Brothers in Bondage, Burdened by Debt

By Leonard Doyle

Brothers Carrying Stone, Nepal. Photo by Lisa Kristine.

EVERY day, these young brothers make several grueling trips down the steep slopes of the Himalayas, delivering stones almost as big as themselves from higher up in the mountains.

To carry the load they use makeshift harnesses out of ropes and sticks and strap the stones to their heads and backs. Many of them come from desperately poor families where everyone seems to be trapped in debt bondage slavery. One of the mothers described what it was like to be in slavery, “Neither can we die, nor can we survive.”

They were photographed by Lisa Kristine whose life’s work is documenting the pain of modern day slavery and the hope of freedom. Her extraordinary photographs allow us to bear witness to some of the most horrible abuses imaginable alongside some astonishing glimpses of the indomitable human spirit.

She documents modern day slavery, and its first cousin human trafficking, with her trademark style of evocative color-saturated images. Lisa traveled into the heart of broiling brick kilns, down rickety mine shafts, and into hidden lairs of sex slavery. Along the way she encountered families born into bondage as well as countless people who have been trafficked into a life of almost unbelievable hardship and exploitation.

Last year in Cap Haitian, northern Haiti I encountered two such victims of trafficking, who also happen to be Nepalese. It was just after their rescue by UN peacekeepers and before they were repatriated home by IOM. The two men were remarkably composed, despite having been held in prison-like conditions for 11 months and threatened with death numerous times, if their relatives did not send enough money to their captors.

Simple farmers in their 30’s, both had been willingly smuggled initially, in hopes of making their way to a new life in the US. The men had borrowed heavily from relatives to pay the traffickers who in exchange promises a future of legal immigration and work in the US. They intended to earn enough to repay their debts once they had made it. That will now never happen and the men have to handle the consequences of their thwarted quest to achieve the American dream.

Their purgatory started almost as soon as they left Nepal on the first leg of a long multi-country odyssey.  They were shuttled from Singapore to China, and eventually on to Brazil and Panama. After months in transit, to their shock, they arrived in the chaos of post-earthquake Port au Prince, Haiti. They were spirited away to the northern city of Cap Haitien and assured that they would soon be in the US.

There they were kept as virtual prisoners with little food and dirty drinking water. The couple holding them against their will had confiscated their passports, while threatening them with execution if they did not produce more money from relatives in Nepal.

In the end the captors greed was their undoing. They told the Nepalese men to call their families back home and ask for more cash. They gave the men the opportunity to describe to their loved-ones, in Nepalese, details of landmarks they had passed when they were being transported to the house. Their relatives then contacted Nepalese police, who in turn alerted Nepalese participants in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, which organized a rescue mission.

The men were eventually discovered in a house that was attached to a cock-fighting arena  - a popular weekend venue for people in Cap Haitian. Their captors, a man and woman well known to the local community, had already fled after a tipp off. They left a loaded silver pistol and two Nepalese passports. After their lucky escape the two Nepalese farmers are back home courtesy of IOM, which has helped some 2,000 human trafficking victims since it began working on the issue in 1994.

Their story ended relatively well.

But as Lisa Kristine's heart-achingly beautiful photographs reveal, the horror of human bondage and human trafficking is an enormous problem that is not receding in the face of recent global economic advances.

Visit Lisa Kristine's website here.

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM