[A close point of view] Slavery in the 21st-century

May 22, 2021 | Stories of survivors

Many people associate slavery with the colonial period and Africa which at the time was dominated by the Western European states. The situation radically changed after World War II, when colonies started forming into sovereign states. It might seem that in the 21st-century the phenomenon of slavery is history. But is this a reality?

I could write a lot about the history of slavery, but the topic is too large to cover here. The phenomenon has been known since the dawn of time. The ancient Egyptians used slave labor, but not for building the pyramids as it is widely believed – those were erected by contract workers – but for example at quarries. That was the case in ancient Greece as well, while ancient Rome’s economy was at some point almost entirely based on slave labor. The Chinese and the Arabs were also famous for trading “human commodity”. The practice flourished in the era of great geographic discoveries. It needs to be added that enslaved people included not only Africans but also convicts from European states. The trade of humans started declining in the 18th century and subsequent countries were gradually banning slavery.

Contemporary definitions of slavery talk about a situation in which people are deprived of property and personal belongings, their documents are confiscated, they are banned from contacting their relatives (with the obvious exception of incarcerated people), threatened, prevented from managing their money or deprived of salary. All of these are illegal and prosecuted by law. As far as the trade of humans is concerned, there is a clear difference between the old and contemporary times. Slaves do not provide mass free labor anymore. Trafficked people are often forced into prostitution or used as domestic workers. It applies to women as well as men and children. Usually, these crimes are committed by organized crime groups.

The data on this subject are horrifying. They talk about millions of people abused this way. It is not surprising that slave labor and forced prostitution are problems mainly encountered in poor countries of Asia and Eastern Europe. But they also occur in developed countries, such as the United States and Great Britain. Despite their increased attempts to eradicate it, the phenomenon is growing. Not long ago there was an uproar over apps available on Google Play and Apple Store which were used for human trafficking.

A human being as a commodity

Perhaps many of you are shocked by what I wrote above. These things happen in the 21st century, in an era when our phone can connect us with every place in the world, and when with a few moves of our fingers we get access to knowledge which a few decades ago was not available even in comprehensive encyclopedias. In times of unseen before social awareness and fight for human rights, disgusting and despicable things happen around us. As an old proverb says, darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse. Can we say today that any place in the world is too far? Through the use of well-developed social media networks, we learn about world events much faster than ten years ago. The television stays behind information as it starts circulating before any journalist manages to pack and go to the place of the event. High-quality video cameras installed in omnipresent phones record images like the eye of Big Brother. Crime recordings are often immediately delivered to law enforcement authorities and finding a perpetrator is usually just a matter of time.

The information about twelve thousand women and children enslaved in 2014 in Iraq somehow got buried in the world saturated with various media reports. I don’t mean here the information about the event which was reported and widely commented on. I mean the details of this horrific crime. Not many people know what the contemporary slave market looks like, how much a human being can cost and what happens when someone offers to pay more.

I remember a recording showing several bandits sitting under the black flag of what is known as ISIS, bargaining over a twelve-year-old girl. One of them asks the man behind the camera if she is a virgin. The other offers his Glock – a gun worth around 1,500 dollars in Iraq. The cost of a child whose life will soon become a nightmare costs around 6,000 Polish zlotys. But that’s still quite a lot. Usually, it’s several hundred dollars, and in the most extreme cases even… ten dollars. That was the price of a fourteen-year-old girl whom I spoke to two weeks after she was ransomed and came back home. Her story was one of the most difficult ones I’ve heard.

It was 2017 and my first trip to Iraq as an Eaglewatch volunteer. The memories from my previous stay there just several months earlier were still fresh (if this is the first time you get to know about us, you will find more about it at the end of this article). I met Nadia (name changed) on a lea near the camp for internally displaced people where she lived with her relatives. The fate of her parents and siblings was unknown. She was trying to adjust to the world she returned to after three years of being held captive by ISIS. She was wearing a black dress borrowed from her cousin and a long-sleeve blouse in the same color underneath. The sleeves hid many scars like the ones on her uncovered hands. It was easy to guess where they came from – they looked like burn scars. She told us about those long years spent in the hands of the people who treated her in a way offending human dignity. She mentioned another girl who stayed with her in the house of the thug who bought them at the slave market. She said she was trying to comfort her in the worst times. Nadia was eleven then, the other girl was nine. I will spare you the details. I will only say she was sold ten times.

