Sitting at a table in a run-down bar on the edge of Ugandan capital Kampala, Stella Kobusingye stares into the distance as she recalls the tangle of lies and deceit that led to her sex-slavery ordeal.
Struggling to support her young son and sickly mother with the income from a small shop, last year Kobusingye heard about a job opportunity earning $800 a month working at a Ugandan-owned boutique in Malaysia.
After double- and then triple-checking that the job seemed genuine, Kobusingye sold her shop, paid for a passport and bought a visa for China, where middlemen told her she needed transit, before being handed a ticket and boarding a plane.
But when she arrived in China, she was met by a Ugandan woman, taken to a hotel where scores of other Ugandan girls were staying and told she now owed $7,000 (Dh 25,711) for the airfare.
“There were no jobs there, they had lied to me — the only thing they had taken me there for was prostitution,” Kobusingye, who asked for her name to be changed, told AFP.
That night, a Nigerian man knocked on the door and said he had paid to have sex with her. Kept prisoner in her hotel room and with her passport taken away, for the next few weeks Kobusingye was forced — sometimes brutally — to sleep with up to five Nigerian men each night.
To scare her into silence, Kobusingye says her captors took her to a Ugandan witchdoctor there who used her fingernails and pubic hair to perform rituals.
Kobusingye’s story is typical of a growing number of young and vulnerable Ugandan women whom officials say are being duped into travelling abroad — particularly to countries in the Far East and Middle East — and then forced into prostitution.
In a country with massive unemployment and few opportunities, posters in shopping malls around Kampala advertise opportunities for well-paying jobs or studies abroad.
It is almost impossible to say how many Ugandan girls have been trafficked abroad but officials estimate in Malaysia alone — a country with visa-free travel for Ugandans and growing economic ties — there are currently about 600 Ugandan women in forced prostitution.
There are no figures available for the number of trafficked women in China.
During a recent visit to Kampala, Hajah Noraihan, a Malaysian working as Uganda’s honorary consul in Kuala Lumpur, flicked through a series of horrifying pictures to show what happens to the girls who refuse — the face of a young woman thrown from a third-floor balcony, the body of another brutally murdered on a bedroom floor.
‘We need to see action on this’
In the past two years, at least three Ugandan girls have been killed in Malaysia, she said.
Since late last year, Malaysian police have cracked down on the prostitution rings. In a single raid in October, 21 Ugandan women were discovered at just one location and there are around 60 currently being detained by Malaysian authorities.
With the help of the International Organisation for Migration, in the past five months 14 girls have been brought back to Uganda, Noraihan says.
Now Noraihan, a native of Kuala Lumpur, is pressing authorities in Uganda to deal with the problem at its source.
“We really need to see action on this, not just talk, not just reports. We need to see action on it and now,” she says.
That pressure seems to be paying off.
Although several of those suspected of trafficking girls to Malaysia have already been arrested, critics say authorities have been sluggish or too poorly funded and trained to effectively crack down on those behind the rings.
Now though, officials from the immigration department to law enforcement agencies and presidential advisers have started meeting on the issue and a group of lawmakers is pushing to visit Malaysia to investigate further.
But public awareness of the threat remains perilously low and the trafficking rings are highly organised and increasingly sophisticated, said Asan Kasingye, director of the Interpol office in Kampala.
“The criminals, these international rings, they are also working against us. Instead of taking 10 girls, they might take one a week and if you go to the airport and there is a person going to Malaysia she will have documents saying she is going for studies,” Kasingye said.
Uganda is just one of many sub-Saharan countries affected by sex trafficking. Other countries affected include South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Zambia.
Trafficking victim Kobusingye may finally be back home but she will never escape the effects of what happened to her.
After attempting to find a way to flee China, Kobusingye’s captors sent her to Malaysia, where they thought it would be easier to keep her.
But at Kuala Lumpur airport, immigration officials stopped Kobusingye. During several months in detention there she had a miscarriage. Then she was told she had been infected with HIV.
Kobusingye was eventually sent back to Uganda with assistance from the International Organisation for Migration and the Malaysian consul. Now she is trying to rebuild her life and start up a second-hand clothes shop. Antiretroviral drugs are free in Uganda, but the potential stigma of her enslavement weighs heavy on the young woman, who has not even told her own mother about what really happened while she was abroad.
While Kobusingye knows she cannot undo the past, she says she’s praying those responsible are brought to justice.
“I want to get those people and take them to prison at least for the rest of their lives because right now I am sick but I have to take care of my kid, I have to take care of my mum,” she says.