In April 2018, she was enticed by a trafficking agent in Kigali she only knew as Mugeni, with promises of a Rwf300,000 monthly salary at a supermarket in Kuwait.
Upon arrival, however, Umutesi was sold as a slave. For six months, she worked as a domestic servant in three different homes. She was always subjected to conditions of forced labor, such as restrictions on movement, unlawful withholding of passports, non-payment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse.
Among others, she was supposed to do donkeywork for nearly 20 hours, every day, without pay until her enslavers paid $2,000, an amount the trafficking ring allegedly used in transporting her to the country in Western Asia.
Umutesi said: “A woman I knew little about asked me if I needed a job. She told me that I would be earning a salary in dollars and I was dumbfounded. I agreed.”
After this trafficking agent secured all necessary travel documents for Umutesi things moved pretty fast. She was to travel, unaccompanied to Kenyan capital Nairobi, by bus. Her explicit instructions included not showing her passport or revealing the real reason for her travel. She was to only use a national ID card on the bus trip to Nairobi.
“At the bus park in Kigali, Mugeni took pictures of me and sent them to members of her team. In Kenya I was received by a man and a woman who took me for medical checkups.”
“When I look back especially at the manner in which we were moved, just like animals, I feel embarrassed. I really never get to understand what was going on in my mind at that time.”
In due course, at the airport in Nairobi, she met two other Rwandan women on the same trip and mission. In Kuwait, there were many more trafficked women. They were all taken to a place called “the office”, where buyers picked them from.
“We were sold off like mere commodities.”
Initially, Umutesi expected to be received by a Burundian national in Kuwait called Sarah who would take her to the supermarket.
“I met Sarah, at this place called the office, but her plan was not what I had been told earlier. Sarah took us all to a house and ordered us to scrub ourselves clean so that we don’t smell. She told us that the Arabs wanted clean people. This mean lecturing was shocking but we didn’t say a word.”
Sooner than later, an Arab man arrived, showed Umutesi’s picture, counted lots of bills, and paid up.
Umutesi was enraged and stunned on seeing that she was being sold like a slave. She complained but it all fell on deaf ears. The next day, her enslaver took her home.
A day later, the boss tried to rape her but she put in a fight. Infuriated, the man drove her back to “the office” and got rid of her.
The next day she was sold to another buyer.
“This woman also had a big family. The situation was worse at her home; can you imagine I had to scrub and clean a three stored building, cook for the big family with babies, and do all sorts of hard demeaning chores with only four or five hours of sleep every day?”
“I slept on a thin mattress on the cold tiled floor, with no blanket. It was unbearable. I cooked lots of food but for me, I was only allowed chapatti and black tea every day.”
After a while, Umutesi became seriously ill.
She had excruciating chest pains and was coughing and spitting blood. But no one was willing to help.
She had left Kigali without informing friends and family. But now she feared for her life and decided to contact people back home.
Luckily, she saved some contacts and also managed to keep her phone so she was able to stealthily text a relative who gave her a number of a RIB officer.
After some weeks Umutesi ran away from her second home and returned to “the office” hoping they would see signs of her illness and pain and have mercy. Again, she was wrong as she was beaten up, instead.
“Sarah told me I would be beaten to death if I did not go back to work.”
When Umutesi got chance to switch on her phone and log on again, the RIB officer put her in touch with a Rwandan diplomat in Dubai who was also trying to help. An escape plan was hatched. But Umutesi had to be patient because it would take time, discretion and resources.
She was also informed of other five Rwandan women in the city going through the same ordeal.
“At the third home, the workload and suffering was worse but I knew it was my only chance to freedom. I had to wait there as a plan to evacuate us all was being arranged. Whenever I got a chance to get out of the compound I took in my surroundings so that I could know my location.”
One late evening, after two weeks, she ran for it. She made contact with the other five Rwandan women and their lengthy escape plot begun.
They would fist spend a month in the house of good Samaritan, two weeks at a police station, and more than a week in a prison cell, before they were eventually put on a plane back home.
“I will always thank our government for the help they gave us. The day we were informed that a visitor had come to see the Rwandese in prison; I realized that there is no country that cares for its citizens like Rwanda. When I left my country, I informed no one but here they were; coming to rescue us.”
On return home, last November, Umutesi was taken to Kacyiru District Hospital where she was given free medical care. She still goes there for free treatment as she has not healed.
“I went expecting to earn big but I returned broken, with an agonising illness and sorrow.”
Once they return home, human trafficking victims are, among others, entitled to free healthcare and social security services. They also get a package of Rwf250, 000 from their home District, and Umutesi got hers processed a few months ago and she vowed to put it to good use.
First, she paid Rwf150, 000 for her son’s school fees and with the rest, started a small grocery business.
“I go to Gitarama and buy pineapples, avocados and other groceries and come and sell in Kigali. It is tough but better than running in search of the huge earnings I never got abroad.”
“I am thankful; it is still hard to believe that the government spent so much on me, including a plane ticket that I don’t know costs how much, and medical care considering my still delicate medical situation.”
Her message to women out there struggling in various ways is, she said, they should not be deceived into believing everything they are told about better opportunities abroad.
“There are those of us who think they can’t work but this is a dangerous mindset. People need to know that even with as little as Rwf50, 000 they can start something and prosper.”
“I know women who went there and failed to cope and are stranded outside doing prostitution. The parents see money coming but they do not know what their children are going through. People die there but there are parents who do not know this.”
According to Christine Kayirebwa, the Specialised Crimes Division Manager at Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), the public’s ignorance and poverty are partly to blame for human trafficking and much more public awareness is needed.
Once people are told about such enticing job offers abroad, Kayirebwa told lawmakers this week, they “should always seek advice; and they can approach the nearest local authorities, be it the head of a cell or village.”
The woman who tricked her into the ill-fated trip is yet to be arrested.
“I heard that she relocated to Kenya. This is a woman who sold off lots of women to slavery. But wherever she is, I trust she will be arrested,” Umutesi said.
According to Kayirebwa, a lot of effort is being put into pursuing the criminals involved in human trafficking and “some are in jail after going through prosecution and trials.”
“But it is still very difficult to track and nab these people since many are in neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Uganda. You will hear that it is a Burundian called Safari, but it won’t be easy to compile a case file for this Safari when we have no other facts on him. We can’t request for him to be put on an Interpol red alert notice because we don’t have detailed information on him.”
In 2017, there were 42 registered cases of human trafficking but the number shot to 49 in 2018. This year, there are 38 cases known so far.
Last year, 17 human trafficking victims were returned home. This year, 25 have been returned, so far.