This article is part of a package on the modern slave trade. For more, read People for Sale and I Was a Slave.
Editor’s note: These slave narratives come from To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves (Cornell University Press, 2008), by Kevin Bales and Zoe Trodd. The modern slave narrative, the authors write, “has emancipatory power as a linguistic weapon of the violated. . . . Now the narrators make themselves subjects of a story instead of objects for sale.”
Achai (Sudan, 1999)
I was at home when the soldiers came. I heard guns and started to run. Everyone else was running too. Some went in this direction, and others went that way. I ran to the forest, but I was caught by two soldiers. I had to walk to the river Kiir and then on to Daein. They made me carry a sack of durra [sorghum] on my head. The journey was about ten days long. I was together with a lot of other girls. The soldiers would take them away for sexual intercourse. The leader of the soldiers, Musa, did this to me. On the way, Musa did not beat me, but he gave me hardly any food. Musa kept me for himself. He called me “Sudan.” He took me to a camp for soldiers near Daein. Musa had a home in Daein town, but he never took me there. I had to stay at his home at the army camp. It was a place where soldiers marched and learned how to prepare their guns and to shoot. There were both Arabs and Dinkas there. I had to do housework for Musa.
I could not leave the camp. Many times each day, he would say that he would shoot me or cut my throat if I tried to escape. I was very sad and couldn’t help crying. He would beat me when he caught me crying. Musa used me as a concubine. I am now about five months pregnant. Musa let me go away with the trader. I think he did this because I was so sad and tearful that he didn’t want me any more. I am a Christian and used to go to church at Nyamlell. One of the catechists named Mario is my friend.
Odeta (Italy, 2005)
I was born in a city in the south of Albania in a very problematic family environment. I am sixteen years old. My father used to drink a lot, and he only worked sporadically. He still faces alcohol problems. He used to be violent when he was drunk and would physically abuse me, my mother, and my brother and sisters. Meanwhile, my mother worked as a garbage collector, but all her salary was appropriated by my father in order to drink and gamble.
About six years ago, my mother decided to leave my father, and she went to Italy illegally. We stayed with our aunt and grandmother. They raised us. Three years after my mother left Albania, she married an Italian man and was able to obtain all the necessary documents. She sent money for us to my aunt in order to help a little bit in our living. During this period of time my grandmother died. After that, I went to live with my father again. He kept beating me regularly. I was expected to take care of my little brother and sisters; the youngest one was only four months old when my mother left. I have never been to school, although I wanted to.
One night a man came to our home asking to take me away. He was armed and threatened my father, who did not accept what he was asking for. Then my father called the police, and then the man left because he was afraid of the police. In the meantime, I met a guy and fell in love with him. I felt he was in love with me, but my family never accepted this fact, so they found me another man to marry. I had never met him before. My mother and my aunt decided on this. This marriage was not legal at all, because I was only fourteen; that’s what I learned later on. My father went illegally to Greece, and I went to live with my so-called husband and his brothers. This lasted only three weeks because he began to beat me regularly.
After this, a neighbor of mine promised to go and find a job in Italy for me. He also proposed to me and asked me to marry him. I accepted and ran away secretly from home, hiding with him in the same city where I was born. There was a Russian girl hiding in this house as well. I was not comfortable with this new situation, but I had no other way, so I just stayed and waited for things to happen. An Albanian boy brought us to Vlora and then illegally from Vlora to Italy by speedboat. We slept one night in a house that belonged to a friend of the boy, and the very next day they took us to a city in Italy. We stayed there in another house where there was a woman who used to teach us how to work in the streets. At the beginning I refused to do this type of work, but I was beaten all day and night. They threatened to kill me as well. So I was obliged to work as a prostitute.
I worked in the streets for about three weeks. I was forced to give all the money I earned to the Albanian boy. After three weeks the police caught me, and I denounced him. The police guys took me to a center for minors. I stayed there for about a year and a half. During this time, I tried to contact my mother because I wanted to live with her and my other brothers and sisters. I found out that my mother took them from Albania to Italy. I went to see where and how she was living. I found out in the meantime that she was living with a man, a guy younger than she is, and working as a prostitute herself.
