'They said they'd cut off our hands and feet'

Promise of a new life became a nightmare as woman was forced into prostitution when she arrived in UAE from her home country.

ABU DHABI // With tears in her eyes, the woman described the encounter that led to five weeks of "hell". She was working in her village in another Arab country when she was approached by a woman who told her she could make five times what she was earning if she came to the UAE. "I had never travelled more than 85 kilometres away from my village," said the woman, who would be identified only as an Arab national in her 20s. "But I was desperate to make more money for my family."

Despite some trepidation, she was told not to worry and that someone would be waiting to meet her at Abu Dhabi airport. As promised, a sign bearing her name greeted her as she arrived and she was driven to a flat in the capital. Then the nightmare began. For three days, confused and scared, she was held under lock and key with a group of women. Then she was told she could start work but it was not the cleaning job she thought she had been hired for. The women were told they had to work as a prostitutes.

"For a week I refused," she said. "They started beating us and threatened to burn us with cigarettes. They told us if we spoke to the police they would cut off our hands and feet, and throw us in the desert, so no one would find us." The woman was one of 15, most of whom were trafficked from Morocco to Abu Dhabi by the capital's largest known human-trafficking ring, which was exposed late last year.

They were told by their captors that the ring had contacts in the police, who would return them if they tried to escape, and were beaten and denied food if they refused to work as prostitutes. "I continued to refuse. Then I was beaten and, after some time, I would accept to go," the woman said quietly. After five weeks, one of her captors made a mistake. He returned, drunk, to the place they were being held and fell asleep, leaving her passport on a table nearby and the door unlocked.

"I just kept running and running and then I saw a salon and went inside and found a woman from my country, and told her what had happened to me," she said. Her compatriot sent her to Ras al Khaimah where she said she would find someone to help. Once away from her captors in Abu Dhabi, she contacted the police. "They said, 'Don't worry, we'll take you to a safe place and go and get the other girls'," she said. "I was forced into this and I had to help the other girls. I didn't know if I would be jailed if I went to the police, but I had to save them.

"I saw how they were tortured, like I was. How could I let them go through it too?" Since their rescue in November, the women have been staying at the Ewaa shelter in the capital. In January, seven men were found guilty of trafficking the group and sentenced to life in prison. Those found guilty of human trafficking face penalties including fines of up to Dh1 million (US$270,000) and life imprisonment.

The woman said she was prepared to return to her home country and her family, who are unaware of her ordeal. "I feel I am ready to go home and forget about that experience and start a new life." @Email:zconstantine@thenational.ae