For a moment, Vetfaan is so totally amazed that he sits frozen behind the wheel. He was about to begin the journey back to Rolbos, when the passenger door of his pickup was yanked open and the girl bundled herself into the footwell and slammed the door shut.
“Come on, Mister, please, please drive off. Quit staring at me.”
There is a lot to stare at. She’s quite beautiful, with high cheekbones and a pointy nose. The full lips are parted ever so slightly, exposing a perfectly white set of teeth. The eyes are her most striking feature: blue-grey, wide and terrified. They galvanise the big man into action and he coaxes the old Ford to start and drive off at its fastest, lumbering, pace.
Vetfaan’s ancient F100 is a bit of a legend. The mile meter has stopped working way back in the nineties, while most of its moving parts have been replaced over the years. Vetfaan says he is sentimental about the old vehicle. He describes her as a lady who has never failed him. She may be slow, he says, but you can rely on her.
As they trundle down the road at a sedate, running-tortoise speed, Vetfaan glances down at the girl once more. She rolls those frightened eyes and makes forward motions with her hands. Go faster! Vetfaan can only shrug.
A few kilometers outside Upington, Vetfaan pulls over to the side of the road. He has made sure they weren’t followed and now wants to know what this is all about. During their ‘escape’ from town, his anxious passenger remained curled up below the dashboard, shivering and making sniffing noises every now and then.
“You can come out now, Miss. And maybe you can tell me what this is all about?”
Shee seems reluctant to leave the safety of her hiding place, but eventually raises her head enough to inspect the empty road and the deserted veld around them. Then, with patient questioning, Vetfaan patches her story together.
She is Anna Bruski, originally from Poland. Coming from a poor family, she left school early to help support her ailing mother. She worked in a shoe factory for a time, but the pay was terrible and the working conditions even worse. An opportunity to dance at a local club seemed to be the answer to her prayers, as she made quite a handsome amount of money from tips. One night a man came up to her and told her she was wasting her time. A girl like her, he said, could make so much more. She’s got the perfect body, the man said.
“So, how was I to know?” Now the terror has gone from the eyes, her beauty is even more obvious. “That same night he invited me to his hotel room, to explain how things worked. He was very nice. Gentle. I trusted him. I went to his hotel and he offered me a drink. Told me to sit down. He said I am very lucky. Enjoy your drink while I get the brochure and the papers, he said.”
She woke up the next day; or the day after, she’s not sure; in a windowless room. The door was locked. She screamed. She cried. They didn’t feed her and gave her no water. She doesn’t know how long it took. Then, over a period of days, they softened her up. When at last they brought food, they told her it was spiked with drugs. She refused to eat. They laughed at her. Eventually, weak and exhausted, she didn’t care any more. She ate.
“There were two men. They did bad things. They took photographs. I was beaten. They called me names.”
Days became a blur of drugs and abuse. Then suddenly, they gave her fancy clothes and brought in a turbaned man. He said yes, he was interested. He asked her questions. How old are you? Where do you come from? Things like that. Then he said yes, she could be what he was looking for. Money changed hands.
“I was so thankful. Ahmed – that was his name – took me away from that place. He was very rich. First, he took me to a hotel. He said if I tried to escape, they will kill my family. I believed him. He said I must clean up, everything is in my room.”
And it was. On the bed was a suitcase with several sets of clothing, all the toiletries she’d need, and a man with a camera. This time, however, he took several shots of her face only. By the time she had showered and dressed, Ahmed was back with her new passport and a new name. He took her to an airport where the private jet waited.
“Ahmed was not bad with me. He said he needed a nanny, and my work would be to look after his children.” For the first time, she gives a wry smile. “His children! Ha! We landed somewhere in a desert, near a village. There were men with guns around.”
Ahmed had a village full of children. She guessed their ages to be between six and fourteen, boys and girls. That’s when she realised what was going on.
“I had to teach some of them to speak English. They were very strict with us. One boy tried to escape. They whipped him mercilessly.”
Children came and went. Ahmed brought a letter from her mother, thanking Anna for the money she sent. The message was clear: as long as she cooperated, her family was not only safe, but well-cared for. She thanked Ahmed. He liked it. He said she had a bright future.
The trips started after she’d been with Ahmed for two years. She’d accompany men (he called them agents) to various parts of the world. They targeted remote villages in disadvantaged areas. Picking up children in such places were easy, she tells Vetfaan. A few sweets or a promised toy was all they needed.
“These people have nothing to live for. Children disappear all the time. The police don’t investigate too much in these communities.”
Her job was to make the children believe they are on their way to a holiday and that everything is alright. Ahmed seems to have a massive network of helpers. Mostly, they’d fly the children out in one of his planes. No she still doesn’t know where Ahmed’s children village is. It’s somewhere up north, but t could be Africa or one of the Arabic states.
“This time, we come to Upington with two men. The routine is always the same – and I thought we’d be doing the same things we always do. But last night the men got drunk and they started fighting over me. It got ugly. One had a knife. There was a lot of blood. I phoned Ahmed, who said he’d take care of it. But I panicked. I don’t want this any more. It’s horrible what they do to the children.”
The two men were is a bad shape. Three men arrived an hour later and removed the injured agents. Anna had to clean up the place and wait for instructions.
“This morning, I decided to escape. I was so afraid. I had to get off the streets as soon as possible, so when I saw your pickup, I took a chance.”
Vetfaan stares at the pretty face of Anna Bruski. Abduction. Pornography. Abuse. An international child-smuggling outfit, for goodness’ sakes! And here he is with a terrified woman, somebody who specialises in stealing children, telling him all about it.
The roar of an approaching vehicle makes her twist around to look through the back window.
“It’s them!” she screams…
(To be continued)