Write About Her

culture and society, storytelling

Disclaimer: This post contains adult themes. (Explanation here). Please use discretion. Locations and other details have been changed.

I thought he was joking when Rob, an undercover investigator on the Delta Team, told us to wear dark clothing for this op. Rob’s intimidating at first glance – former military, old enough to be my dad, and as far as I can guess, has exactly zero percent body fat. It was a real operation, we were told, and while hiding four civilians in an SUV was complicated, they wanted us to understand exactly what it is they do. It was, after all, why they asked us to come. They could have sent us pamphlets and statistics, but no shiny presentation could give me the full scope of what I saw that week.

I had agreed to travel across the world to see what the Exodus Road is doing in the fight against human trafficking in SE Asia. Despite my research, despite my planning, despite the warnings, despite my wild imagination – while I had expected it to be bad, it was actually… worse. We greeted children at an after care facility – a bunch of 9 and 10 year old boys playing basketball on a dusty court – then stepped inside an office to hear about how their lives had been robbed. We had thumbed through pedophile cases and saw photos that are real-life nightmares. Pedophiles have to prove themselves to other pedophiles, so they take photos when they abuse children; in these cases, the photos are evidence. The images haunt. A photo used in court shows a four year old girl with cuts on her chest and arms. She had been kidnapped and sold to walk the streets and beg for money. When children refuse, they’re tortured until they comply. I had expected the sex workers in brothels. The 16 year olds, even. The 14 year olds, maybe. The 4 year olds, I did not.


I’m wedged on the floor of the SUV between the middle row and the front seats. It’s midnight, local time, and around midday at home, I calculate. I could check the world clock on my phone and find out exactly what time it is on the East Coast, but we’re under strict orders to keep our phones off. Screens would light up our faces and could potentially blow our cover. The engine’s off, the windows are up, and every single one of us is covered in sweat. This is most assuredly not the red-light district. There are no shiny lights and throngs of tourists. This street is for the locals. Brothels lined up next to each other, girls sitting outside, all available for sale.

“We’re looking for this girl. Her name is Hana,” Andrew had said back at the safe house. He had surreptitiously taken photos of her using covert surveillance equipment. Many of these girls in these rural brothels, they had explained, had been trafficked from foreign countries. The object of the evening was to confirm her location and confirm that she’s been trafficked.

We’d heard that the investigators needed to be heavily persuaded to meet the four of us – Kristen, Jamie, Heather, me. While some NGOs eagerly accept invitations from reporters looking for interviewers or filmmakers wanting to shoot a documentary on human trafficking, these Exodus Road investigators have a strict no-media policy. On one hand, a documentary would raise awareness. On the other, exposure also significantly decreases their efficacy in the field. The investigators are shadows, and Matt – The Exodus Road’s CEO – takes on the responsibility for being the face of the NGO.

“I take more risk,” he shrugs, and goes on to explain that NGOs need to raise support. People don’t write checks to an agency without a face or a voice.

It was a gamble for them. They were voluntarily allowing four civilians – four strangers – access to their identities and sensitive information with the hope that the risk was worth the reward. The reward being – frankly – awareness about the depth and breadth of human trafficking, and added resources in order to stop it. It was a leap of faith on both sides, perhaps. The four of us trusted them to tell us the difficult stories, share the real truths – sensationalism aside, and they trusted us with – so much. We knew the rules. No photos of faces or covert gear, no names, no specific locations.

We had exchanged formal, polite introductions, but that was likely for our benefit, not theirs. They had done their research, as evidenced by the Diet Coke in the fridge and the way they nodded politely over the next few days when we told them things they already knew – where we lived, what we each do for work, how many kids we have, collectively.

Andrew, Matt, and Brent – the disarmingly casual military physician “I’m here in case someone gets stabbed,” he says, joking, but not joking – had ventured into the brothels on this rural street, pretending to be potential customers, while Rob stayed back with us in the SUV along with Chloe, their newest team member. She’s closer to my age and wears wide legged pants and Birkenstocks. She trades in her sandals for sneakers for ops, “in case we have to run,” she notes.

I watched Laura kiss Matt goodbye before we piled into cars to head towards the brothels. It’s not a safe line of work for the investigators, I realize, especially as Andrew and the investigators go over hand signals and codes for the evening. There’s even a protocol for an emergency vehicle escape, and I blink a few times to make sure I’m not actually watching a movie.

Rob sits in the front seat and passes back a pair of binoculars. It’s important we stay out of sight, as the appearance of four American women in this neighborhood would cause wild concern and speculation. I peer through the binoculars and, once my vision finally normalizes, see a swarm of girls around Andrew, Matt, and Brent.

A message comes in. “It’s her.” They’ve found Hana.

I sit. Watch. Sip water. Lean far to the left so my left side is sweating against Kristen’s right side while we attempt to avoid headlights beaming into the front windshield. Minutes slowly tick past.

“There’s a lot of waiting,” Rob says. It’s less Liam Neeson kicking down doors and more late night stakeout with fogged up windows.

It’s two in the morning and after a 7-11 run, we’re gathered around a picnic table behind a motel room for a debrief. A bottle of bourbon gets passed around. Andrew pulls up surveillance footage on the laptop. I see young girls laughing with their arms draped around the investigators. One circles around Brent, sits on his lap, and puts her head on his shoulder. In a flurry of movement, everyone’s up and walking.

“We had asked about the short-time rooms,” Brent explains. When a transaction happens, a worker will bring a customer to a room connected to the brothel. We watch Hana and company give the investigators a tour. The rooms are small, dingy concrete-walled rooms with fluorescent lighting overhead and nothing but a thin foam mat on the floor. I don’t know what I had expected. A bed? A bathroom? Sheetrocked walls and a place to wash your hands? Someone has taken the time to paint a vine and flowers on one of the walls, with the swirls and the flourish of a doodle in a teenage girl’s notebook, and the sight of it is a little startling.


“There are some brothels that cage girls like animals,” Andrew had told us. He described walking into one once. The owner had pulled open a gate, Andrew had walked inside, and the gate was locked behind him. In that room, a customer would pick a girl and then head to a side room for services. When finished, the owner would open the gate, and let him out.

“They weren’t even allowed to have makeup,” he noted. I wondered about that for a bit.

“Too much of a privilege?” I finally asked. He nodded. The privilege of a little tinted moisturizer. Some mascara. Why? They were stripped of anything that made them feel even a little bit human.  I think about a story writer Rob Bell tells about a German concentration camp that had been liberated in 1945. The British Red Cross had arrived and while they were attending to the needs of  the internees, a large quantity of lipstick had arrived. A seemingly frivolous thing, but it ended up – according to one colonel – being invaluable.

I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the postmortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At least someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

A world where women are identified by numbers, be it tattooed on an arm or pinned to a bikini bottom for easy ordering. A world where lipstick is too much of a privilege. A world where people become commodities. It existed in 1945 and it exists in 2014.

In the video, the investigators and Hana and four other workers are sitting around a table, joking, and sipping drinks. Hana’s holding Andrew’s hand and her smile is big and infectious. Everyone seems to be enjoying the company of the investigators. I understand that the end goal is to sell a service, but this feels like more than that. Matt and Brent and Andrew speak to them with more respect and care than they’re used to experiencing. We get to the part where we confirm that they’ve been trafficked.

“I’m traveling to Malaysia next week,” Andrew says. “Want to come?”

Hana’s face falls. Smiles across the table fade. Malaysia is the home country of every girl at that table.

“I don’t have a passport,” Hana says. The same message is echoed around the table with a shake of a head or a resigned uttering of two words – no passport.

“I don’t have a passport.”

“I don’t have a passport.”

“I don’t have a passport.”

“I don’t have a passport.”

But what it really means is that she’s a slave. She doesn’t have a passport, because her owners took it, and won’t let her go back home. She’s away from her family and she’s forced to work at a brothel. She’s forced to earn her owner ten dollars each time she gets on her knees on a thin foam mat in a cement room. She can’t run, because she can’t cross the border. All of them had been trafficked. I don’t have a passport is simply code.

“I’m a slave.”

“I’m a slave.”

“I’m a slave.”

“I’m a slave.”

“I’m a slave.”

