Of illicit drugs, rape and slavery… Lesotho’s heart-breaking story of women and girls trafficked
By Lekhetho Ntsukunyane
When Mojabeng ’Makhalalelo Mosebo received an invitation for a ‘lucrative’ job interview from her cousin in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2009 she was sceptical but excited.
Mojabeng was told how she would join one of the successful clothing stores in Jo’burg and become its sales representative, travelling to some places around the world to get stocks, should she pass the interview.
For the then 30-year old mother of two, whose family was in deep financial crisis, the opportunity had come at the right time to possibly end her woes.
Little did Mojabeng know her situation was moving from bad to worse; she was going to be used to smuggle drugs, an illegal job which immediately landed her in prison in Japan – 13 500 kilometres away from her family and home, Maseru, a complete strange land.
“I felt this was an opportunity to grab with both hands. I thought time had come for my miseries to end. The opportunity came at a time my family was struggling in terms of finances,” she told the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (MNNCIJ) in a recent interview.
Mojabeng talked to the media about her ordeal for the first time in August (women’s month) this year since her release from prison in March 2012. She said she did that to protect her young daughters “until I was convinced they mature enough to understand”.
Just 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 man-made drug that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected.
According to the Drug Info, State Library, New South Wales, addicts are characterised with hostility and violent behaviour, among others.
Mojabeng was later slapped with a three-year imprisonment sentence by the High Court in Osaka, plus a fine of Y2 million (R4 million) that she paid by working in the prison factory for an additional six months.
Mojabeng describes how she fell into the drug smuggling trap.
“Somewhere at the beginning of 2009, I received a phone call from my cousin from 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 needed to employ people from Lesotho in particular “because our passport 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 could not give clear and precise 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 reached the destination, arrangements were made for the ladies to meet with their potential employer.
“It is during that time that my cousin told me that the people we were to meet were of Nigerian origins. 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. They introduced themselves. They asked 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 only me, my neighbour and my cousin would be suitable for the job. At this point, I began to become uneasy about the whole issue and I talked it over with my cousin and the other girl. They seemed to also have doubts. 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 didn’t have peace about the whole issue,” she said.
Mojabeng’s mind was so much on her family’s suffering that she ignored every sign and warning 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.
She continued: “That just did 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.”
Mojabeng has shared with the MNNCIJ two heart-breaking incidences she encountered growing up as an urban girl in a rural area where her mother worked.
At one incident she was threatened with a knife on her throat to give her school lunch-box to a “scary-looking” boy. At second incident, Mojabeng was raped at gun-point by a close family friend.
She had only reported the first case to the school teachers but the “bad-boy” was nowhere to be seen ever since the incident. She never reported the rape incident even to her late mother “in cognisance of what I was already being labelled as a town girl in a rural area. I was named all things bad.”
When her husband told her about the expulsion of their daughters, Mojabeng says she felt as if her heart was engulfed in a dark cloud.
“I could not see beyond that darkness. 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.”
Agreement was arranged and Mojabeng was the first to be given 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. Me and my husband 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 increasing 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 they left. I then called my cousin and told her about the phone issue. To my surprise she just said, ‘oh, they are trying to impress us!’ She said that with an excited tone, which made me doubt her innocence in all this,” Mojabeng narrated.
An air ticket was bought for her the same day and the 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 in a two-hour transit 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.”
Upon arrival at Osaka International Airport the next day, Mojabeng was given a three-month visa at customs department and proceeded to immigration.
“I had assumed that the immigration department was around the same area, unaware that I had to walk a few metres. As I entered immigration the place was empty because I was the last person to come through. Somehow it came into my mind I was going to be arrested and I said a short prayer.”
Mojabeng was taken to some small room where the immigration officers conducted search both on her luggage and 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 faraway 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 at 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 only in 2017, “we have about four cases of abuse and trafficking of women and young girls pending before the Maseru Magistrate’s Court”.
In one of the cases, a local priest is charged under the Sexual Offences Act for allegedly sexually abusing a 15-years old girl from last year. According to Thabane, the priest adopted the girl from a poor family under pretext he was going to provide for her basic needs, relieving the family.
In the other case 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 certain family in South Africa was accused of allegedly stealing R2 million by her bosses,” Thabane said.
The bosses had traced the woman into 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 bribe from that family.”
The woman was later reported to have been found dumped in 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.
-MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism