…nine rescued women share the ordeal, request others to be careful with foreign agents
Yangchen C Rinzin
Sonam was 25. She had gone to a primary school and a nunnery. She had never heard of Iraq, forget Baghdad, the capital city of the war-torn country in the Middle East.
She would never want to remember anything of the country where she had a torturous six months before finally being rescued in March this year along with eight other women.
The foreign country where she dreamt of earning and helping her mother was a ‘huge’ house with a parking lot and iron gates. For six months, she had never left the gate. Her movement was monitored and restricted.
“Don’t go to work abroad unless the government send you assuring your safety,” says Sonam who is back to country and undergoing a re-skilling training with other women.
“Don’t trust the agents who promises you of work and good salary.”
This is what Sonam wants all the Bhutanese, desperate for jobs, to know.
“I was tortured, made to work for almost 19 hours in a day without proper meal or rest,” she said between tears, as she recollected the incidents. “Everyday was a nightmare and I wanted to come back home but didn’t know how.”
They are among the 160 plus women that were trafficked to Iraq in the last few years through illegal Bhutanese agents by colluding with foreign agents.
The story line is familiar. They are lured with promises of a better lifestyle, opportunities and easy money. Most of them were never told or knew where they were heading until they reached the destination.
How did they go?
It’s the same story of one woman leading to another after the so-called agents convinced them. In September 2019 Sonam came to the national referral hospital. Here she met a friend who was readying to leave for the Middle East.
“She told me that an agent helped her to find a job. Then I requested if she could also help me since the job didn’t require any qualification and she introduced me to an agent,” Sonam recalls. The agent told her she would earn USD 300 to USD 400 in a month. “I thought I would be able to help my single mother.”
None of the women met the agent, a woman herself, in person. They talked on WeChat.
Nyekor, holiday and business
The women had to have a passport to travel.
The agent had the tricks. Mentioning Iraq would raise the antenna of the officials the women were told to lie to foreign ministry officials when they were processing passports.
Some were told to say that they were off to Nepal for business or Nyekor. Sonam was one. Her friends were either going to Dubai or Kuwait.
“The agent told me that if I say I’m going to Nepal I will get passport on the same day,” said another woman. “She (agent) said I would be sent to Kuwait. When I got the passport, I was told I would be sent to Iraq.”
The women became skeptical. But when they were shown images and videos of women in the Middle East “having a good life,” they decided to continue.
“The agent asked us to pay Nu 30,000 in fees and said if we couldn’t pay it, she would deduct from the salary once we start earning,” said Dechen, 20, another woman. “They were so nice and kind. This is why I was convinced,” she said.
The road to Bagdad
After getting her passport, Sonam was asked to come to Phuentsholing where she and more Bhutanese women were waiting. The agent’s husband took them to Samtse and the next day, they left for Delhi from the Bagdogra airport.
In Delhi, they were added in a WeChat group chat where many women were bound for Iraq. They spent three days in Delhi to process the visa. A Nepali speaking agent in Dubai received the women at the Dubai airport where they halted for almost 12 hours. From Dubai, they reached Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
From Erbil, the journey was by road in trucks. Dechen, the youngest in the group cried through the whole journey. “When they saw police, they pushed me into a tight space near the driver to hide me,” said Dechen.
Another added that they were told they have to travel by truck as the road was not good. Most of the police didn’t check the trucks where the Bhutanese women were hiding under blankets. Hiding under blankets, they cannot recollect the time.
The journey was at night.
It was a relief for them to reach the agent’s house in Baghdad. But once they reached Bagdad their phones and passports were seized. Their photographs were taken and sent to clients. “Whenever an employer comes to employ us, they would give our passport to the employer but never to us.”
Almost all the Bhutanese women were sent to work as housemaids. It is where they were exploited and harassed. Most worked from 5am until midnight, some without proper meals. Many were not paid for months.
“Whenever it was time for them to pay us, they would take us back to agent and complain about our work. That way they refused to pay the salary,” said another. “Our request to send us home would result in the agent threatening us with beating or demanding the money they paid the Bhutanese agent back.”
One woman who worked for six months received only a month’s salary. “I had USD 100 in my pocket when I was rescued,” she said.
Besides the household chores, some were even abused and sexually harassed. Falling sick in Baghdad was even riskier. “Whenever we fell ill, they would take us to hospital and give us painkiller shots and before we could recover they would ask us to work,” another 25-year-old woman said.
“We were locked inside the house or the premises all the time. I have never seen what was there behind the walls of my employer,” said one.
There were a few lucky ones who had kind employers. Those in Erbil were paid on time and also had a day off for shopping or sightseeing.
Lost, desperate, and physically and emotionally tired, the women were about to give up. “We kept crying and praying. We couldn’t tell our parents,” said Sonam. Some informed their relatives, but because of the nature they left, they couldn’t inform authorities.
But their prayers were answered.
One day one of them managed to contact someone from Bhutan in Iraq. They created a group chat on a social media platform.
“This is how they were able to contact Royal Bhutan Police,” said one. “We didn’t know who to ask for help since we did not come through proper channel. Whenever we request the Bhutanese agent for help, she would block those who begged her to take home.”
However, they were rescued.
“We cried in joy when we saw a Bhutanese official from the Embassy in Kuwait for the first time,” said Sonam. “When I saw the Drukair aircraft, I thanked my Kencho Sum, His Majesty The King and the government for rescuing us.”
A relief flight on September 20 brought home another 132 Bhutanese women evacuated from Iraq upon the command of His Majesty The King. After completing 21-day quarantine they are currently under home quarantine for another 10 days. They were provided medical care and counselling.
However, there are still many Bhutanese women scattered in different groups in Iraq where the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Kuwait is working to find and bring them home.
Disclaimer: Names were changed to protect their identity