants than any other race. According to Kawuma, modern slave-traders also believe that young Africans make the best slaves.

“The [slave drivers'] perception is that an African gets not tired or sick, and does not sleep,” says Kawuma. “It is on this foundation that they make you work for not less than 23 hours [at a time]. They claim to have paid a lot of money for you.”

The modern slave trade is lucrative: commerce in human flesh is worth more than $90 USD billion annually, according to Siddartha Kara, a Fellow on Human Trafficking at Harvard University. That means the global slave trade is worth five times the GDP of Uganda, making it the second most valuable international criminal enterprise after drug production.

It is also widespread, with a presence in virtually every major city around the world. Ugandan slaves are frequently exported to work as laborers, cleaners and prostitutes. They have been found working without pay throughout the Middle East, Eastern Africa, Asia and even in Western Europe.

The most recent case of Ugandan slaves abroad was unfolding as this article went to press. On October 19, 2011, twenty-one young women were rescued from a slave-brothel in Malaysia. The women, who were between 19 and 42 years old, had accepted jobs to work as maids and cleaners, expecting $1,000.00 USD per month. Instead they were forced to have sex with customers until they “repaid” the $7,000.00 they each owed their bosses, two women and a man (also Ugandans) who were pimps posing as hotel managers.

This article focuses on an older – and much larger – case of slavery involving 149 Ugandan women who were hired as maids, then enslaved and shipped to Iraq. For this article, Dispatches International spoke with Prossy Kawuma, one of the women who was enslaved. Along with three dozen other women, Kawuma eventually escaped from the slave-drivers. At least 100 of her peers are still missing; it is widely accepted that if those women are still alive, they will probably die as slaves.

How to catch a slave.

Along every street in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, there are bright little posters and leaflets that grab the attention of young passers-by. The leaflets offer hopeful slogans, such as “Become employed!” or “Study in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East!” Some of the posters offer large sums of money for relatively easy work. Such prospects are too appealing for the average Ugandan to ignore.

Prossy Kawuma responded to a poster in 2009 so that she could improve her resume and thereby secure a good job in Uganda. She thought she was making prudent and ambitious plans for her future.

“I was reading a newspaper when I came across an advertisement from Uganda Veterans Development Limited. They were calling for skilled personnel to be employed in Iraq,” says Kawuma. “I applied to be a teacher and 149 others applied in their desired professions, especially as hoteliers.”

She explains that the entire employment process seemed official until they landed in Baghdad. “On reaching Iraq we were picked up by a man called Sammy. He confiscated our passports and different people came in as they took us away one by one.”

“I was given to a family,” Kawuma says. “That's when I realized that I was going to work as a maid.” She worked for two families, the patriarchs of which held senior positions in the Iraqi armed forces. When she complained to them about her working conditions, they would beat her and claim they had paid over $3,500.00 for her transport, accommodation, and health bills.

“I found it hard to believe that they had cleared all my bills because I had paid what they were talking about to my brokers,” says Kawuma. Like many others who are duped by slave-dealers, she had paid the Uganda Veterans Development Agency for several nominal “work-related” fees prior to arriving in Baghdad.

Perhaps worse than the lack of remuneration was the constant harassment and mental trauma of the experience. “My employers always said they were helping us work because we [African servants] were just lazy,” says Kawuma, who is now sobbing as she recalls her scarring experience. “But that was not the case!”

Break for freedom.

For more than six months, Kawuma worked under these harsh conditions. She was locked in the house to do house work when her boss went away. She was also raped several times. One of her fellow slaves with the Uganda Veterans Development Agency, who was working for a different family, was actually impregnated by her abusive employer.

And none of them were paid a single coin for the services. So Kawuma began working out an escape plan so she could one day return to Uganda. To do so, she had to superficially submit to her boss.

“I stopped being resilient and started teaching English to my boss' family members,” she explains. “They felt special to learn the language spoken by Americans and they always thought their children would communicate with the Americans at some point.”

“But behind this, I was looking for a way [to make them] become lenient with me.”

Kawuma's plan started to work. “One day, I told my boss that I had a visitor at Sammy's [the slave-dealer's] who was bringing me special medication. At first he refused to let me go but later he accepted my request because I was doing a good job teaching his relatives English.”

Her initial plan to escape during her visit to Sammy's failed, however. “Upon reaching Sammy's place, I refused to go back,” Kawuma says. “At this point, I was severely beaten [by the slave-dealer].”

Kawuma recalls the entire incident in detail. While she was being beaten, she was supported by other Ugandan women who had also come to demand freedom. They were locked in a separate room next to Sammy's office. When the slave-dealer finished abusing Kawuma, he started laughing and asked the women how they would leave Iraq if he refused to return their passports.

Sammy left the women locked in the room and eventually went home for the evening. One younger woman was so sick from the combination of chronic exhaustion, physical abuse, and sexual harassment inflicted on her by the patriarch of the family she worked for that she could barely stand or talk.

Another woman at Sammy's place had stolen a cellular telephone from her bosses as she escaped from her family. The girl used the telephone to call her sister, another slave who was been granted asylum at a U.S. military base in Baghdad. The Base Chief, Lt. Col. Theodore Lockwood of the U.S. Army, had received permission from his superiors to aid and protect any of the enslaved women if they managed to escape from their families, but he was not permitted to use military resources to liberate them. Soldiers at the base eventually donated more than $7,500.00 USD of their own money to buy the women clothes and other supplies.

“We called them and the U.S. troops told us that they could not attack Sammy's office [to rescue us]. They said we should move out and they would pick us up at the Flying Man statue, which was considered no-mans-land,” says Kawuma. “So we waited and when Sammy came back, he let us leave, thinking that since we didn't have passports, we could not go very far.”

“We traveled through the city and went through different road blocks. [Iraqi soldiers] nearly killed us at the last road block, where they hit us with gun butts,” says Kawuma. “If it were not for the American troops on patrol, we would be dead.”

About a third of the women who were shipped to Iraq by Ugandan Veterans Development Limited eventually escaped, but 100 of them are still missing. If they are alive, their fate seems sealed. The company, which was interrogated by the British Broadcasting Corporate in March 2011, admitted that it no longer knows where the women are.

And justice for all?

Two years later, Kawuma is following up on her abuse with the help of Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a lawyer from Kampala. But she says the government has been reluctant to provide assistance to the rescued slaves; Kawuma interprets officials' apathy as evidence that the government has an “invisible hand” in the human trafficking business.

The mention of salary deductions (in addition to Libya being spelled wrong) increases the suspicious nature of the job advertisement. Photo credit – author.

Sayda Bumba, the Ugandan Minister of Gender, Labor, and Social Development, dismisses such allegations. She denies the government's role in human trafficking and claims the Ugandan government is working hand-in-hand with international organizations and security personnel to ensure that the slave-traders are brought to book.

“It is not true that the government has a hand [in slavery]. We are working hard to ensure that we stop these crimes,” emphasizes Bumba. “If we were participating in this business, we would not agree to be party to international agreements [about human trafficking].”

Rwakafuuzi, the lawyer representing Kawuma and other escaped slaves, has made a name for himself offering free legal services to the victims of companies like Uganda Veterans Development Limited. He says that the apathy of the Ugandan government is so severe that victims receive no support upon their liberation.

The victims are also obligated to repay the money they borrowed when they initially paid for travel visas, vaccinations, and transportation prior to being enslaved. Poverty is a fantastic muzzle, explains Rwakafuuzi. The issue of human trafficking in Uganda is kept quiet because victims can't afford to hire lawyers or file cases in court.

And when the victims of human trafficking agencies somehow find the resources to speak up and demand justice, the Ugandan government itself shuts them down. The “labor export license” held by Uganda Veterans Development Limited was revoked in 2009 shortly after the story of Prossy Kawuma and the other victims came out. In December 2010, however, the same license was renewed to the same company.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Managing Director of Uganda Veterans Development Limited defended his business and the government's decision to renew his license: “[The girls we recruit] are not our employees. We look after them and see that they are being treated well, but really the contract is between the agents and the girls.”

The Minister of Labor at the time, Gabriel Opio, offered a candid explanation for the government's decision to renew the labor export license: “[Colonol Mudola] is a member of the party hierarchy [in the federal government of Uganda], so you need to handle him so that he doesn't spoil the atmosphere when you are going for political meetings at the highest level.”

It is unknown how many more women have been sold into slavery by Uganda Veterans Development Limited since their license was renewed a year ago. Such things are not reported – and apparently not properly regulated – in Uganda.

Sensation, not emancipation.

The Ugandan government has been cited for ignoring calls by the World Bank, United Nations and various governments abroad to address human trafficking within its borders. In 2007, the U.S. placed Uganda on its watch list of countries tainted by slavery.

It was poorly evaluated in the “Trafficking in Persons: Report 2011” published by the U.S. Department of State:

“The Government of Uganda does not fully comply with the minimum standards of for the elimination of human trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.

While the government began two prosecutions of four suspected trafficking offenders... there were no convictions during the reporting period and no action taken in 16 trafficking investigations outstanding since 2009.”

The report goes on to evaluate the Ugandan government's favorable treatment of companies that are essentially slave-dealers, and even refers to Uganda Veterans Development Limited.

“The government barred [20 licensed external labor recruiting agencies] from sending Ugandans to work as domestic employees abroad due to the high risk of exploitation; however the government also reissued a license to a recruiting agency [Uganda Veterans Development Limited] connected to a past alleged trafficking case of domestic workers to Iraq.”

In 2006, a bill about human trafficking, which mandated a 15 year prison sentence for persons found guilty of the crime, was tabled before Parliament. But the bill was never even discussed. In 2007, the government organized demonstrations and events to raise awareness about slavery in eastern Africa; it was a respected gesture, but nobody was prosecuted for profiting from slavery.

Finally, in October 2009, the government introduced the “Trafficking in Persons Act, 2009,” which mandates strict sentences for those found guilty of human trafficking in Uganda. But the first conviction only occurred in March 2011.

Without a doubt, Uganda has a long way to go before it can throw off its reputation as a source of slaves.

As long as Ugandans remain poor and unemployed, there will be students and laborers eager to find work abroad.

And as long as graft dominates Ugandan politics, groups like Uganda Veterans Development Limited will prey upon these desperate workers.

While Uganda may continue to bear the chains of poverty, it is these desperate youths who will bear the bonds of slavery.

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