The next steps are for the investigators to compile evidence, put together a report, have the Delta Team interpreter translate the files, and work with local law enforcement to schedule a raid. Delta Team could have gone in, guns blazing, to pull out Hana, but it would just give license for the trafficker to buy and torture another girl. Exodus Road focuses on extraction and prosecution. Slaves are freed; traffickers are punished. And while this is hopeful, we all realize that the process takes time, and Hana and the four others will continue to file in and out of those cement rooms with strange men until then.

“What do you do for self-care?” I ask the investigators later in the evening, testing my boundaries a little bit. I’ve seen more horrible things in the past few days than I have in my lifetime, and they do this every day. It’s a thankless, brutal job, and they all have my admiration and gratitude. The investigators look up at us and there’s no answer. A shrug of the shoulder. A half-smile and a raise of a bourbon glass. The answers vary, but they’re the same. It keeps me awake at night. / It doesn’t matter. / It’s not about us. / We won’t stop fighting for these boys and girls. / We do this because it needs to be done.

A Ralph Waldo Emerson quote reads across the screen of the investigator’s laptop: The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Lived and lived well. Would that I do the same.

“Write about her.” A cell phone slides across the table to me. It’s a picture of Hana.

An Exodus Road sticker on Jamie’s laptop declares ‘rescue is coming.’

“I will,” I say.


>> Here’s how to help.

>> Read Bright Lights and Brothels for my experience in the red light district.

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  • Reply Sara July 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I know it’s hard but thank you for sharing. These are things that many of us will never be exposed to so it’s eye-opening to learn that things like this still exist. I gave today and I’m praying for Hana and her colleagues. I hope you can reach your goal.


    • Reply Roo July 22, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      Thank you so much, Sara. I hope we can, too! xo

  • Reply Kelly {the Centsible Life} July 22, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Thank you for sharing these stories. As tough as they are to read, it’s needed. I’m proud to be a supporter. It’s the very least I can do from a world that seems so far away from what these girls are going through.

    • Reply Roo July 22, 2014 at 3:02 pm

      Thanks for joining Delta Team, Kelly. So appreciate it. ♥

  • Reply Aya July 22, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Dear Roo,
    Powerful post. You’ve shown a different side of the situation than the usual big-city red light district narrative.
    But. I really wish you hadn’t made the number on the arm and the number on the bikini bottom comparison.
    Genocide and trafficking are not the same. No need to dilute your case with false equivalencies. Your piece would have been stronger without it.
    You know I love you so much. Keep writing the story that needs to be told.

    • Reply Roo July 22, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      Aya, thank you so much for your comment.

      You are right; genocide and trafficking are not the same. While the systematic murder of humans and the systematic sexual enslavement of humans aren’t too far apart in my own barometer of atrocities, my point here is that imprisonment and turning people into numbers is dehumanizing.

    • Reply Ryan July 22, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      What difference does it make if there is an number on their bikini or their arm? Their identity is stripped and they have become nothing. Nothing. Death or death by rape. Its the same. Its sick and its wrong. Its an atrocity.

    • Reply SL July 22, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      I just re-read this and didn’t think Roo was drawing a comparison between genocide and trafficking. I thought she was commenting on human imprisonment and the things that people will take away to make someone feel less human. It’s upsetting that human imprisonment exists in so many forms and it does seem like devaluing the prisoners humanity is something that many of those situations have in common. Pointing out similarities isn’t the same as saying two things are equal. Of course, there are as many different interpretations of any piece of writing as there are people that read it – I just wanted to share mine as well.

  • Reply Heather Clarke July 22, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Very emotional read. Thank you, Roo!

    • Reply Roo July 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm

      Thank you for reading it, Heather!

  • Reply Gilly July 22, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    I rarely comment, and Aya is certainly entitled to an opinion, but after reading Aya’s I felt compelled to add mine.
    Roo, I loved this piece and I did not feel at all like you were calling trafficking and genocide the same thing. I think it’s appropriate that you called out the similarities between the concentration camps and the brothels. In fact, in that light, it’s astounding that the US, or some force somewhere, isn’t pitching a royal damn hissie fit to stop this craziness. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Caitlin @ {walker whimsy} July 22, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    I’ve been catching up on your posts, Roo, and zipping from gifs to washer settings to this has kind of given me whiplash.

    It’s a good kind of whiplash. Maybe a bit more like a smack on the head. “Hey, you there, the one skating through your ridiculously easy little existence. Remember this.”

