Shandra Woworuntu arrived in the US hoping to start a new career in the hotel industry. Instead, she found she had been trafficked into a world of prostitution and sexual slavery, forced drug-taking and violence. It was months before she was able to turn the tables on her persecutors. Some readers may find her account of the ordeal upsetting.
I arrived in the United States in the first week of June, 2001. To me, America was a place of promise and opportunity. As I moved through immigration I felt excited to be in a new country, albeit one that felt strangely familiar from movies and TV.
In the arrivals hall I heard my name, and turned to see a man holding a sign with my picture. It wasn’t a photo I cared for very much. The recruitment agency in Indonesia had dressed me up in a revealing tank top. But the man holding it smiled at me warmly. His name was Johnny, and I was expecting him to drive me to the hotel I would be working in.
The fact that this hotel was in Chicago, and I had arrived at JFK airport in New York nearly 800 miles away, shows how naive I was. I was 24 and had no idea what I was getting into.
After graduating with a degree in finance, I had worked for an international bank in Indonesia as an analyst and trader. But in 1998, Indonesia was hit by the Asian financial crisis, and the following year the country was thrown into political turmoil. I lost my job.
So to support my three-year-old daughter I started to look for work overseas. That was when I saw an ad in a newspaper for work in the hospitality industry in big hotels in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. I picked the US, and applied.
The requirement was that I could speak a little English and pay a fee of 30m Indonesian rupiahs (in 2001, about $2,700). There was a lengthy recruitment process, with lots of interviews. Among other things they asked me to walk up and down and smile. “Customer service is the key to this job,” I was told.
I passed all the tests and took the job. The plan was that my mother and sister would look after my little girl while I worked abroad for six months, earning $5,000 a month. Then I would come home to raise my daughter.
I arrived at JFK with four other women and a man, and we were divided into two groups. Johnny took all my documents, including my passport, and led me to his car with two of the other women.
That was when things started to get strange.
A driver took us a short way, to Flushing in Queens, before he pulled into a car park and stopped the car. Johnny told the three of us to get out and get into a different car with a different driver. We did as we were told, and I watched through the window as the new driver gave Johnny some money. I thought, “Something here is not right,” but I told myself not to worry, that it must be part of the way the hotel chain did business with the company they used to pick people up from the airport.
But the new driver didn’t take us very far either. He parked outside a diner, and again we had to get out of the car and get into another one, as money changed hands. Then a third driver took us to a house, and we were exchanged again.
The fourth driver had a gun. He forced us to get in his car and took us to a house in Brooklyn, then rapped on the door, calling “Mama-san! New girl!”
By this time I was freaking out, because I knew “Mama-san” meant the madam of a brothel. But by this time, because of the gun, there was no escape.
The door swung open and I saw a little girl, perhaps 12 or 13, lying on the ground screaming as a group of men took turns to kick her. Blood poured from her nose and she was howling, screaming in pain. One of the men grinned and started fooling around with a baseball bat in front of me, as if in warning.
And just a few hours after my arrival in the US, I was forced to have sex.
I was terrified, but something in my head clicked into place – some kind of survival instinct. I learned from witnessing that first act of violence to do what I was told.
The following day, Johnny appeared and apologised at length for everything that had happened to us after we had parted company. He said there must have been a terrible mistake. That day we would get our pictures taken for our ID cards, and we would be taken to buy uniforms, and then we would go to the hotel in Chicago to start our jobs.
“We’ll be OK,” he said, rubbing my back. “It won’t happen again.” I trusted him. After the bad things I had just endured he was like an angel. “OK,” I thought. “The nightmare is over. Now I’ll go to Chicago to start my job.”
A man came and took us to a photo studio, where we had our pictures taken, and then he drove us to a store to buy uniforms. But it was a lingerie store, full of skimpy, frilly things, the like of which I had never seen before. They were not “uniforms”.
It’s kind of funny, to look back on that moment. I knew I was being lied to and that my situation was perilous. I remember looking around that shop, wondering if I could somehow slip away, disappear. But I was scared and I didn’t know anyone in America, so I was reluctant to leave the other two Indonesian girls. I turned, and saw that they were enjoying the shopping trip.
Then I looked at my escort and saw he was concealing a gun, and he was watching me. He made a gesture that told me not to try anything.
Later that day our group was split up and I was to see little of those two women again. I was taken away by car, not to Chicago, but to a place where my traffickers forced me to perform sex acts.
The traffickers were Indonesian, Taiwanese, Malaysian Chinese and American. Only two of them spoke English – mostly, they would just use body language, shoves, and crude words. One thing that especially confused and terrified me that night, and that continued to weigh on me in the weeks that followed, was that one of the men had a police badge. To this day I don’t know if he was a real policeman.
They told me I owed them $30,000 and I would pay off the debt $100 at a time by serving men. Over the following weeks and months, I was taken up and down Interstate 95, to different brothels, apartment buildings, hotels and casinos on the East Coast. I was rarely two days in the same place, and I never knew where I was or where I was going.
These brothels were like normal houses on the outside and discos on the inside, with flashing lights and loud music. Cocaine, crystal meth and weed were laid out on the tables. The traffickers made me take drugs at gunpoint, and maybe it helped make it all bearable. Day and night, I just drank beer and whisky because that’s all that was on offer. I had no idea that you could drink the tap water in America.
Twenty-four hours a day, we girls would sit around, completely naked, waiting for customers to come in. If no-one came then we might sleep a little, though never in a bed. But the quiet times were also when the traffickers themselves would rape us. So we had to stay alert. Nothing was predictable.
Despite this vigilance, it was like I was numb, unable to cry. Overwhelmed with sadness, anger, disappointment, I just went through the motions, doing what I was told and trying hard to survive. I remembered the sight of that small girl being beaten, and I saw the traffickers hurt other women too if they made trouble or refused sex. The gun, the knife and the baseball bat were fixtures in a shifting and unstable world.
They gave me the nickname “Candy”. All the trafficked women were Asian – besides us Indonesians, there were girls from Thailand, China and Malaysia. There were also women who were not sex slaves. They were prostitutes who earned money and seemed free to come and go.
Most nights, at around midnight, one of the traffickers would drive me to a casino. They would dress me up to look like a princess. My trafficker would wear a black suit and shiny black shoes, and walk silently alongside me like he was my bodyguard, all the time holding a gun to my back. We didn’t go through the lobby, but through the staff entrance and up the laundry lift.
I remember the first time I was ushered into a casino hotel room, I thought perhaps I would be able to make a run for it when I came out. But my trafficker was waiting for me in the corridor. He showed me into the next room. And the next one. Forty-five minutes in each room, night after night after night, the trafficker always waiting on the other side of the door.
Because I was compliant, I was not beaten by my traffickers, but the customers were very violent. Some of them looked like they were members of the Asian mafia, but there were also white guys, black guys, and Hispanic guys. There were old men and young university students. I was their property for 45 minutes and I had to do what they said or they hurt me.
What I endured was difficult and painful. Physically, I was weak. The traffickers only fed me plain rice soup with a few pickles, and I was often high on drugs. The constant threat of violence, and the need to stay on high alert, was also very exhausting.
My only possession – apart from my “uniform” – was a pocketbook [a small handbag], and the things it contained. I had a dictionary, a small Bible, and some pens and books of matches I pilfered from hotel rooms, with the names of the casinos on them.
I also kept a diary, something I had done since I was little. Writing in a mix of Indonesian, English, Japanese and symbols, I tried to record what I did, where I went and how many people were with me. I kept track of dates too, as best as I could. It was difficult because inside the brothels, there was no way for me to know if it was day or night.
My mind was always thinking about escape, but the opportunities were so rare.
One night I was locked in an attic in a brothel in Connecticut. The room had a window that I found I could open, so I roped the bed sheets and my clothes together and tied them to the window frame, then clambered out. But I got to the end of my makeshift rope and saw I was still a long, long way from the ground. There was nothing for it but to climb back up.
Then, one day, I was taken to the brothel in Brooklyn where I had arrived on my first day in the US. I was with a 15-year-old Indonesian girl I’ll call Nina, who had become a friend. She was a sweet, beautiful girl. And she was spirited – on one occasion she refused to do as she was told, and a trafficker roughly twisted her hand, causing her to scream.
We were talking with another woman who was in the brothel, who was the “bottom bitch”, which means she was sort of in charge of us. She was being nice, saying that if we ever got out I should call this guy who would give us a proper job, and we would be able to save up some money to go home. I wrote his number in small piece of paper and I kept it safe.
And it was while she was talking about our debt – the $30,000 the traffickers said we had to pay back – that I just started to freak out. I felt sure I would die before I ever served 300 men. I closed my eyes and prayed for some kind of help.
