Lesotho’s heart-breaking story of women and girls trafficked
By Lekhetho Ntsukunyane
Mojabeng ’Makhalalelo Mosebo (pictured) was sceptical but excited when she received an invitation for a ‘lucrative’ job interview from her cousin in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2009.
She was told how she would join one of the successful clothing stores in Johannesburg and become its sales representative, travelling to some places around the world to get stock, should she pass the interview.
For the then 30-year-old mother of two, whose family was in deep financial crisis, the opportunity to possibly end her woes had come at the right time.
Little did Mojabeng know her situation was sliding inexorably towards the abyss, she was going to be used to smuggle drugs, an illegal job which immediately landed her in prison in Japan – 13 500km away from her family in Maseru.
“I felt this was an opportunity to grab with both hands. I thought time had come for an end to my miseries. The opportunity came at the time my family was struggling in terms of finances,” she told the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (MNNCIJ) in a recent interview.
Mojabeng recounted her ordeal for the first time last month (women’s month) since her release from prison in March 2012. She said she did that to protect her young daughters, “until I was convinced they had matured enough to understand”.
On her first assignment, smuggling drugs from Johannesburg to Osaka – a large port city and commercial centre famous for its modern architecture, nightlife and hearty street food on the Japanese island of Honshu – Mojabeng was arrested by immigration officers shortly after she landed at Osaka International Airport, after they found methamphetamine (a synthetic drug used illegally as a stimulant) hidden on her body.
Also known as ice or crystal meth, methamphetamine is a synthetic drug that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected.
According to the Drug Info, State Library, New South Wales, addicts are characterised by hostile and violent behaviour, among others.
Mojabeng earned herself a three-year imprisonment sentence imposed by the High court in Osaka, together with a Y2 million fine (M4 million) that she paid by working in the prison factory for an additional six months.
She describes how she fell into the drug smuggling trap: “Somewhere at the beginning of 2009, I received a phone call from my cousin in Johannesburg. She claimed that there were people she knew who were looking for five female sales representatives who would travel to Sri Lanka to purchase stock for their clothing stores.”
Mojabeng was told the management of the company preferred to employ people from Lesotho in particular “because our passports holders are given easy entry in most countries”.
The following morning the cousin had travelled from Johannesburg to Maseru to “explain to us (Mojabeng and husband) the same thing she told us over the phone. At the back of my mind I had doubts. She gave imprecise answers on some questions. I dismissed my doubts and began to help her talk to some ladies I knew.
“We talked it over with my husband that I should go meet with those people. I was to get concrete information and then make a decision whether I take the job or not. One girl from my neighbourhood, who had just completed her studies and was job hunting agreed to come with us.”
When they arrived in Jo’burg, arrangements were made for the ladies to meet with their potential employer.
“At that time my cousin told me the people we were to meet were Nigerians. She told me she had decided to involve her Nigerian ex-husband, so she can talk to the supposed employers in their own language for security reasons,” Mojabeng said.
This, she said, gave her assurance that her cousin was determined to make things as clear as possible.
“We then met with two men plus my cousin’s ex-husband who introduced themselves before asking us a few questions and left. I was surprised at how casual the interview was. We were told later by the ex-husband that they said they were mostly interested in listening to our communication skills as we would be travelling a lot.
“Out of other ladies attending the interview, they decided that I, my neighbour and my cousin suited the job. At this point, I began to feel uneasy about the whole issue and I talked it over with my cousin and the other girl. They seemed to have doubts also. Nevertheless, we decided that we would wait till they gave us all the information.
“All this time I convinced myself that my cousin and her ex-husband would not put my life in any kind of danger. Let alone her own life. After all she seemed to be as much in the dark as I was. Still, the truth is I was uncomfortable about the whole issue,” she said.
Mojabeng’s mind was so much on her family’s suffering that she ignored her instinct that she was about to get herself into trouble.
“I called my husband to explain the situation and to let him know I was thinking of going back home. When he answered the phone, even before I said anything, he told me that our daughters had been expelled from school for not paying fees,” she said, almost breaking into tears.
“That just did it for me; I lost all possible human sense to choose right from wrong. All the past years I had retained moral sense to an extent but not this time.”
When her husband told her about the expulsion of their daughters, Mojabeng says she felt crestfallen.
“I was ready to do anything good or bad without even thinking twice,” she said.
A few days later Mojabeng’s suspicions became true. Her cousin finally opened up: “She told me that the men had called to tell her that the truth is that they needed ladies to smuggle drugs. By this time my heart was so bitter the truth did not matter. It was like the whole thing was planned. I switched my mind off. I didn’t want to think of anything that could change my mind.”
Mojabeng was the first to be given an assignment.
“They said they were taking me to the hotel right away as I would leave the following day. The agreement had been that I was going to Sri Lanka, but when we got to the hotel they told me they had changed plans. They said I was going to Japan.
“I just told myself it was time for the extreme. My husband and I had tried so many things to make life easier for our family, but things had worsened each moment. I was tired of the poverty we were in which kept deepening no matter how hard we tried.
“When we got to the hotel they asked for my phone and my sim card which they would replace with their own. They gave me a new one with their numbers and left. I then called my cousin and told her about the phone issue. To my surprise she just said excitedly: ‘Oh, they are trying to impress us!’ which raised my doubts and her innocence in all this,” Mojabeng narrated.
A plane ticket was bought for her the same day and trip arranged for the following morning.
“The evening prior to my departure, the two men came with one lady who said she was one of the men’s wife. She showed me the drugs and changed my bag. She switched it for another which had some writing on it,” she said.
The following morning Mojabeng left for Japan. She managed to call her husband during a two-hour layover in Hong Kong.
“When he answered the phone he just said ‘please come home, I’m worried about you.’ I don’t remember what I said, but I remember dropping the phone as quickly as I could.”
On arrival at Osaka International Airport the next day, Mojabeng was given a three-month visa at Immigration and proceeded to Customs.
“I had assumed that the customs department was around the same area, unaware that I had to walk a few metres. As I entered the customs section the place was empty because I was the last person to come through. Somehow it clicked in my mind I was going to be arrested and I said a short prayer.”
Mojabeng was taken to a cubicle where the customs officers searched both her luggage and frisked her body.
“And that was it; I was arrested after they found the drugs on my body. At this moment I felt like my whole world had collapsed.
“In a second I was surrounded by investigators. They all looked at me like I was this dangerous criminal. I wanted the world to just end there and then, or the earth to swallow me.
“There was only one officer who spoke English; not really good English. She became the interpreter and my body was scanned.”
At one instance Mojabeng was instructed to take her clothes off. “I took all my clothes off except for the underwear, thinking that’s how far they wanted me to go. Boy was I wrong! I was instructed to take everything off.”
Mojabeng spent three years not only in prison, but in a distant strange land where she learnt how to communicate with strangers the hard way. She has since published a book, In a Strange Land.
According to the refugees coordinating officer with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Nthatisi Thabane, stories of women and young girls being trafficked like Mojabeng are now on the increase.
She said at least one woman is successfully trafficked from Lesotho monthly.
According to Lesotho Trafficking in Persons Report 2017, Basotho are coerced into committing crimes in South Africa, including theft, drug dealing, and smuggling under threat of violence or through forced drug use.
“Basotho women and girls seeking work in domestic service voluntarily migrate to South Africa, where some are detained in prison-like conditions or exploited in sex trafficking,” the report adds.
Thabane says this year alone, there are about four cases of abuse and trafficking of women and young girls pending before the Maseru Magistrate’s Court”.
“Two young Basotho models were lured into travelling all the way to South Korea on false promise they would join a successful modelling agency, only to be exposed to poverty and exploitation between June and July this year.
“Another recent case is where a young Mosotho woman who worked as a domestic employee for a family in South Africa was accused for allegedly stealing R2 million by her bosses,” Thabane said.
The bosses had traced the woman to Lesotho through the help of Lesotho police, “and a certain police officer found the woman, cuffed her and handed her to her bosses without any proper procedure followed. It is suspected the police officer solicited a bribe from that family.”
The woman was later reported to have been found dumped in a wilderness with severe bruises. It is suspected she was assaulted by her South African bosses.
“This case has been opened both in South Africa and Lesotho,” said Thabane.
The MNNCIJ has since established there is a secret home for human trafficking victims in Maseru that recently accommodated close to 20 females. The home is supported by the government of Lesotho