Header Photo: A female and male trafficker react after Russian police arrive at their apartment, where they were trafficking nine girls.
Before I share this story, I want to acknowledge that the “we” in this article title refers not only to the Exodus Cry Outreach team, but also to the Russian NGO Alternativa, Russian journalists, law enforcement, and most importantly, the courageous exploited young women who reached out for help.
Click. An image fills the screen. I make a note of the woman’s name and phone number. Click. Tears start to cloud my vision. Click. Another image. The tears fall. I close my laptop and silently weep with my face in my hands.
As I researched Russian “escorting” websites, I was faced with some of the most traumatizing content I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen quite a lot in 10 years of intervention and outreach work. During this search, I often had to physically close my laptop and take some time before continuing my search for exploited women. Without being too explicit, there was a heightened sense of violence on these particular sites, in both the images and the descriptions of the acts each woman was expected to perform.
Sometimes in this work, we need to allow ourselves to feel the natural emotions and response that this injustice invokes in us. In the privacy of my office, I wept over the thousands of my Russian sisters who were being sold and exploited in the sex trade there.
For several weeks before heading to Moscow for a large mobilization outreach during the 2018 World Cup (the initiative was called “LuBlue [love] Russia”) I investigated these websites where girls are sold for sex, copying and pasting their contact information so we could reach out to them when we arrived in Russia.
Here’s how it went down.
One of the guys on our team would call a number from the list/website and, posing as a sex buyer, he would arrange a date with the woman at a hotel. He would greet her in the lobby and explain that, instead of purchasing her time to violate her, he wished to introduce her to some of his female friends who wanted to give her a gift, give her some time to rest, and hear if there might be a way we could assist her.
During one of the first hotel meetings, our team met “Bella” and “Esther” from Nigeria. They revealed that their pimp and madam (female pimp) had taken their passports and told them after they arrived they had to work in prostitution until they paid off their $50,000 debt bondage—they were falsely told this was the cost for their flight and “sponsorship.”
But even before arriving in Moscow Bella and Esther had been forced to participate in a voodoo occult ceremony. They were now told if they didn’t pay their pimps back and tried to escape, the voodoo “curse” would be activated on both them and their families. Spiritual and psychological control and manipulation were operating very strongly.
They were now told if they didn’t pay their pimps back and tried to escape, the voodoo “curse” would be activated on both them and their families.
Bella and Esther shared that there were several other girls in the apartment together, who’d all been brought to Moscow on easily obtained FIFA Visas during the World Cup.
Bella told us that she once refused a sex buyer a certain sex act. He was so furious he grabbed her and threw her out of the apartment window on the 3rd floor. She broke her leg and was hospitalized for a month. She said after that she never refused sex buyers anything they demanded of her. Both girls estimated about 50% of sex buyers would beat them during or after an encounter in the hotel rooms or apartments.
Over the following weeks, my teammate Tailer and I met with Bella and Esther (and eventually a third girl from the brothel apartment) regularly. We partnered with an amazing Moscow-based anti-trafficking org called Alternativa.
We explained to the girls that if they helped us prove their status as a victim, we could ensure they would stay in Russia, be provided for, and receive a tutor as well as job skills training. The evidence we’d need from them to prosecute the pimp and madam would be a recorded confrontation that captured the madam’s acknowledgment of her trafficking activities.
Esther built up the courage for this confrontation and we coached her using a role-play conversation. She memorized everything she’d need to say. Just one final factor remained: she would need permission from her parents in Nigeria to move forward with the plan. Her mother gave a resounding “yes” to it, but her father threatened to throw her mother on the streets if his daughter tried to escape. It is likely he had sold her to the traffickers. And sadly, the other girls were too scared of the pimp and madam to record a confrontation.
Her father threatened to throw her mother on the streets if his daughter tried to escape.
Despite this, it was decided that we should still move ahead and conduct a raid. Even if the pimp, madam and girls were deported to Nigeria, we believed it would mean the exploitation would stop and we could connect them to programs and services back in Nigeria.
Beforehand, we had secret cameras set up to confirm the exact apartment where the girls were being kept, so we could be certain we would be raiding the right place. On the day of the raid around 25 Russian activists, journalists, and media showed up to the apartment. My teammate Tailer and I stood behind the police as they knocked on the apartment door. The pimp and madam were furious and wouldn’t stop shouting. Fortunately, they didn’t know we were the informants.
In this two-bedroom apartment were living two pimps, two older men, nine girls (one just 16 years old), two boys, and two children. A video of the raid is captured here.
First Photo: Exodus Cry Director of Outreach, Helen Taylor, stands near one of the traffickers while the raid of the apartment takes place. Second Photo: The male and female traffickers (pimp and madam) angrily wait outside their Moscow apartment before being taken to the police station.
Everyone from the apartment was taken to the police station.
We followed the group to the police station to see what would unfold. The judge called each girl forward (with the pimp, madam, and the two additional older men in earshot in the room) to ask if they were being trafficked. Of course, the girls looked terrified and didn’t say they were being held as slaves. Instead, they kept to the story the pimp had told them: “I’m here to see football, I’m not in prostitution. There’s a mistake.”
Even when we received permission to interview them privately, they were too scared of the police to speak against their traffickers (or feared the consequence and family shame of deportation, arriving back in Nigeria penniless, or violence at the hands of the pimps).
Several times the pimps would approach the area I was interviewing the girls and scream threats at them in Nigerian. Because the girls didn’t self-identity as victims and all kept to the pimps’ story—and because they all had the World Cup temporary visas—devastatingly, at the end of the night, the police said they did not have sufficient evidence to press charges and let everyone go. Tailer and I, and our friends at Alternativa were left deflated and frustrated.
However, thanks to the media exposure of multiple articles, including one in a national publication called Russia Today, and half a million people viewing the InTheNow video of the raid on Facebook, this raid caused a national stir.
Thanks to the media exposure of multiple articles… and half a million people viewing the InTheNow video of the raid on Facebook, this raid caused a national stir.
This caused the Nigerian embassy, under scrutiny and pressure, to follow up with the madam and tell her the girls must be released. The madam finally confirmed she had brought the girls from Nigeria and the ambassador ordered her to present to the embassy the return tickets of all the girls and send them back, otherwise, she would face charges.
This madam saw the Facebook video of the raid (which features me describing the predicament of these girls) and sent me many private threats and curses for exposing her trafficking activity. She even set up a fake profile of me and contacted friends of mine, while pretending to be me, asking for money! I wondered how far she was going to take things.
As a result of the media exposure of our raid, many tips and leads of other brothel locations holding young Nigerian women have flooded in, as people have seen the video and contacted Exodus Cry—even 8 months later! Just this week we had another tip passed onto us, via Instagram, of a Nigerian ring holding girls against their will in Moscow. We relay all the tips to our friends at Alternativa who are then able to follow up with the informants or victims.
In addition, lawyers, activists, and NGOs in Nigeria have contacted Exodus Cry and Alternativa informing us of the programs and services they offer trafficking victims to assist with their rehabilitation in Nigeria and furthering their education. The media can be a powerful force in shining light to expose darkness and we’re grateful for the courage of the journalists, front-line workers at Alternativa, and the courage of every girl who reaches out for help.
Months later, Alternativa informed us that enough criminal evidence against the male pimp had surfaced and he was arrested and imprisoned in Nigeria. A similar fate awaits the female madam.
Alternativa informed us that enough criminal evidence against the male pimp had surfaced and he was arrested and imprisoned in Nigeria.
We don’t know what happened to all the girls. We believe some of them might still be in Russia. Shortly after the raid, before the pimp was arrested, one girl was tragically pushed from a high rise apartment by another violent sex buyer and died. The youngest exploited girl of the group (who was 16) courageously reached out to Alternativa for help escaping after our raid, and is now safely back in Nigeria and doing well. You can read her story here.
Not long after our team left Russia, Alternativa conducted a second raid with other Nigerian girls trafficked during the World Cup. Being better equipped with the insight gained from the first raid, the pimps were arrested and the girls were freed (watch the video).
Another trafficked girl courageously recorded a confrontation with her pimp, and I was able to help get this transcribed by some of my Nigerian and UK contacts. That pimp too was arrested and imprisoned!
Alternativa told us recently that the police are now more effectively able to prosecute pimps because of the experience and knowledge they have since the World Cup. The Russian police recently awarded our partners at Alternativa a medal for their services. It seems there has been a notable shift toward more effective trafficking raids over the last few months in Russia and for this, I am extremely grateful.
When I think of this raid and the ripple effect it has had in Russia, I sometimes think back to the hours I spent before the Moscow trip, on my laptop, researching the disturbing websites advertising Russian and foreign girls for sex. In those moments of seeing, weeping, and closing my laptop, I felt God’s grace and compassion and knew He was with me.
He knew every woman by name. I remember Him encouraging me one day with these words: “Thank you for looking for My daughters, not to exploit them like the others, but to find them. They are My treasures hidden in darkness but they don’t know I love them. Together we will reach them and tell them there is hope.” Some of the women from these sites were the very trafficked Nigerian women we met with in hotel lobbies, which then led to this raid.
Though I believe those who wish to do similar investigations should do so wisely and with training, I know the Lord gives a special grace to His friends who say yes to Him. As God’s people, we cannot be afraid to stare suffering in the face and have courage, for it is only when we allow ourselves to see and act that we can become messengers of healing.
If you ever find yourself sitting there in front of a computer or phone screen with tears after seeing an image or reading a harrowing story, know that your empathy can be the first step toward freedom for an exploited woman, especially when you make a decision to let your empathy lead to action.
First Photo: Helen Taylor with the Alternativa team. Second Photo: Tailer and Helen with one of the trafficked Nigerian girls.