I then told all my doubts and fears to the social workers in the center where I was sheltered and decided not to live with her. I miss her and love her so much, but I cannot accept the way she earns the money. Then I contacted my aunt in Albania and told her that I might want to come back to my country of origin and live with her. I returned from Italy and am trying to start a new life here.
Ashok (India, 2005)
I was fortunate to work for a little period at the loom compared to the other children. I came to the loom with one of the owner’s family members eight months before the date of rescue. As usual, my father was tricked by a trafficker, through his false promises of a better future for me—food, education, and income. I was sent with the man for just 2,000 rupees [$45]. Due to the poor condition of the family and a huge debt after my brother’s marriage, I decided to go with the man to rescue my family from debt.
It was a very fearful experience for me when I entered the loom, which was very dark. I was not able to see things clearly. I was amazed to see children working in such a miserable condition, but now I was also part of it. I was forced to work in miserable conditions at the loom with no proper food to eat. I was provided with poor quality as well as poor quantity of food. Sometimes there was no salt and sometimes a full packet of salt. The food was watery with no nutritious value and of such a bad quality that even animals would also not wish to eat it.
I was made to work continuously from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. I got only one hour of break either to take rest or lunch. My master tortured me both physically and mentally. When I was not able to finish my work, I received beatings with a slipper and bamboo sticks from the owner of the factory.
One day his torture crossed its limit, both my hands were tied to the trunk of the tree and I was beaten very badly. I was not able to come out of that situation for more than one and a half months. I felt that I had been so happy at my house. At the time of any illness and sickness such as fever, pain in my legs, hand, backbone, I was treated badly and also not given any proper care to recover from the sickness.
I tried to escape from the loom but was caught by the owner’s father who used to do guard duty during the night. This made me very disappointed, and very often I thought of my past days when I was free to play, free to go anywhere I wanted and enjoy my life in the field when I used to graze my cattle along with my friends. I was not allowed to go anywhere. Even when there was a problem in my family, I never got any leave. Whenever I asked for leave, the owner clearly said, “First return my money and only then you will be allowed to go home.” I was getting mentally depressed and used to get angry very quickly whenever I talked with other boys working along with me. But I was not able to understand what was happening to me.
The world is too cruel for those who don’t have money and education, hence I ask you to please support us and stop child labor. I hope I will become an army officer to fight for the children and my country. Please pray to God for my success.
(United States, 2000)
When I was fourteen, a man came to my parents’ house in Veracruz, Mexico, and asked me if I was interested in making money in the United States. He said I could make many times as much money doing the same things that I was doing in Mexico. At the time, I was working in a hotel, cleaning rooms, and I also helped around my house by watching my brothers and sisters. He said I would be in good hands and would meet many other Mexican girls who had taken advantage of this great opportunity. My parents didn’t want me to go, but I persuaded them.
A week later, I was smuggled into the United States through Texas to Orlando, Florida. It was then the men told me that my employment would consist of having sex with men for money. I had never had sex before, and I had never imagined selling my body. And so my nightmare began. Because I was a virgin, the men decided to initiate me by raping me again and again, to teach me how to have sex. Over the next three months, I was taken to a different trailer every fifteen days. Every night I had to sleep in the same bed in which I had been forced to service customers all day.
I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I wasn’t allowed to go outside without a guard. Many of the bosses had guns. I was constantly afraid. One of the bosses carried me off to a hotel one night, where he raped me. I could do nothing to stop him.
Because I was so young, I was always in demand with the customers. It was awful. Although the men were supposed to wear condoms, some didn’t, so eventually I became pregnant and was forced to have an abortion. They sent me back to the brothel almost immediately.
I cannot forget what has happened. I can’t put it behind me. I find it nearly impossible to trust people. I still feel shame. I was a decent girl in Mexico. I used to go to church with my family. I only wish none of this had ever happened.
Joyce (United States, 2002)
Was doing migrant work since I was nine or ten. Went to school with Mormons. Only black in the school. Picking tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans. Wages still the same, and now I’m forty-three years old. It ain’t went up no more than about ten, fifteen cents.
