A woman tells her story of being abducted and trafficked across the border into slavery
One day, Lipuo woke up in Johannesburg, with no memory of how she got there.
As she regained consciousness, she came to discover she and her friend, Itumeleng, had been trafficked across the South African border. They were in a brothel.
The two friends and other women from Lesotho and different provinces of South Africa were into drugs, prostitution, stripping and pornography. All earnings went to their masters.
Lipuo, in an interview with MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, says she is now 25. Her mother raised her alone in a small South African town bordering Lesotho.
Then, when Lipuo was still at a very young age, her mother passed on. Her relatives moved her to Lesotho, to Mankoaneng in Masite Nek, where she found herself staying alone in a house.
At the age of three, Lipuo was raped by her uncle. The incident was kept a secret by her family. The only help she received was from one of her primary school teachers who took her to counselling sessions.
As she continued to stay alone in the village, a strange man started preying on her for sex. “That is when I moved in with close relatives but unfortunately, my place got robbed; some of our electronic equipment was stolen in my absence and I was the main suspect in the eyes of my grandmother,” she said.
Lipuo was beaten up by her family, and then kicked out, forcing her to drop out of school at Grade Seven in 2010. She immediately came to Maseru where she stayed with her older brother at Ha Thetsane.
In Maseru, Lipuo found that she was able to earn a living as a sex worker on the streets of Maseru. It was here that she would be drugged, abducted and trafficked to South Africa.
“The last thing I remember was the night when we (with Itumeleng) were at the Maseru border in a red Polo vehicle, drunk. Everything after that is a blank. When we ultimately regained consciousness, it was around midday and we hadn’t the slightest idea where we were.”
Lipuo’s memories of this time are confused, saying this was around September in 2016.
“We just assumed we had been picked up by men in Lesotho. Our worst fears were confirmed when we heard voices communicating in a language we could not understand; when we went outside I noticed a few buildings that I could remember from my previous visits to Johannesburg.”
“We were welcomed with dagga and booze by a lady called Lebo who only told us the name of the place but not what went down there. The place later got flooded with men and women speaking different languages.”
Lipuo struggled to understand the life which she had just been violently forced into. She remembers that Itumeleng seemed excited to be in Johannesburg for the first time, oblivious to the danger of their situation.
“We were left idle for two days with Lebo in our room. On our third day, a Nigerian man who was apparently the boss of the place entered the room evidently excited to see us. We went through introductions and he asked Lebo to give us the ‘rules’,” she said.
“She told us we were doing sex work and that all money we made went to the boss; one round of sex sold for R50. The girls were required to bring clients to their room, not any other place.”
Lebo refused to explain why the money went to the boss instead of the girls.
“We were given clothes, shoes and wigs and taken to a hall full of Nigerian men. Everyone slipped out with their partners while Itumeleng and I were left alone with the boss, who went by the name ‘Chicken’. We later learned the Nigerians were our escorts. Chicken called Itumeleng while another man, named Bishop, called me.”
“He strongly warned me not to attempt an escape or get into any vehicle and that if any client wanted all-night service, he should come to my room. They gave us condoms and we went about our business for the day.”
According to Lipuo, the brothel was a different life to the one she had had on the streets of Maseru. She explains she witnessed and experienced things she had only seen in movies.
When they were offered, Lipuo was initially reluctant to use drugs. But Itumeleng had become their boss’s girlfriend, and when she saw her friend experimenting, Lipuo’s resistance crumbled. “One day they gave me a shot of a very big injection that made me dizzy and I did everything without giving it a thought,” she said.
The next day, she asked for a dose of the injection herself. Soon, she was addicted. As though she was sleep-walking, she would stroll outside wearing panties and a bra to attract customers. It worked. Clients were plentiful, and some offered more money to have sex without protection.
“Unlike other prostitutes, I was initially apprehensive about exposing my body, but one day I decided to do it; I told my guard not to follow me and promised I would not flee and he agreed, mainly because he knew I made a lot of money.”
Lipuo would constantly urge Itumeleng to escape but her friend would always report her to Chicken. This made their masters trust Itumeleng who started enjoying a more privileged life; unlike the other girls, she was permitted to go out shopping on her own, but would always return.
In March 2017, Itumeleng disappeared, taking money and drugs with her. When their masters found her with another man, they gunned her down.
“After Itumeleng was killed, the bosses took me to a secluded place where they showed me her corpse. That was the last time I saw her; I don’t even know if she was buried.”
One day, deliverance came for Lipuo from the home she had given up as lost.
“One day, just out of the blue, I met a prospective client who turned out to be a Mosotho. He was driving a truck. When he asked the price I broke down in tears instead of answering. He was curious and I told him my story. He was my ticket to freedom,” she added. In May 2017, she escaped to Lesotho.
When she arrived, she told everyone she could find who knew Itumeleng about what had happened to her, but her family still do not know.
When back home in Maseru, Lipuo fell ill. She started experiencing severe chest pains. Her brother took her to the doctor where she discovered she was HIV-positive.
Her drug addiction proved a hurdle in the road to recovery. According to Tselane Mothobi of the Safe Haven Foundation, Lipuo would sometimes crush her tablets and sniff their powder to satisfy her cravings.
Safe Haven is an organisation that provides services to women, children and all survivors whose lives have been affected by physical, emotional, sexual and economic abuse.
Lipuo is still taking anti-retroviral therapy. Meanwhile, she continues her sex work on the streets of Maseru.
*Name has been changed to protect the victim