ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar - Standing at the window of the third-story apartment in Beirut, all Manola Rajaonarison could see outside were gigantic apartment blocks. In her hand, she held a piece of paper with her father’s telephone number written on it. This was her lifeline.
She tried to stay calm; despite the heat she was trembling uncontrollably. Nervously she kept looking at the kitchen door—she knew that she risked a beating and maybe worse if her employers caught her doing what she was about to do. But they were still sitting at the table, eating lunch.
She only had a few minutes. Frantically she sought out a window on the third floor of the building next door and finally spotted Niri, mostly hidden by the curtain. Like Manola, Niri was from Madagascar. She too worked as a housekeeper in Lebanon. Unlike Manola, however, she was never beaten, had not been raped, nor was she isolated. Niri read the telephone number off the piece of paper Manola held up, and wrote it down. She made the call as Manola was tearing the paper into tiny bits.
It’s now eight months later. Manola is back in Madagascar—finally back home. The hut her father lives in is about as big as a one-car garage. It is in Ambohibary, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital Antananarivo. Manola’s plane landed in late March. It was a charter that the government was pressured into organizing by an aid organization, and there were 85 other women on board, all of whom, like Manola, had been abused.
Presently, there are 7,000 women from Madagascar working as household help in Lebanon. In March 2009, a military coup in Madagascar saw the percentage of poor people (those living on less than $1 a day) rise from 67% to 76%. Even after a major political crisis, an increase that high is pretty much unheard of, anywhere. At the time, there was a sharp rise in demand for workers in Lebanon following the cessation of a labor cooperation agreement between the Philippines and Lebanon after reports that Filipinos working in Lebanon had been abused. But girls like Manola didn’t know about such agreements, and, for many of them, going to Lebanon would also end badly.
Twelve million slaves
Manola’s story is just one example of human trafficking, one of the major problems of our times. And still one of the least talked about, although stories pop up all the time like the recent one out of Nigeria, where 32 pregnant teenage girls have been arrested charged with intending to sell their babies to a child trafficker – for 120 euros each.
According to the human rights organization Terre des Hommes, worldwide there are currently some 12 million slaves. Manola, who earned the agency that sent her to Lebanon the equivalent of 2,830 euros, is one of the lucky ones: she’s still alive. On the plane that flew her back to Madagascar there were also 12 corpses. For years, aid organizations like Human Rights Watch have been reporting on the high number of suicides and ‘’accident-related‘‘ deaths among slaves like Manola—up to eight a month, they say.
At the office of an association of social workers, SPDTS, Norotiana Randimbiarison stands in front of her computer. Files are piled up all around her. The small street the office is on is so full of crater-like potholes you’d need an all-terrain vehicle to get here if you didn’t walk. Randimbiarison is the director of the UNICEF-supported organization. On her screen is the image of a woman’s body with several fresh, hastily stitched-up wounds.
"This is the second case we’ve gotten like this; the autopsy reports say that several organs were missing from each body," said Randimbiarison. ‘’We have to assume that the women were the victims of organ traffickers.’’ The agencies don’t follow up on their contractual duty of care, she complains. ‘’Once they’re shipped off, nobody gives a damn about what happens to those girls.’’
Manola tells her story
Still traumatized, Manola isn’t yet ready to go to work again. But she wants to tell her story. With her braided hair and round face, the 20-year-old sitting in an armchair in her father’s hut is still somewhat childlike. Perhaps because any sense of order in her life was ripped from her by her experience, she has given every square inch of the living space a precise function and order.
But what stands out most are the flowers. There are flowers everywhere, suspended from the ceiling, on the cupboard, on small tables—bright big plastic flowers, in permanent perfect bloom. Even the scent of real flowers, though, would not be enough to cover the stench that seeps into the room from the nearby Andriantany canal and never leaves it.
Manola speaks softly, with her father Alfred sitting silently by. "Neighbors told me about the program in Lebanon, and a couple of weeks later I was sitting in a plane with 11 other girls. We talked about all the things we were going to do with the money we earned. My dream was to have my own home, and a family.’’
Before Manola went to Lebanon, she was earning a monthly salary of 30 euros in a textile factory. In Lebanon, she’d been promised just over 100 euros with free room and board. Not a lot, but a lot better than what she was getting in Madagascar. When she got to Lebanon, the police took her passport away from her and gave it to the Lebanese family she would be working for.
Manola remembers how it was already dark when they got back to the four-room apartment, and that her first work day started at 5 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m. Those turned out to be the hours she worked every day, even when she was sick. The room where the telephone was located was locked. The beatings started not long after she arrived. The man would shake her, hard, for minutes on end for so much as accidentally breaking a plate. When asked about the other abuses, all she would say was: ‘’I had a very difficult time.’’
Despite having been confronted hundreds of times with stories like this, Harilala Julio, president of the umbrella organization of 28 agencies that have sent women to Lebanon, plays dumb. ‘’As far as I know, not a single agency has received reports of abuse,’’ he says, adding that he has never heard of any cases of organ trafficking either. Instead, he complains about the current government block on brokering personnel that has been operative since March as a result of the rising number of abuse reports. "It’s not all bad, only a few women have had bad experiences in Lebanon,’’ he says.
Manola, however, is familiar with many stories of women who, like her, hardly ever got their salary, and she knows how lucky she was that her cry for help was heard. Things could have ended very differently, or at the very least she could have become one of the 500 cases seeking to return home that have yet to be acted on. With the help of aid organizations, her father was able to have phone conversations with his daughter, and Lebanese police finally brokered her return.
The family Manola worked for accepted her departure. No charges were brought. Manola hasn’t told her father she was raped, although she did tell her mother during a phone conversation while she was still in Lebanon. And she’s still tortured by guilt about that. Just hours after the call, her mother suffered a heart attack and didn’t live to welcome her daughter home.