Lake Wells, near Orlando, is where I was mainly working. With my husband. Worked many years on the camp. And they be beating on you and pistol-whuppin’ you. Leaky showers, the water be cold. Half-fed people, unlivable camps. Ain’t no sheets on the bed. The mattress don’t be fit to sleep on. The food is slop. Some of the time it be cold. For lunch, they bring you a little sandwich, sauce, and baloney. It already melted in the sun. It make your blood pressure high. Treated like a dog. They used to spit in the food. Once, the Bonds girl wrung out a tampon into the food.
Got you way down a clay dirt road; mosquitoes eat you up. You so far back out there in the woods you can’t walk to town. Never got paid a cent. You go to bed at nine or ten o’clock. Sun up to sun down. They have you working in the rain at 5 a.m. Sometimes till 9 p.m. with the truck lights on picking sweet potatoes in North Carolina. Locked up each night in a compound with barbed wire, guarded by dogs. They’d make a count of everyone before bedtime, and they’d be walking with a rifle outside the hall when people slept. All the men stayed in the bullpit. Wind blows and turns over the trailer.
They take you to town in a van; they count you. They stay right there with you when you go to the store. The town’s so small there’s nowhere to run. They’d just come get you, and they’d tell the other crew leader man that they done stole their people.
Once they took me to Atlanta, to get homeless men by offering crack. I was tired, didn’t wanna go work in the fields that day. I was telling those men how we had swimming pools and how nice the camp was. Pool tables, this that and the other.
Sometime around ’91 or ’92 we decided we needed to get away. We made a plan. At night, when we could, we went into the peach fields, started stowing our belongings. Got another camp leader to help us with that. The guards went and drank at night. When Huey said start running, you start running. The dogs started chasing; I fell in a ditch; Huey fell with me. The cars were chasing and the dogs were chasing, and we went to some other camp, and the guys at that second camp protected us. The way the brothers got caught was a guy came on the camp pretending to be a worker, but he was a cop or something.
The big farmer, they’re the ones making the money. Maybe a contractor, like, say, Goldteeth, off one truck of sweet potatoes, he made ten thousand dollars. He probably makes sixty or seventy thousand a season. He’s got his own camp now, eight miles outside Benson.
Tamada (Niger/Mali, 2005)
My name is Tamada. I don’t know my age, but I think I am about twenty years old. The situation of a slave is more than I can say. With all the violence, I lived every day in fear. I was born into slavery, like my mother and grandmother. I was separated from my mother when I was very little. My master took me with him from Niger to Mali and gave me to his eldest son.
I worked every day since I can first remember. I was always moving: pounding millet, washing, cooking. I worked from dawn till late after dark, collecting firewood and fetching water. I was also made to clear up my master’s feces. When I was small I looked after the camels, and if they wandered off I would be beaten. As I got older I began to look after my mistress’s children, and then I had to do all the household chores. I only saw my mother sometimes. When my master’s father came with his family, then they would join our encampment.
My master and mistress often insulted and spat at me. I was scared because if I didn’t do what they said they would hit me. There was so much violence, verbal insults, spitting. My master used to beat me often. I was so afraid of him.
I heard from other slaves that my mother and grandmother had escaped, and then things got bad for me, as my mistress wouldn’t let me out of her sight. But I started thinking about running away. It was hard. I cried a lot. I kept thinking of my mother. I didn’t know where to go and kept thinking of the danger. I have two small children and I was very scared. One evening a few months later I grabbed my children and when no one was looking I ran. I carried my children and walked and walked, very far, over thirty kilometers. I walked from encampment to encampment begging for food and shelter, and when I got near Inatés on the border with Niger some people told me about Timidria. I remember being so scared; I thought my master would come after me.
Thanks be to God, some good people took me to the Timidria people. They helped me so much; they helped me find my mother. I cannot find the words to say how life is better, now that I live in Ayorou with my mother and grandmother. I am happy now that I have my own family, and I no longer live in fear; but life is hard, we have very little, sometimes not even enough to eat.
To Plead Our Own Cause is excerpted with permission of Cornell University Press. Copyright 2008 Cornell University.