A human being stripped of dignity

We’ve mentioned many times in our accounts that we bring help to women and children who were kept captive by ISIS. When I was preparing the movie about the OurBridge center, I realized that perhaps some of you never heard about the ISIS slave trade. Some time ago I made a movie about the establishment of this criminal organization, but my focus was on its genesis. I mentioned terrorist attacks in Europe as well since they made the so-called Islamic State widely known around the world. I thought there was a need to bring up the topic of slavery and explain how it looked like. There are thousands of stories like the one I’ve just shared with you as there were thousands of women and children in ISIS’ hands. Women and children were sexually abused and used as maids. They were treated worse than animals and any kind of resistance would result in beatings, in the best-case scenario.

Women and children kidnapped from their houses in August 2014 were first separated from their families. Then they were taken to various places to make them unaware of their whereabouts, making escape more difficult. After weeks, sometimes months of such transporting from one place to another their hell would begin. They were told to put on makeup to look more presentable at the market they were taken to. Their looks and age set their price. They were taken to the market individually or in groups. They were often chained to emphasize that they were merely a commodity. Sometimes they were forced to hold a price tag above their heads, and other times someone would carry out an auction. In those cases, the offer was made, one person would accept the money while the other would pay and immediately take his victim away. She would be taken to his house where he often lived with his family. The slave girl had the lowest social status among his many wives. She was not considered a human being. The thug who bought her would rape her, and when she resisted, he would beat her till she fell unconscious. After he went to the frontline, the girl’s situation would often become even worse. The terrorist’s wives would bully, abuse and humiliate her. Often they would beat her even more than their husband.

I will write a separate article about the role of ISIS terrorists’ wives in this practice. It’s a topic that is not brought up often enough to fully understand the essence of this organization. But now I would like to write about two more issues. First is the ransom. Terrorists would often send the captive’s family a picture with the amount of demanded ransom. It would range from a few to even 20,000 dollars for a daughter, wife or sister waiting to be rescued. Transferring people and money was mainly the smugglers’ task. They smuggled people from areas under ISIS control to the region ruled by the Iraqi authorities. Some good people used their contacts to help women and children in captivity. They would often risk their lives to give someone a chance for freedom. Many of them rescued hundreds of people.

Terrorists abused children as well. Most of those kidnapped were adolescents. Girls, like adult women, were abused sexually. Boys were trained for suicide missions. It was combined with brutal indoctrination, regular beating and psychological violence. With time, the boys would become too weak to resist.

The consequences

The story of such a large number of people who were kidnapped and kept captive by ISIS proves that slavery still exists in the 21st century. What is worse, this topic is not often brought up in our culture which places great emphasis on personal freedom. Perhaps in France or other countries with large Yazidi minorities, there are memorials as well as discussions about ISIS atrocities. But sadly, slogans rarely bring any action. Let’s be honest. If the West truly cared about human rights, there would be no camps for internally displaced people anymore and the victims would be taken care of. If we joined forces and adopted an action plan, helping several hundred thousand people would not be difficult at all. We have proven that if the willingness is there, it is possible to do something. The Yazidis living in Germany built the OurBridge center. Our friends in many countries are trying to help individual people that went through ISIS captivity. You are also not indifferent to these people’s fate, that is why you support our mission. It’s a wonderful manifesto against slavery in our times. It’s a shame that there are no such actions taken by our governments, large European institutions or organizations and movements claiming to be fighting for freedom for everyone. Not all lives matter – some are more equal than others.

Author: Dawid Czyż

The volunteer

A story of Dawid, who in 2016 went to Iraq to fight against ISIS. He joined a Christian unit of volunteers that stood up in defense of their homes…

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