Not long afterwards, I went to the bathroom and saw a small window. It was screwed shut, but Nina and I turned all the taps on loud, and, my hands shaking, I used a spoon to unscrew the bracket as quickly as I could. Then we climbed through the window and jumped down on the other side.
We called the number we had been given and an Indonesian man answered. Just like the bottom bitch had said, he promised to help us. We were so excited. He met us and checked us into a hotel, and told us to wait there until he could find us jobs.
He looked after us, bought us food and clothes and so on. But after a few weeks he tried to get us to sleep with men in the hotel. When we refused, he phoned Johnny to come and pick us up. It turned out he was just another trafficker, and he, the bottom bitch, and everybody else were all working together.
This is when I finally had a stroke of luck.
Near the hotel, before Johnny arrived, I managed to escape from my new trafficker and I took off down the street, wearing only slippers and carrying nothing but my pocketbook. I turned, and shouted at Nina to follow me, but the trafficker held on to her tightly.
I found a police station and told an officer my whole story. He didn’t believe me and turned me away. It was perfectly safe for me, he said, to go back on the streets with no money or documents. Desperate for help, I approached two other police officers on the street and got the same response.
So I went to the Indonesian consulate, to seek help getting documents such as a passport, and some support. I knew that they had a room that people could sleep in in an emergency. But they didn’t help me either.
I was angry and upset. I didn’t know what to do. I had come to the US in the summer, but it was getting towards winter now and I was cold. I slept on the Staten Island Ferry, the NYC subway and in Times Square. I begged for food from strangers, and whenever I could get them to listen, I told them my story, and I told them that there was a house nearby where women were imprisoned, and that they needed help.
One day, in Grand Ferry Park in Williamsburg, a man called Eddy bought me some food. He was from Ohio, a sailor on holiday. “Come back tomorrow at noon,” he said, after I had gone through my tale.
I was so happy I didn’t stop to ask him what “noon” meant. I knew from school that “afternoon” meant PM, so my best guess was that “noon” was another word for “morning”. So early the next day I went to the same place in the park, and waited hours for Eddy to return.
When he finally came, he told me he had made some calls on my behalf. He had spoken to the FBI, and the FBI had phoned the police precinct. We were to go that minute to the station, where the officers would try to help me.
So Eddy drove me there, and two detectives questioned me at length. I showed them my diary with details of the location of the brothels, and the books of matches from the casinos where I had been forced to work. They phoned the airline and immigration, and they found that my story checked out.
“OK,” they said in the end. “Are you ready to go?”
“Go where?” I asked.
“To pick up your friends,” they replied.
So I got in a police car and we drove to the brothel in Brooklyn. To my relief I was able to find it again.
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It was just like a scene from a movie, except instead of watching it on TV I was looking out of the window of a parked car. Outside the brothel, there were undercover police pretending to be homeless people – I remember one of them pushing a shopping trolley. Then there were detectives, armed police and a Swat team with sniper rifles lurking nearby.
I can enjoy it now, but at the time I was very tense, and worried that the police would enter the building and find that nothing was happening there that night. Would they think I was lying? Would I go to jail, instead of my persecutors?
A police officer dressed as a customer pressed the buzzer to the brothel. I saw Johnny appear in the doorway, and, after a brief discussion, swing open the metal grille. He was instantly forced back into the blackness. Within seconds, the whole team of police had swept up the steps and into the building. Not a single shot was fired.
An hour passed. Then I was told I could get out of the car and approach the building. They had covered one of the windows with paper and cut a hole in it for me to look through. In this way, I identified Johnny and the girls working in the brothel without being seen. There were three women there, Nina among them.
Let me tell you that when I saw those women emerge from the building, naked except for towels wrapped around them, it was the greatest moment of my life. Giving birth is a miracle, yes, but nothing compares to the emotions I experienced as my friends gained their freedom. In the flashing blue and red lights of the police cars, we were dancing, yelling, screaming for joy!
Johnny was charged and eventually convicted, as were two other men who were caught in the following days. I still needed support, though, and an opportunity to heal.
The FBI connected me with Safe Horizon, an organisation in New York that helps victims of crime and abuse, including survivors of human trafficking. They helped me to stay in the United States legally, provided me with shelter and connected me with resources to get a job.
I could have returned to my family in Indonesia, but the FBI needed my testimony to make their case against the traffickers, and I really wanted them to go to jail. The whole process took years.
In Indonesia, the traffickers came looking for me at my mother’s house, and she and my daughter had to go into hiding. Those men were looking for me for a long time. So great was the danger to my daughter that eventually the US government and Safe Horizon made it possible for her to join me in America. We were finally reunited in 2004.
In return for helping the government, I was granted permanent residency in 2010. At that point, they told me I could choose a new name, for my own safety. But I decided to stick with good old Shandra Woworuntu. It is, after all, my name. The traffickers took so much – why should I give them that too?
A couple of years after my escape, I began getting severe pain and numbness in my joints. I developed skin problems and found I was suffering from terrible migraines.
After many tests, the doctors put it all down to the psychological toll of what I had been through.
It’s been 15 years now, but I still have sleepless nights. My relationships with men are still far from normal. I still see a therapist every week, and I still go, once a fortnight, to a psychiatrist to pick up a prescription for anti-depressants.
I still get flashbacks, all the time. The smell of whisky makes me retch and if I hear certain ringtones – the ones my traffickers had – my body stiffens with fear. Faces in a crowd terrify me – they jump out, familiar for an instant, and I go to pieces.
Spend any time with me and you will see me fiddling nervously with the ring on my finger to calm myself down. I used to wear an elastic band on my arm, that I would snap continuously, and a scarf that I would twist about.
So happiness eludes me, and perhaps it always will. But I have got better at dealing with my flashbacks. I love to sing in a choir, and I have found raising my children to be very healing. My little girl is a big girl now – a teenager! – and I have a nine-year-old son too.
I have decided to do everything I can to help other victims of trafficking. I started an organisation, Mentari, which helps survivors reintegrate into community, and connects them to the job market.
At the same time, we are trying to raise awareness of the risks of coming to the US among people who still see this country as some kind of dream land. Every year, 17,000 to 19,000 people are brought to the US to be trafficked. Last year, we helped publish an educational comic book on the issue in Indonesian. We also provide chickens and seed so that the poorest can raise the chickens to sell and eat, and don’t feel they have to sell their children to traffickers.
Not all victims of trafficking are poor, though. Some, like me, have college degrees. I have helped a doctor and a teacher from the Philippines. I have also helped men who were trafficked, not only women, and one person who was 65 years old.
I have spoken about my experiences at church halls, schools, universities and government institutions.
After I first started to tell my story, the Indonesian consulate approached me, not with an apology but a request for me to retract my statements about their refusal to help. Sorry, too late – it’s out there. I can’t pretend what you did didn’t happen. Even after my case made the news, the Indonesian government didn’t bother to get in touch to check if I was OK, or needed help.
As well as working with community groups, I have also addressed the Mexican government and last year I testified before the US Senate.
I asked the senators to introduce legislation to ensure that workers recruited overseas know their rights, are not charged fees, and are told the truth about the salary and living conditions they can expect in the US. I’m happy to say that since then the law has been changed and overseas recruitment agencies have to register with the Department of Labour before they can operate.
I was also lobbying the Senate, on behalf of the National Survivor Network, to place victims of human trafficking in roles where we can have a direct impact on policy.
The Survivors of Human Trafficking Empowerment Act has done exactly that. I’m honoured to say that in December 2015 I was asked to join a new advisory council, and we met for the first time in January, at the White House.
We urgently need to educate Americans about this subject. Looking back on my own experiences, I think all those casino and hotel workers must have known what was going on. And that brothel in Brooklyn was in a residential area – did the neighbours never stop to ask why an endless stream of men came to the house, night and day?
The problem is that people see trafficked women as prostitutes, and they see prostitutes not as victims, but criminals. And in cities, people turn a blind eye to all sorts of criminality.
We might start by putting men who pay for sex in jail. After that brothel in Brooklyn was raided many sex buyers were interviewed, but all were later released.
Nowadays, men who are caught in the act are sent to a one-day session called John School. It’s not really punishment, but it teaches them how to identify children in brothels, and women being coerced into sex work. Good – but not good enough. I think men who pay for sex with trafficked women or men should have their names put on a public list, just like they do for child abusers and sexual predators.
I am still close friends with Nina, who recently turned 30. And for years, I had a phone number for Eddy, the man who spoke to the FBI on my behalf, when I was desperate.
In 2014, around Christmas, I dialled the number. I was going to tell him about everything that had happened to me, but he cut me off, saying, “I know it all. I followed the news. I am so glad for you, that you have made a life for yourself.”
Then he said, “Don’t even think about saying thank you to me – you have done it all yourself.”
But I would like to thank you, Eddy, for listening to my story that day in the park, and helping me start my life again.
Listen to Shandra Woworuntu speak to Outlook on the BBC World Service.
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