It’s not often you get invited on a personal tour of the red light district of Copenhagen, Denmark. Michelle Mildwater, of the anti-trafficking group Hope Now, is an impassioned activist. She walks me through the most notorious corners with a smile on her face.
“How are you?” she calls out to clusters of African women standing on the street. “Do you know who I am?” She hands them her business card and often condoms. She tells them where to find doctors and other help. Most of the younger women she approaches are nervous. They glance at her quickly, then ignore her or walk the other way.
On one corner, a group of older women are smoking cigarettes and laughing. They recognize Mildwater and greet her warmly. They chat about the cold weather, the lack of customers in winter and the bad situation back home - in this case Nigeria. One tall woman, calling herself Lucy, tells me that she had a cleaning job in Italy but lost it when the company went bankrupt in the recession. And now she’s on the street again. She shrugs it off.
When we leave, Mildwater leans over to tell me: “They’re probably the pimps, managing the other girls on the street.”
Mildwater describes the complex world of trafficked women from Africa. Many are first brought to Europe bound by “juju” contracts – promises to repay debt based on religion and superstition. One of the reasons trafficked women won’t turn in their pimps, she says, is because they believe they will literally lose their soul if they cooperate with police.
But those same women may try to work their way out of the trade by becoming a “manager” - a pimp or recruiter for new victims.
It’s a vicious circle.
In Sweden, we are taken for a tour of a different kind: inside a safe house for trafficked women. All the available spaces are full.
There is a large, warm kitchen, a dining room and a playroom for children. The walls are lined with smiling baby photos, either born here or trafficked alongside their mothers.
Here we met “Laura,” not her real name. It’s hard to imagine her as a victim of trafficking. She is bubbly and fun, speaks her mind. She tells us how this interview is going to be: no faces, no names. She slips on a black hoodie to cover her hair, sits down and starts telling us her story.
“The guys, two guys, they drove us to this apartment. They took our passports. And I start to fight with one of the guys. I said, no, no give it back. I didn’t want to give my passport. So because I start to fight with him, he beat me up, and after this he raped me."
She says it so matter-of-factly, so bluntly, that I’m a bit taken a back. But this is how Laura has become a survivor, not a victim, of trafficking. She has confronted her past head-on.
Sold into sexual slavery by her “boyfriend,” Laura escaped her captors only to end up on the street on drugs and pregnant. It’s a horrific story but this one has a happy ending.
Laura remains dry-eyed until she talks about her new home.
“I was at the street, I was six-months pregnant. I didn’t know what to do, where to go. I didn’t know anything.”
She broke down in tears at this point and it was hard for me not to cry as well.
“When they called me and said yes come here. I saw my room. I couldn’t believe it.” She told me “I thought: No, this can’t be happening to me. It can’t be. Because all the time, I just had very bad things in my mind. I’ve been living here for one year, two months. It’s been the happiest time of my life.”
I’ll be hearing more stories like this through CNN’s Freedom Project. I only hope that more of them will also end happily, like Laura's.