Nine Days In


Yesterday, Sajji and I crowded into a Save Our Sisters bus along with our 15 self defense girls.  We were going to visit their home.  While Save Our Sisters provides skills for these young ladies, it is the government that provides the actual living facilities for rescued women.  And some of these facilities can be deplorable and terrifying, as reported recently in the news: and  In fact, when we were first invited to visit such a place, I told Sajji that she couldn’t come (I thought she was going to kill me).  I mean, it is one thing to walk into a situation full of risk for yourself, but a totally different animal to ask someone else to do the same.  At any rate, I slept on it, and decided that there is safety in numbers, and 1 Sajji = 10 buttkickers.  I was even more relieved when I later heard that we would be escorted by several Save Our Sisters staff.  Further relief came when we were told that the girls did not live at the shelter mentioned in the articles above – that shelter is for women.  We would be heading to the only government-run protective home in the entire state of Maharashtra for under-age girls (15 – 18 years old) rescued from the sex trade.

This government home currently houses a total of 35 young ladies, 15 of whom we already know through Save Our Sisters.  We were invited to this home because the Save Our Sisters girls have been practicing their newly learned self defense skills there, and upon seeing this, the warden was impressed enough to request our classes.  So, Sajji and I were led into the dimly lit but airy hall where the class will be held, new girls flittering around.  They reminded me of gnomes in the way that they peeked from the corners of windows, around doorways, and from behind each other.  As class gets under way, even as the girls loosen up a bit, I note that there are a few girls that are mentally calloused and tough way beyond their mere 15 years.  These tough ones will be very hard to reach.  We will koshish karna  (the hindi word for try).  Today will be class number two for them.  Wish us luck.




My Girls

There is a square cut in the drab gray carpet of the conference room exposing a tangle of purple and white cords.  The walls of the room are off white – deliberately or through age, I know not which.  The expanse of off white is broken along one wall by a row of large windows overlooking undeveloped dusty lots, weeds, and distant urban roof lines.  A row of chairs circles the entire room, with a few tables at the back.  Our training room is not glamorous, but it is more than adequate, and has the luxury of having AC.  Sajji and I are early today…or so I think.

As soon as my kickpad-laden backpack hits the ground, the double wooden doors open and a single ‘Good morning, Didi’ is followed by a quiet chorus of ‘Good morning, Didi,’ and a flood of young women enter the room.  Talking, hands flying in gestures, some eyes looking directly at me, taking me in, others hesitant and shy.  The girls.  My girls.  Every time I see them, I am overcome with a feeling that I can only imagine accompanies a mother’s first glance at her newly born child: a deep connected-ness and awe that they are the most beautiful beings on the planet.

The 15 or so girls vary in size and physical traits.  Their skin ranges in shades from coffee-with-cream to deep tan to almond white.  The young lady who is almond white comes from the north, and her beautiful hooked nose and mountains of wavy hair do little to distract a person from getting hypnotized by her gorgeous large doe eyes.  She is frail, and we have been told that she is relatively new and is struggling with her post traumatic stress.  She has made unlikely friends with another young lady new to the program, who seems to be as round and dark as the other is chiseled and light.  This second young woman wears her trauma on her sleeve, so to speak:  she throws herself into the pads in wild attack.  It is palpable how much she wants to fight back, now that she can, now that she is free from the place-that-must-not-be-named.  Her attacks are often too wild, which results in glancing blows or pads missed altogether.  We have allowed her this period to vent, but are now beginning to help her hone her technique to be effective.  It is greatly satisfying to see her hit the pad with solid blows.  Just last week, she came into class with a scour draping her face.  I almost cried yesterday to see her scour lift and her unguarded moments shine in bright flashes of a smile as she completed a drill.


