Sunday , June 23 2024

Trafficked woman home after 30 years in China


Little did Le Thi Phuong know that the day in 1993 she and her mother went “North for work” would be the beginning of the darkest days of her life.

But now the light is palpable: 41-year-old Phuong’s relatives and neighbors have been arriving at her home in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa one by one to rejoice upon hearing that she had returned home after being tricked and sold to China twice.

Phuong returns to her home in Thanh Hoa after being trafficked to China in 1993. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Phuong returns to her home in Thanh Hoa after being trafficked to China in 1993. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Sitting in her home, Phuong slowly recounted her difficult days in China via stories fractured by her traumatized mind, fading memory and broken Vietnamese. She said she was still haunted and scared whenever she thought of the years she spent in the foreign country.

“I got damaged, both physically and mentally, during that time,” she said. “I’m still sad thinking of it now.”

Phuong said a woman from a neighboring village suggested that her mother Le Thi Ven “go up North for work” in the summer of 1993, after the harvest season. Enticed by the suggestion, Ven brought Phuong with her, leaving home at dusk without informing anyone in the family. Only after crossing the Vietnam-China border did the mother and daughter realize that waiting for them were human traffickers instead of the promised “prominent” job.

Phuong and Ven were initially sold to a household in a remote rural area in China’s southern Yunnan province. Though allowed to stay together, they were under strict supervision. Phuong was then forced to marry a much older man when she turned 15. She lived with this man for 15 years and had three children with him.

Despite having her own family, Phuong never stopped longing for her home in Vietnam.

Phuong and her mother found their way to return to Thanh Hoa in 2008. But when they arrived, they heard that Phuong’s father had remarried after years of not knowing his wife and daughter’s whereabouts. So, Ven decided not to return home. The two stayed at an acquaintance of Ven’s instead. They attempted to return to China just a few days after that, partly because they missed their children and grandchildren, and partly because they found it impossible for them to adapt to life in Vietnam after years of displacement.

Phuong (L) and her father at their house in Thanh Hoa. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Phuong (L) and her father at their house in central Thanh Hoa province. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

But Phuong was again deceived and sold to another widowed man in China’s northern province of Shanxi after her return to China. She then completely lost contact with her mother.

Phuong lived with her second husband for nine years before managing to escape. She said she was frequently confined by her husband and his family during her time with them. She was prevented from contacting others, and she was abused and forced to do heavy farm work in harsh conditions.

Having escaped, but with partial memory loss and no money, no language skills, nor personal documents, Phuong had no other choice but to live here and there on the streets of Shanxi.

Her homeless life only came to an end in early 2020, when Chinese authorities found her wandering without personal documents. She was then officially detained for over a year, until the government identified her as a Vietnamese victim of human trafficking.

Local police then collaborated with Vietnamese authorities to verify her identity and background.

Phuong was eventually repatriated to Vietnam in late 2022. She could no longer remember her relatives or hometown, so she was taken to the Vietnam Women’s Union Peaceful House Shelter in Hanoi. Under care there, she recently regained part of her memory, including details about her hometown, and was brought home to reunite with her family in early December.

Phuong picking vegetables in early Dec. 2023 as she is learning to cook Vietnamese dishes. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Phuong picking vegetables in early Dec. 2023 as she is learning to cook Vietnamese dishes. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Reuniting unexpectedly with his long-lost eldest daughter, Le Quang Pho, 65, said he was happy that his daughter had returned, but felt his heart ache at the same time hearing the stories of her time abroad.

Pho said his wife and daughter’s sudden disappearance in 1993 caused him great worry and fear. He tirelessly searched for them for months, to no avail. Whenever there was a lead about Ven and Phuong’s whereabouts, he immediately set out.

“There were days when I walked, and days when I cycled tens of kilometers, roaming every village and neighborhood hoping to find my wife and daughter,” he recalled. “But there was no result for years.”

Pho remarried a woman in the same village a few years later and had two more children with her. All of his children are now grown and have their own families.

Hoang Thi Hang, chairwoman of the women’s union in Phuong’s commune, said the union has appointed people to regularly visit, talk to Phuong, and teach her how to cook and take care of house chores due to Phuong’s unstable health and mental state. She hopes to help Phuong gradually adapt to her new life in Vietnam.

Hang also claimed that the local authorities will also support Phuong in finding a job, so she can be self-sufficient and integrate into the community once her mental state has improved and stabilized.

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