Ruth Ada Kamara had just finished high school in 1987 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, when her boyfriend broke her heart. Or, more accurately, her boyfriend's parents, who chose another woman as their son's bride.
The day Ruth received the unhappy news, she confided her sorrow to Edna, a neighbor she'd known for three years. "Edna invited me to go with her to Liberia for three weeks," Ruth recalls. "She said the trip would be a great opportunity to put my problem behind me."
Edna promised she'd take care of all the travel details, and introduced Ruth to a man called "Bob," who'd accompany them on the trip. But Ruth didn't realize the heartbreak of losing her boyfriend was nothing compared to the horrors ahead in Liberia.
"I didn't know it then, but Bob would become my pimp," Ruth says. Looking back, Ruth realizes that Edna's behavior around Bob was unsettling. She's also now aware that Edna and Bob worked quickly. "The very day I told Edna about my problem, we left Freetown," Ruth explains. She didn't even notify her uncle, who'd housed her while she'd been in school (her parents were farmers in a village too small to have a school). "I thought we'd be gone only three weeks."
After they left Freetown, Edna said she had to retrieve some documents from her home, and instructed Ruth to go ahead with Bob. "She told me she'd join us later," Ruth says.
Bob drove to his family's home in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where he introduced Ruth as his wife. She was afraid to say anything to the contrary. "I was scared without my friend," she says, "but I had confidence she'd come in a few hours."
Three days later, Bob said he'd take Ruth to Edna. They left at 10 p.m. "We went to a big compound with a security gate and security guards." Ruth wondered if she were entering a wealthy person's home.
Bob took her to a room, where, she says, "he asked me to have sex with him. I was shocked. He'd been so nice to me before that." Ruth's memories of that night are fragmented. "I told him, 'No, that's not the arrangement we had.'" But she realized she was defenseless.
"I was very surprised. I thought Edna was coming to meet us. But he said, 'Don't you know I bought you from that woman? I own you.' I started crying. I thought, I'm finished." Bob raped her that night. Ruth never saw Edna again.
"Bob left me in the room, and men started using me," she recalls. Some days, Ruth was forced to have sex with as many as ten men. Often beaten, Ruth bears a scar on her forearm, obtained when her attempts to resist Bob's sexual advances resulted in his attacking her with a knife.
Eventually, Ruth met other women trapped at the compound. All had been trafficked—although none used that word, because they'd never heard it before.
Two years after Ruth arrived at the brothel, a young customer told her she looked familiar. "He spoke my dialect. I started to cry," Ruth recalls. "He asked me, 'How did you come here?' and 'Do you want to leave?' I told him I had no way to escape."
The young man returned several times, always requesting time with Ruth—although, she says, "he never used me as his wife." Eventually, he bribed the brothel owners to sell her to him. "He bought my freedom," she says.
Once out, Ruth realized she was pregnant. She soon miscarried a baby girl. She knew no one in Monrovia except her rescuer. "He wanted me to be his wife," she says. While Ruth was grateful to him for her freedom, her harrowing experience made her cautious and distrusting. But as an illegal alien in a foreign place, she had "no other option."
Ruth became pregnant again and had a son. She lived in Liberia two more years, until civil war escalated. "Because the fighting in Liberia was heavy," she says, "I told my husband I wanted to go home, so we separated." Ruth returned to Sierra Leone and hasn't seen her son's father since.
Ashamed of all she'd been through, Ruth moved to a town where no one knew her. There, she met some Christians who told her about Jesus. Though she'd grown up Muslim, Ruth accepted Christ as her Savior, and began attending church. Her new friends also helped Ruth find job training at a nearby mission hospital to become a nurse.
Soon, however, war broke out in Sierra Leone as well, and the hospital suspended the training program. Ruth left her son with some church members and fled to Guinea. In 2000, Ruth met an American Christian aid worker named Janet Nickel, who befriended her and hired her as a domestic helper.
"When my ministry team moved to a different refugee camp in Guinea," Janet says, "I invited Ruth to move with us to live with and work for me."
Unfortunately, Ruth was stealing from Janet and another mission worker. When Ruth confessed, Janet forgave her. Experiencing that grace was a spiritual turning point for Ruth. "When I forgave her, she asked how she could become a better Christian," Janet says.
Janet invited Ruth to study the Bible and encouraged her to memorize passages. "God led me to point her toward John 14, because he knew difficult days were ahead," Janet says. "Within ten days, she memorized the whole chapter." Ruth eagerly continued to study and memorize long passages. "She told me that when wicked thoughts came to mind, she recalled and meditated on Scripture, and the wicked thoughts went away," Janet says.
Still, Ruth never shared her secret past with Janet.
In 2003, Janet went back to the States, and Ruth returned to Sierra Leone to share Christ with her countrymen. A year later, Janet also moved there to become the Sierra Leone program coordinator for the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking (FAAST).
"Soon after the program's start, a trafficking case surfaced involving 48 children in Ruth's area," Janet says. "We needed public awareness in that region to prevent people from being duped into giving away their children. We hired Ruth to do that work." So Ruth began educating people about trafficking—but didn't reveal her secret.
"After the employees' initial orientation and training about trafficking, Ruth told me privately she thought she was 'almost' trafficked," Janet says. "I asked her to tell me her story. She didn't tell all because, at that point, talking about trafficking was shameful. But she told me enough to confirm she wasn't 'almost,' but really, truly trafficked. With time, she was able to share more.
"When Ruth started going to villages to tell about trafficking, she felt people didn't take this threat seriously," Janet says. "So one day she said, 'This is real. It's happening, and it happened to me.' Then she told her story. It changed people's response."
Especially in Sierra Leone, people assume women in prostitution choose that lifestyle. And often even the captured women, after so much emotional and physical abuse, blame themselves for their situation, explains Kristin Wiebe, director of anti-trafficking programs at World Hope International.
"Ruth is incredibly brave," Kristin says. "People tell her not to talk about her experience to keep shame from coming on her." But Ruth persists, and often her honesty brings results. People admit children have gone missing. "Ruth really connects with trafficked children and has even helped bring some back home," Kristin says.
"God has given me the courage to tell my story, to allow people to take my photograph and even put it in the newspaper," says Ruth, who's now 42 and living with her son in Sierra Leone. "I suffered, but I want to keep other women from suffering as well. I'm still going through pain in my body. But I know God is in control."
Keri Wyatt Kent, a TCW regular contributor and author of six books, is currently writing a book on women and social justice. Learn more at www.KeriWyattKent.com.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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