Which Way

I am sitting in the darkened kitchen of the apartment in which I am staying, the glow from the laptop screen bathing my fingers in ghoulish light.  The occasional bark of a dog, rumble of distant train, trickling of water in the loo, squawk of a crow, chant of prayers from a temple, and grinding hum of the refrigerator break up the silence like rain drops break the surface of a pond.  It is Christmas, I think.  Can’t be sure.  My experiences here are leaving me feeling in a constant state of “which way is up?”

My brain seems to be wrestling with reconciling things at once familiar and surprisingly missed (honking horns; multitudes of people and vehicles; intense aromas of spice and smoke) with things new and forgotten (the staying arrangement; traveling with someone; the difficulty in getting simple things done in a country where I don’t speak the language and which moves at a pace that is decidely not mine).

I have started and deleted I don’t know how many blog posts.  Each time I try to write what is going on, there is an explosion of tangents and background that vie for the position of main story.  This time is no different.  The clog that has gripped me from the beginning of this trip remains as the sun creeps through the darkened streets and into the darkened kitchen.  Illumination will come to the world, but shadows still choke my brain.





First Class

After the slowest tuk-tuk drive in history, we arrived at Save Our Sisters at 10:30 this morning for our first class.  I am still trying to process everything, which, those of you who know me, know can take awhile.

The first thing I can say about our first class is that there were 17 participants: 14 girls and 3 staff members.  Of the 14 girls, six of them received training during the April trip, and these young ladies all remembered me, they all got hugs, and they all started showing me almost immediately all the techniques they had learned all these months ago.  As they performed air knee strikes, and air hammer fists, I was completely and unexpectedly overwhelmed with emotions:  joy at seeing these ladies again; joy at seeing how great they are doing under the care of Save Our Sisters;  happiness at their barely contained excitement for the class; happiness at their retention of the techniques; awed by their energy and enthusiasm.  The program manager Jyoti told me later that the girls had been ready since 8:30, a full hour before class was even to begin!  And then I felt doubly bad that we were late : (.

Late as we were, we jumped right into things.  Sajji and I showed them how to make fists, visiting each girl and making sure she had her fingers curled and the thumb in the correct spot.  We took them through some slow punching, and then gradually increased the speed.  We then stepped in front of each girl and had them punch us in the stomach.  As before, many of them could not believe what we were asking them to do to us, but with some encouragement, they started to hit.  And hit they did.  One young lady was incredibly hesitant, looking at my stomach and moving her hand in that direction but then stopping short of hitting me.  She would then look around to her companions as if to say, “I can’t do this.  I’m going to hurt her if I do this.”  But I persisted, and finally, she cranked her arm back, winding up, and BAM! she hit me so hard it took her off her feet.  But I was still there.  So she wound up again and hit me again and again, her faced grimaced in concentration, her whole body releasing into every punch.  This girl needed to hit something.  Sajji and I both have sore stomachs decorated with an array of tiny knuckle bruises, but the girls have a sense of power and release that is without price.

Adventures in Planes and Golf Carts – Traveling to Mumbai

Ah, the internet.  What a wonderful invention.  And how wonderful that I have access to it so soon in the trip!

So here is a photo of pre-leaving Illinois:  all that stuff had to go into three bags.  Note: GTP mascot Maxx trying to look inconspicuous amongst the packing things…

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And all that stuff did fit into those three bags:


Both of our flights were delayed.  In Chicago, we left the gate 40 minutes late because of weather systems on the east coast.  We originally had 50 minutes to make our connecting flight.  Do the math – we were left with less than 10 minutes to make a 20 minute trek across Newark’s airport.  Thankfully, United Airlines recognized this and had one of those golf cart-like escort thingees waiting for connecting passengers.  Unfortunately, that cart filled up…and left  Sajji and I at the gate waiting doubtfully for another golf cart escort.  Well, the cart escort arrived lacking the one thing we really needed at that point as minutes melted away from us like snowflakes on a hot skillet: urgency.  The driver of the escort seemed not to want to take us — delaying us further by actually asking other passengers in the area if they needed help getting to baggage claim – not on the way to our gate, which, at this point, was holding the plane for us.  So after getting some verbal direction from me, the driver finally takes off for the waiting plane.  Now, it gets funny.   The cart’s horn is broken.  Not to worry: our otherwise unconcerned driver is resourceful and takes to — <wait for it> — quietly verbally cheeping at people.  With a cacophony of whispered ‘beep-beep’s that have no effect, we slowly weave in and out of startled people to make our way to…another gate to pick up traveler who is needing to get to yet another totally separate gate. We stop at various points in our journey: for the driver to retrieve a pen he has dropped; for the driver to scold other people on a passing cart; to deliver Passenger X to his gate.  Finally, Gate C138 looms before us, and Sajji and I cross the deserted gate area to board.  The plane and everyone on it have been waiting at this point for 30 minutes.  We scurry down the gangway into the unwelcoming glances of annoyed flight attendants and even more annoyed passengers.  Thank heavens we know self defense…

Once on the plane, and it quickly becomes clear: someone has oversold my seat.  More waiting for the flight attendants to sort things out.  A seat is found for me.  Room for my carry-on is found.  I take my seat, buckle my seat belt, and…nothing.  The same system that delayed our flight arriving from Chicago has backed up everything at this point, and is keeping everything on the ground.  An hour and a half later, we pull from the gate and the pilot cheerfully informs the angry mob, uh, I mean, passengers that we are 20th in line for departure.  Can he get a ‘woo-and-hoo’?  The plane stutters for another 30 minutes, inching ever forward into inky black night.  And then Flight 48 with service from Newark to Mumbai is first in line.  I hardly notice as the jet accelerates and dips off the end of the runway to catapult into the skies.   The first few minutes of the 16 hour flight have begun, and our adventure awaits.

Argentine Mom Rescues Hundreds of Sex Slaves

President Cristina Fernandez, right, applauds as Susana Trimarco, left, lifts a human rights prize given by the president during a rally to mark the 29th anniversary of the return to democracy in Argentina, on the eve of the Human Rights Day, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. Trimarco is known for her crusade to find her daughter, Maria de los Angeles "Marita" Veron, who disappeared in 2002, and who is believed to had been kidnapped by human traffickers. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

This is an amazing story of courage and bravery of one woman making a difference.  It also shows the role that corrupt law enforcement and corrupt  judiciary play in sex trafficking, which in many countries is tantamount to putting the fox in charge of the hen house.  Read and learn.

By EMILY SCHMALL | Associated Press

LA PLATA, Argentina (AP) — Susana Trimarco was a housewife who fussed over her family and paid scant attention to the news until her daughter left for a doctor’s appointment and never came back.

After getting little help from police, Trimarco launched her own investigation into a tip that the 23-year-old was abducted and forced into sex slavery. Soon, Trimarco was visiting brothels seeking clues about her daughter and the search took an additional goal: rescuing sex slaves and helping them start new lives.

What began as a one-woman campaign a decade ago developed into a movement and Trimarco today is a hero to hundreds of women she’s rescued from Argentine prostitution rings. She’s been honored with the “Women of Courage” award by the U.S. State Department and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on Nov. 28. Sunday night, President Cristina Fernandez gave her a human rights award before hundreds of thousands of people in the Plaza de Mayo.

But years of exploring the decadent criminal underground haven’t led Trimarco to her daughter, Maria de los Angeles “Marita” Veron, who was 23 in 2002 when she disappeared from their hometown in provincial Tucuman, leaving behind her own 3-year-old daughter Micaela.

“I live for this,” the 58-year-old Trimarco told The Associated Press of her ongoing quest. “I have no other life, and the truth is, it is a very sad, very grim life that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

Her painful journey has now reached a milestone.