    Thank you for that. <3

    • Reply Roo July 22, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      Ha. :) I can’t seem to find a way to transition gracefully. Thanks for putting up with me nonetheless. ♥ ♥ ♥

  • Reply amy volk July 23, 2014 at 8:06 am

    this is gut wrenching. I keep asking myself how I can help? I’m one person. It’s so huge. thank you for giving a way to help. And thank you for going and being brave and writing this.

  • Reply caroline July 23, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Thank you for writing this- my heart aches for those involved. I donated but I’d like to do more. You’ve given me so much to think about and I’m grateful to you for that. Thank you for sacrificing your comfort and safety so my eyes could be opened.

    • Reply Roo July 30, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Thank you so much for donating, Caroline! And for being open to doing more; that’s amazing. xo

  • Reply Nicole @MTDLBlog July 23, 2014 at 9:40 am

    I watched your journey unfold as you were there. I’ve read the posts and truly felt compelled to join the efforts. Today, I made the commitment because of Hana. I hope they get her soon.

    • Reply Roo July 24, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      Nicole, thank you so much for joining Delta! I really appreciate it, and thanks for following along.

  • Reply April July 23, 2014 at 11:21 am

    You shared Hana’s story beautifully. This may be an innapropriate question, but how do the investigators not arouse suspicion when they arrive and visit the girls but don’t solicit a “service”?

    • Reply Gilly July 23, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      Great question, I’ve wondered the same thing.

      • Reply Roo July 23, 2014 at 1:59 pm

        Copying my answer to April so you can see it, Gilly. :)

        I’ve asked the same. They have a variety of excuses or cover stories, but truthfully, they’re limited on how many times they can visit the same brothel for that exact reason.

    • Reply Roo July 23, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      Great question, April. I’ve asked the same. They have a variety of excuses or cover stories, but truthfully, they’re limited on how many times they can visit the same brothel for that exact reason.

  • Reply Heather July 23, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    I have an almost four year old girl, and I couldn’t continue reading past the second paragraph. I know I need to though. I will come back when I am mentally prepared. So heartbreaking.

    • Reply Roo July 24, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      I know what you mean. I couldn’t help but think of my own four year old. Really tough. ♥ ♥ ♥

  • Reply Angela Natividad July 23, 2014 at 4:42 pm


    • Reply Roo July 30, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      ♥ ♥ ♥

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  • Reply Alex @ Kenzie Life July 24, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    I was going to go to Sephora tomorrow and buy some new makeup–like one of those Tarte cheek stains or a lip pigment. Then I read this and learn that girls who are younger than me, whose lives are far harder than mine, don’t even have the luxury of wearing makeup. So instead of treating myself (which I have the luxury of doing any time I want), I just donated that money I was going to spend tomorrow to Exodus Road. I know it will be put to far better use than one more product in my makeup drawer. It’s not enough and I know that, but it’s a start, right?

    • Reply Roo July 24, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      I guess I wasn’t going to make it through the day without crying. :’) Thank you so much for your generous heart, Alex. xoxo

  • Reply Brittany July 29, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Thank you for going on this journey. Thank you for seeing the things you’ve seen which I’m sure a part of you wishes you hadn’t. Thank you for writing about her. I’ve been feeling a tug on my heart since you first told us about this trip and I kept thinking, “I don’t want it think about this! I don’t want to know all the horrible things that humans can do to one another!” But then one night God pressed on my heart just a little bit more, reminding me that closing my eyes won’t make it disappear. Thank you for reminding me that by opening my eyes and gritting my teeth, I can be much more useful in whatever needs to be done. I know it may seem silly after all you’ve just seen, but don’t forget to take a little time to heal your heart too. Your readers care about you a great deal, and I think what keeps so many people reading is your genuine voice and soft heart. And so I say again: thank you.

    • Reply Roo July 30, 2014 at 2:14 pm

      Thank you so much, Brittany. This comment is incredibly kind. I’ve been taking appropriate (I think) steps for self-care, and trying not to feel silly or guilty about it. :)


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  • Reply Meg December 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

    This was an amazing post…thank you for sharing. Check us out at http://www.unlockfreedom.org :) We are doing some big things in the states! Happy Monday!

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