A Vietnamese lawyer based in Hanoi has rescued nearly 400 women and girls who were sold into prostitution or sexually abused since 2004.
To rescue one such a girl in China, Ta Ngoc Van had to change dozens of buses to travel some 5,000km.
The 33-year lawyer started following the dangerous road 11 years ago and has helped rescue nearly 400 victims, mostly women who were sold and sexually abused.
One winter night in Hanoi, after Van had shut down his laptop and was about to go to bed to prepare for his trip to the northern province of Dien Bien the following morning to help young sexually abused girls he had rescued, his mobile phone rang.
The number which appeared on the display started with ‘086’, meaning it was coming from China.
“Hi Van. Please help me. I’m almost dead,” he heard the voice of a girl on the phone.
Having gone through similar experiences, Van immediately asked for information so that he could keep in contact with the victim later. “Where are you now? How long can we talk? When can I dial this number?”
He also asked her to try to call him from her home phone so that he could track down her address.
He realized that it was not reliable to use the addresses given by the victims because most of them did not know the language.
Van also asked her to turn off her phone and he said he would call back. The victim was Lo Thi Then, a Thai ethnic minority woman from Muong Ang District of Dien Bien Province. She was cheated into working in China for a monthly salary of VND10 million (US$481), but was threatened to either have her kidneys removed for sale or marry a Chinese husband.
She was later sold to a Chinese husband in Jiangsu, an eastern coastal province of China, in 2013. The husband forced her to work for a sex shop during the day to compensate for the roughly VND180 million ($8,700) he spent on buying her.
One lucky day, she called her family in Vietnam and was given Van’s number.
After identifying the exact address where Then was being abused, Van accessed road maps in China to learn bus routes and set up a plan to rescue her.
Victims often have their identity papers kept by their husbands’ families and pimps so they cannot escape to home by air.
He was supported by his friend, Australian Michael Brosowski, director of the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a charity organization which rescues kids in crisis in Vietnam.
Van went to Dien Bien to meet Then’s parents to get a picture of her before leaving for Jiangsu. Her parents were very poor and did not know how to rescue her.
All Van brought to China were some clothes, a map of the country, and the picture of Then. It took him many days and nights of bus rides to get from Hanoi to Jiangsu.
He hired a hotel room opposite the sex shop where Then was working to ponder over the situation before attempting a rescue.
The sex shop was located in a ‘red light district’ of Jiangsu and local police rarely checked it. The shops were constantly guarded by numerous pimps.
It costs a male client VND300,000-3 million ($14-144) for services there.
Then was allowed to walk free inside the shop and stand in front of it to lure clients. She could use a mobile phone too.
One morning, Van called Then and asked her to stand outside the shop door so that he could recognize her.
To prepare for the rescue, Van went to a neighboring town to befriend a taxi driver because he was afraid that taxi drivers in Jiangsu might have connections with local pimps.
After giving generous tips to the taxi driver for many days, Van entered the sex shop and informed her that the rescue was about to begin. He also asked her to remain patient and continue working hard so that she would not be moved to another location.
The shop where Then was working had 10 small rooms, each with enough space for a 1.2m wide bed. Clients selected girls via pictures in a photo book.
Van told Then that he would wait for her the following evening in a taxi with an open door about 10 meters from her shop.
“I will call you to let you know that I am outside.
“Just walk out to stand in front of the door as if to lure clients.
“You should only run to my taxi when there is no pimp guarding the entrance gate,” Van told Then.
(To be continued)