Publicity over Trimarco’s efforts prompted Argentine authorities to make a high-profile example of her daughter’s case by putting 13 people on trial for allegedly kidnapping Veron and holding her as a sex slave in a family-run operation of illegal brothels. Prostitution is not illegal in Argentina, but the exploitation of women for sex is.

A verdict is expected Tuesday after a nearly yearlong trial.

The seven men and six women have pleaded innocent and their lawyers have said there’s no physical proof supporting the charges against them. The alleged ringleaders denied knowing Veron and said that women who work in their brothels do so willingly. Prosecutors have asked for up to 25 years imprisonment for those convicted.

Trimarco was the primary witness during the trial, testifying for six straight days about her search for her daughter.

The road to trial was a long one.

Frustrated by seeming indifference to her daughter’s disappearance, Trimarco began her own probe and found a taxi driver who told of delivering Veron to a brothel where she was beaten and forced into prostitution. The driver is among the defendants.

With her husband and granddaughter in tow, Trimarco disguised herself as a recruiter of prostitutes and entered brothel after brothel searching for clues. She soon found herself immersed in the dangerous and grim world of organized crime, gathering evidence against police, politicians and gangsters.

“For the first time, I really understood what was happening to my daughter,” she said. “I was with my husband and with Micaela, asleep in the backseat of the car because she was still very small and I had no one to leave her with.”

The very first woman Trimarco rescued taught her to be strong, she said.

“It stuck with me forever: She told me not to let them see me cry, because these shameless people who had my daughter would laugh at me, and at my pain,” Trimarco said. “Since then I don’t cry anymore. I’ve made myself strong, and when I feel that a tear might drop, I remember these words and I keep my composure.”

Micaela, now 13, has been by her grandmother’s side throughout, contributing to publicity campaigns against human trafficking and keeping her mother’s memory alive.

More than 150 witnesses testified in the trial, including a dozen former sex slaves who described brutal conditions in the brothels.

Veron may have been kidnapped twice, with the complicity of the very authorities who should have protected her, according to Julio Fernandez, who now runs a Tucuman police department devoted to investigating human trafficking. He testified that witnesses reported seeing Veron at a bus station three days after she initially disappeared, and that a police officer from La Rioja, Domingo Pascual Andrada, delivered her to a brothel there. Andrada, now among the defendants, denied knowing any of the other defendants, let alone Veron.

Other Tucuman police testified that when they sought permission in 2002 to search La Rioja brothels, a judge made them wait for hours, enabling Veron’s captors to move her. That version was supported by a woman who had been a prostitute at the brothel: She testified that Veron was moved just before police arrived. The judge, Daniel Moreno, is not on trial. He denied delaying the raid or having anything to do with the defendants.

Some of the former prostitutes said they had seen Veron drugged and haggard. One testified Veron felt trapped and missed her daughter. Another said she spotted Veron with dyed-blonde hair and an infant boy she was forced to conceive in a rape by a ringleader. A third thought Veron had been sold to a brothel in Spain — a lead reported to Interpol.

Trimarco’s campaign to find her daughter led the State Department to provide seed money for a foundation in Veron’s name. To date, it has rescued more than 900 women and girls from sex trafficking. The foundation also provides housing, medical and psychological aid, and it helps victims sue former captors.

Argentina outlawed human trafficking in 2008, thanks in large part to the foundation’s work. A new force dedicated to combating human trafficking has liberated nearly 3,000 more victims in two years, said Security Minister Nilda Garre, who wrote a newspaper commentary saying the trial’s verdict should set an example.

Whatever the verdict, Trimarco’s lawyer, Carlos Garmendia, says the case has already made a difference.

“Human trafficking was an invisible problem until the Marita (Veron) case,” Garmendia said. “The case has put it on the national agenda.”

But Trimarco wants more. “I had hoped they would break down and say what they’d done with Marita,” she said.

“I feel here in my breast that she is alive and I’m not going to stop until I find her,” Trimarco said. “If she’s no longer in this world, I want her body.”